Last month, the US Supreme Court published its highly anticipated opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a consolidation of cases challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the contraceptive mandate, as applied to “closely held” corporations (majority owned by five or fewer individuals) like Hobby Lobby, violates the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), because it substantially burdens a corporation’s exercise of religion. The effect of this decision is that closely held corporations, which account for 90 percent of all US companies and 52 percent of all private employment in the United States, are now free to deny contraceptive health care coverage to their female employees based on religious objections. Because most social enterprises are closely held corporations, Hobby Lobby applies with equal force to corporate forms like benefit corporations.
In January, we cautioned that the Supreme Court might invoke the emerging body of social enterprise law as a justification for finding that for-profit corporations may mix profit and religious purpose to the detriment of women’s health. As we predicted, Hobby Lobby was the first Supreme Court decision to acknowledge social enterprise, specifically the benefit corporation form, which is available to social entrepreneurs in more than half the States. Recognition by the nation’s highest court is indisputably a watershed moment for social enterprise law. However, the context in which the court mentions these new corporate forms is troubling, and the court’s broader comments regarding corporate social responsibility raise important questions about whether there is truly a need for emerging corporate forms like the benefit corporation.
In the area of corporate religious rights, the law has traditionally distinguished between nonprofit corporations and for-profit corporations; the former possess free exercise rights, while the latter do not. However, in Hobby Lobby, the court rejected this distinction, emphasizing that under state corporate law, for-profit corporations may be formed for “any lawful purpose,” and that there was “no apparent reason” why such corporations could not pursue both financial and religious purposes. In support of this view, the majority opinion references the recent success of benefit corporation legislation. In Justice Alito’s words:
Benefit corporations are a new corporate form designed to accommodate for-profit entities that seek to produce both financial and social or environmental returns. To that end, each benefit corporation is required by law to pursue a “general public benefit,” with the option to identify one or more “specific public benefits” it intends to create, such as improving human health, or promoting the arts, sciences, or advancement of knowledge.
The Model Benefit Corporation Act is the basis for the overwhelming majority of the 27 benefit corporation statutes enacted thus far. The Model Act enumerates several specific public benefits; however, religious benefits are not among them. In fact, the word “religion” does not appear anywhere in the Model Act. Despite this, in a footnote, Justice Alito finds support for the majority view by citing to the definition of “specific public benefit” from the South Carolina Benefit Corporation Act. While Justice Alito is correct in observing that over half the states have enacted this legislation, he carefully selects an outlier as his example. Interestingly, South Carolina’s Benefit Corporation Act is one of very few that have departed from the Model Act’s definition to explicitly include “religious” purposes. In fact, when Justice Alito authored his opinion, only four states had enacted benefit corporation statutes that permitted the pursuit of a religious purpose. With dozens of statutes to choose from, the court appears to have deliberately selected the least representative definition of specific public benefit in an effort to suggest that benefit corporations are analogous to Hobby Lobby because they, too, are for-profit corporations that pursue religious goals.
This suggestion confuses the pursuit of religious purposes with the sustainable, socially responsible goals benefit corporations were intended to produce. The absence of religion from the laundry list of specific public benefits in nearly all benefit corporation acts supports this claim. According to B Lab’s database, only 20 percent of all benefit corporations are registered in states that permit the selection of a religious corporate purpose, and few, if any, have taken advantage of this option. Thus, the Court’s suggestion that benefit corporations pursue religious purposes is, in theory, possible in only a small minority of jurisdictions, and mischaracterizes the current use of this new corporate form.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s reference to a specific religious purpose overlooks a crucial element of benefit corporation law—namely, that benefit corporations are bound by an overriding obligation to pursue a “general public benefit,” which acts as a check on the pursuit of any specific benefit. As William H. Clark, Jr., the principal drafter of the Model Benefit Corporation Act, has explained, this check ensures that benefit corporations are not, for example, “reducing waste while increasing carbon emissions, or reducing both while remaining indifferent to the creation of economic opportunity for low-income individuals or underserved communities.” In other words, the pursuit of a specific public benefit, even a religious one, cannot absolve a benefit corporation from the obligation to create a general public benefit. Thus, even in those few jurisdictions that permit benefit corporations to align themselves with a particular religious purpose, such a purpose may not, as Justice Alito suggests, be pursued at all costs, but rather is circumscribed by the broader purpose of creating a general public benefit.
