Home>Highlight>Three N.J. companies donated to the architects of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

A Merck corporate office in Branchburg in 2017. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Three N.J. companies donated to the architects of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Merck, Sanofi, Quest Diagnostics each gave money to bill’s legislative sponsors

By Joey Fox, March 18 2022 2:21 pm

As a number of states around the country, most notable among them Florida, debate various measures curtailing LGBTQ rights, New Jersey has consistently moved in the opposite direction; gay marriage was codified into state law earlier this year, and Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to diversity and equality.

But that doesn’t mean New Jersey is completely isolated from the anti-LGBTQ push, especially when it comes to money. 

The two legislative sponsors of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation (or the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill), under which discussion of LGBTQ topics would be limited in Florida schools, collectively received donations from three different companies based in New Jersey. (The bill has passed the state legislature and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has indicated he will sign it.)

Pharmaceutical giant Merck, which has its headquarters in Kenilworth, last year donated $1,000 – the maximum amount allowable under Florida law – to both Republican Florida State Sen. Dennis Baxley and Republican Florida State Rep. Joe Harding, who sponsored the bill in their respective houses.

Secaucus-based clinical laboratory Quest Diagnostics donated $500 last year to Baxley, and healthcare company Sanofi, a French company that bases its American operations in Bridgewater, gave Baxley $500 in 2019; because Florida Senate terms are four years long, donations as far back as 2019 are still part of the 2022 election cycle.

In a statement, a Sanofi spokesperson said the Don’t Say Gay bill does not align with Sanofi’s values, though they did not answer a direct question on whether the company would consider asking for the money back. 

“Sanofi does not support the legislation sponsored by Florida State Senator Baxley,” the spokesperson said. “It is in direct opposition to our corporate values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

A Merck spokesperson similarly defended their company’s record on LGBTQ inclusion and hiring, but said that Merck’s political arm looks primarily at health care-related issues when it donates to candidates.

“In establishing our PAC political giving priorities, our contributions committee prioritizes candidates who endorse policies that support innovation and enhance patients’ access to healthcare,” the spokesperson said. “We certainly do not agree with every position that every recipient of PAC support takes on every important social and business issue.”

Quest Diagnostics did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

All three companies have commitments to LGBTQ equality listed on their respective websites. Quest Diagnostics, for example, advertises that the company has repeatedly received a perfect score on a corporate equality index compiled by the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights organization; Merck last year published a post on three ways the company “support[s] the LGBTQ+ community,” one of which is making sure the company’s pro-gay values “extend to whom we do business with outside of our organization.”

“Merck has a longstanding tradition of supporting the LGBTQ+ community, in our company and beyond,” the post says.

Garden State Equality executive director Christian Fuscarino, who leads New Jersey’s most prominent LGBTQ rights organization, said that corporations donating to political candidates should be careful with where that money might go.

“It’s important that these companies vet candidates to ensure that the way they will govern will be in line with their organizational values,” Fuscarino said. “If supporting the LGBTQ community is a priority, and for these companies I know that it is, … then it’s important that they have conversations with these candidates to ensure that they will not support policies that are anti-LGBTQ.”

Merck in particular is a force in New Jersey politics as well, donating money every year to New Jersey politicians on both sides of the aisle. Fuscarino declined to criticize any of the three Don’t Say Gay-donating companies by name, saying that Garden State Equality has a “great working relationship” with Merck and Sanofi, but did more broadly argue that organizations and candidates need to make sure their donations are coming from inclusive places. 

“We can’t take money from companies that are actively working against our mission and our vision, and I think it’s important that elected leaders follow that same mindset in not taking money and working with institutions that don’t reflect how they plan to govern,” he said.

This story was updated at 3:21 p.m. with more details about when each donation was made, and again at 5:20 p.m. with a more accurate description of the bill’s effects. It was updated a third time at 11:33 a.m. on March 23 with a statement from Merck.

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