AT&T to Determine Fate of Its 'Sexual Orientation' Clause

By Danielle Gillespie | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - During its annual corporate meeting on Tuesday, AT&T shareholders will determine whether to remove the words "sexual orientation" from the company's employee non-discrimination ordinance. This is the third time the "sexual orientation" clause has faced scrutiny.

For the past three years, Chris Stefan and Tom Strobhar of Pro-Vita Advisors, a non-profit organization addressing corporate moral issues, have spearheaded the campaign to change the AT&T ordinance. They have helped two AT&T shareholders from Ohio, who wish to remain anonymous, file all three proposals.

The shareholders, whose names have been made public by AT&T, preferred to withhold their identities from the public because they didn't want media attention.

Past proposals to remove the "sexual orientation" language failed, and at last year's meeting, the proposal attracted 12 percent support. Even though 3.3 million AT&T stockholders are eligible to vote on the issue, Strobhar said he doubts the newest proposal will pass.

However, Strobhar said he thinks it's important to question the company and force AT&T to speak publicly about the issue.

In response to the shareholders' proposal, the AT&T board said it believes that if the "sexual orientation" clause were eliminated, it would "inappropriately signal a departure from [AT&T's] historic policy, wrongly suggest tolerance for discrimination based on sexual orientation, negatively impact our workplace environment and would not be in the best interests of AT&T."

The board has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal.

The Ohio shareholders and their allies at Pro-Vita Advisors oppose the "sexual orientation" clause because it has no clear legal definition, said Strobhar. The clause could encompass a wide range of sexual activities, including sex with children and animals, which are illegal activities, he said.

"I just don't think there needs to be that kind of phrase in the employment policy," Strobhar said.

AT&T decided to place "sexual orientation" in its Equal Opportunity Statement because of its long-standing policy against non-discrimination in the workplace, said company spokeswoman Cindy Neale.

However, even though AT&T has a policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the company's domestic partnership benefit policy applies only to homosexual couples, said Strobhar. This makes the sexual orientation clause contradictory, because even though it seeks to prevent discrimination, the company is discriminating against heterosexual couples, he said.

Strobhar does not think either homosexual or heterosexual unmarried couples should receive domestic partner benefits.

"Be it homosexual or heterosexual, we don't think most employees are interested in paying higher health care costs just to pay benefits to the sexual partners of unmarried employees," he said.

Stefan added that AT&T should return to supporting Christian-based family values.

"AT&T has led the way to equate homosexual unions with traditional Christian marriage, and we don't see it as being appropriate for a company to be involved with that," Stefan said.

But Neale said the company decided to include benefits for homosexual couples because the company wanted to attract talented employees.

"It's one of the business's many ways to obtain and keep employees," she said.

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