Perhaps most importantly, the court weighed in on the longstanding corporate social responsibility debate and decisively rejected the notion popularized by Milton Friedman that the only social responsibility of business is to maximize shareholder wealth. Justice Alito candidly states that this understanding of corporate social responsibility “flies in the face of modern corporate law,” and emphasized that “modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.” As Professor Lyman Johnson recently observed, this means “business corporations ... can pursue a whole host of objectives other than making money. Those objectives include various humanitarian, social, and environmental objectives of the sort progressives have long championed.”
The court’s rejection of strict shareholder wealth maximization calls into question the rationale for creating specialized, blended-value forms like the benefit corporation. Indeed, the principal argument for social enterprise forms rests on the assumption that corporate law and its duty to maximize shareholder wealth could not accommodate for-profit, mission-driven entities. If, as Hobby Lobby suggests, shareholder wealth maximization is not an accurate statement of law, specialized forms like the benefit corporation may well be redundant. If the devout owners of a traditional, closely held corporation like Hobby Lobby are free to adopt an additional, religious corporate purpose, it stands to reason that social entrepreneurs should be equally free to use the traditional for-profit form to pursue any number of social or environmental benefits.
Of course, the very existence of the benefit corporation movement itself is evidence of the contrary. Justice Alito’s version of the corporate legal landscape overstates the ease with which “modern” corporate law has discarded the principle of shareholder wealth maximization. In fact, efforts to advance a “social” business purpose have been underway for nearly a century, from E. Merrick Dodd’s “social institution” theory of the 1930s, to Howard Bowen’s 1953 publication of Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, to the wave of constituency statutes in the 1980s that allowed directors to consider non-shareholder interests in more than 30 states. Over the past century, however, US courts have overwhelmingly chosen shareholder wealth maximization as the guiding principle in corporate dispute resolution, especially when a corporation is for sale. This reality was a critical driver of the movement to draft the Model Benefit Corporation Act and establish benefit corporations and other innovative forms like the L3C, the flexible purpose corporation, and the social purpose corporation. To suggest that a majority of state legislatures needlessly drafted, debated, and enacted social enterprise legislation when traditional corporations were already entitled to jointly pursue profit and purpose ignores a century of US corporate jurisprudence.
Justice Alito’s tidy conclusion that each US jurisdiction permits a corporation to pursue “any lawful purpose” fails to see the forest for the trees. Corporate charters have long provided that corporations are organized “for any lawful purpose,” and yet those very same corporations have found themselves subject to the requirement to maximize shareholder wealth. Social enterprise advocates across the United States may welcome Justice Alito’s assessment of state-level corporate law, but it grossly oversimplifies the incremental legal progress achieved by advocates of corporate social responsibility over the past century. Instead, in drafting benefit corporation statutes, state legislatures have directly responded to existing corporate jurisprudence by carving out specific social and environmental purposes considered worthy of a departure from shareholder wealth maximization. With rare exception, religion simply isn’t on the list.
The Hobby Lobby decision has been both hailed as a victory for religious freedom, and denounced as a blow to women’s health and reproductive rights. We should also recognize that it is the Supreme Court’s first attempt to grapple with the difficult issues of corporate purpose raised by social enterprise and its corporate forms. That this emerging body of law remains susceptible to misinterpretation, even by Justices of the Supreme Court, should encourage lawyers, policymakers and social entrepreneurs to redouble their efforts to reach a consensus on the boundaries of social enterprise, and to craft more precise metrics and economic incentives for sustainable organizations that seek to use the power of business to achieve social and environmental goals.