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Levi's, Yelp Join Coalition Pledging Not to Discriminate

The Open to All coalition got its start late last year

Levi Strauss, Yelp and Lyft are leading a coalition of 1,200 businesses and cities that are pledging not to discriminate against employees or customers based on race, sexual orientation, or other characteristics.

Normally, making a promise to serve every customer might seem like a no-brainer. But the Open to All coalition is launching in a highly charged atmosphere, with florists refusing to provide flowers for gay weddings and stores turning away Muslim customers. On the same June weekend that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant because of her affiliation with President Donald Trump, a transgender woman was harassed by staff at a Washington restaurant for using the women's restroom.

So it remains to be seen if the "Open to All" message — on businesses' Yelp pages or on stickers in their windows — will calm frayed tempers or anger customers and businesses who might question its motives.

Tia Agnew, co-founder and CEO of New Day Craft, an Indianapolis-based producer of mead and cider, is excited to put up her "Open to All" window sticker, which she says matches her "personal and professional ethos." She's not worried that it will be a turn-off to some potential patrons.

"All I can do is put our best foot forward and say, 'Hey, come on in and hang out,'" she said.

But George Marinakos, the owner of The Exchange Saloon in Washington, isn't sold on the idea. His bar is near the White House, and he has served Sanders as well as members of the Obama administration. A chalkboard in front of the bar reads, "Everyone welcome," but he thinks an "Open to All" sticker might raise questions. If he doesn't put it up, some people will wonder why; if he does, some people might not feel welcome because of what they interpret as a left-leaning message.

"You're putting yourself in the position of being damned if you do or damned if you don't," he said.

The Open to All coalition got its start late last year as the U.S. Supreme Court was preparing to consider the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because it violated his religious beliefs. The court ultimately ruled for the baker but didn't give businesses a blanket right to discriminate against gays.

Calla Rongerude, Open to All's campaign manager, said businesses were asking civil rights groups how to make it clear they would serve gays and other minorities. The cities of New York and Oakland, California, are also part of the coalition, as are 190 civil rights groups, organizations and faith groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Alliance, the Service Employees International Union and the NAACP.

"People have been really hungry to engage and let people know that they're welcome," she said.

Rongerude also says she doesn't think the campaign will face any backlash from conservatives.

"Having a business say, 'I am going to serve all of my customers on the same terms' is inherently positive," she said. "I think we want to get beyond the 'us versus them' mentality. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect."

Levi Strauss and Co. said it plans to display "Open to All" window stickers at nearly 200 U.S. stores and outlets.

Yelp is adding a tab to its site so restaurants and other locations can note that they are "Open to All." Owners will also have the option to leave that space blank or say the establishment is not open to all, said Luther Lowe, Yelp's senior vice president of public policy. Yelp already bans speech on its site that attacks someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation and other traits.

"Up and down the company, these are issues that we've always leaned in on," Lowe said. Asked if the label might be divisive, Lowe said Yelp is simply trying to guide people to places that welcome them.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination in public places on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But only 21 states and the District of Columbia ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Rongerude said many businesses have gone further than the government. Uber, for example, includes sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status in its nondiscrimination policy. It dumped a Houston driver from its platform earlier this year after the driver made a gay couple get out of his car.

"Business really is in a unique place to lead right now," Rongerude said.

But not every business contacted by Open to All plans to join the coalition. Target Corp., for example, said it won't join because it has a policy prohibiting third-party signs on its doors.

Participants in the coalition risk turning off some customers. Mark McLean, a retired business owner and conservative blogger in Tennessee, says "Open to All" signs are divisive. He likens them to "Gun-Free Establishment" signs that infringe on gun owners' rights.

"We can't govern how people think. That's a dangerous slope to go down," McLean said.

But Jacinta Gauda, principal and chief strategy officer at The Gauda Group, who counsels companies about diversity and inclusion, says businesses are also facing pressure from employees and customers to take a stand on issues and make their values clear.

"I'm just of the mind that the movement to do this, driven by their employees and customers, is larger than the political risk," she said. "They calculated this and said, 'We have more to gain than we have to lose.'"

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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