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Reproductive rights fractures coalition of church-affiliated investment groups

Movement has had success on curbing opioid epidemic, climate change and immigration

A coalition of church-affiliated pension funds and other religious investment groups that leverages billions of dollars in shareholdings to push for change in corporate boardrooms may be disrupted as the debate over abortion comes to a head in the U.S.

Pressing for environmental, social and governance (ESG) change is a role religious investment groups have played since at least the 1970s, using their shares to press companies to lead when politicians won’t. The movement has enjoyed successes on issues auch as curbing the opioid epidemic, addressing climate change and President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

On reproductive rights, however, their typical united front is fractured.

[Investors push companies to make business case on abortion]

With the Supreme Court set to hear a case next month on a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges, some religious investor groups are supporting a landmark campaign pressing companies to ensure access to reproductive health services. Catholic groups and others who oppose abortion may be unwilling to join them.

“The religious community is not monolithic on this issue at all, so the answer is, no, we’re not going to have everybody’s support, but we’re not going to lose everybody’s support,” said Shelley Alpern, shareholder advocacy director at Rhia Ventures, an investment firm advocating corporate responsibility on reproductive health issues leading the campaign. “Should these resolutions go to the ballot, certainly we won’t get the full support of every religious investor.”

Shareholders involved with the Rhia Ventures-led effort filed five proposals for 2020 corporate annual meetings, according to leaders. They’re the first ballot items campaign leaders and governance experts have seen address abortion directly.

Catholic organizations that have championed other social issue proposals told CQ Roll Call they were unaware of the campaign and don’t discuss abortion with corporate leaders.

Sister Judy Byron, program director for Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, said the group, which includes orders of nuns, Jesuits and other Catholic organizations, hasn’t engaged with companies on abortion-related policies. Neither have the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, an order of nuns often involved in social justice efforts, according to the order’s associate director of corporate social responsibility, Tom McCaney.

“It would be difficult to put forward a united front on any issue that would be that divisive,” McCaney said in an interview.

On the campaign trail

The issue has so far been an undercurrent in the race for the White House.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail in South Carolina in October when he stopped at a Catholic church. There, according to a report in the Florence Morning News, a priest denied him communion because of his stance on abortion rights.

Biden, a Catholic Democrat who opposes abortion personally but supports a woman’s right to choose, has long navigated such rebukes from church officials alongside calls from members of his party to take stronger positions on abortion policy.

As president, Trump has courted evangelical voters and the White House described him as the “most fearless pro-life president in American history” in a fact sheet on his support for religious freedom. It’s Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric, his appointment of two Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion rights, and the March 4 oral arguments before the high court that triggered the latest investor campaign, beginning as a letter to CEOs this fall.

Four of the 36 investor groups that signed onto the letter on reproductive health policies were faith-based, all representing religious denominations that support abortion rights.

A coalition of faith-based investors managing more than $500 billion, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), avoids the topic of abortion. Members targeted 163 companies including Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Walmart Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. with 250 resolutions on other issues in the last year alone.

Momentum in favor of corporate consideration of ESG issues is accelerating with backing from religious groups, many of the largest asset managers and Democrats in Congress. Republican lawmakers generally oppose requiring companies to share information on how they manage ESG matters such as climate change or human rights.

“Over the last decades, activist shareholders and corporate gadflies have frankly hijacked the SEC and operate well outside its mandate and push non-material social and political policies,” Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan said during a hearing on ESG last year.

Nuns led a campaign to pressure gunmakers in the wake of mass shootings. And a division of the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, submitted a measure that passed at GEO Group Inc., a private prison operator, over immigrant detention under Trump administration policies.

A fund investing on behalf of nuns is a co-leader of a campaign to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their roles in the U.S. opioid crisis, an effort that persuaded drug distributors, opioid manufacturers and pharmacy chains including CVS and Walgreens to publicly report on board oversight of risks related to painkiller sales. ICCR, which pioneered the use of shareholder advocacy on ESG, was born almost 50 years ago out of religious organizations’ desire to pressure companies not to do business in South Africa under apartheid. Its allies now extend beyond the religious community to ESG-focused investment firms, labor unions, activist investors and foundations.

There has been an understanding overt the decades that the coalition doesn’t address abortion, according to ICCR members who signed the Rhia Ventures-led letter.

‘A multitude of viewpoints’

“There are a multitude of viewpoints on this,” said Katie McCloskey, director of social responsibility at ICCR member the United Church Funds. “The organization doesn’t speak for or against reproductive rights issues.”

There’s no other issue on which there is as much disagreement within the faith-based investor community, said Rob Fohr, director of faith-based investing and corporate engagement for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., an ICCR member.

“ICCR goes through a prioritization process every five years that determines the key issues for collaboration within the coalition,” the group said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “At this time, reproductive rights is not a priority topic. That said, there are a host of topics that our members are working on with others outside of our coalition.”

Investing agencies related to the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly manage about $12 billion in assets, and a committee carries out socially responsible investing policies in conjunction with the funds. The panel hadn’t previously engaged with companies on the issue but the campaign “seemed like a natural fit” because of the church general assembly’s support of abortion access and goal of advancing women’s rights through investments, Fohr said.

McCloskey described the campaign as a moral way for United Church Funds, which manages more than $860 million in assets, to express the beliefs of its mostly United Church of Christ client base while promoting policies that make good business sense. The United Church of Christ is in favor of abortion rights.

“This is a response to the tightening of local and state access to reproductive health,” McCloskey said. “It’s part of the conversation. I don’t know what kind of votes it will get, but I think it’s a valuable way to enter the conversation.”

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