Authors: Deputies Nancy Koonce & Sarah Lawton

In the Beginning: Against Apartheid

Presiding Bishop John Hines stood at a microphone in crowded Cobo Hall, Detroit, dressed in his bishop regalia. It was May, 1971 and for the first time ever, a religious group was bringing a proxy resolution based on an ethical concern to a shareholder meeting: Presiding Bishop Hines was requesting, on behalf of the Episcopal Church as a shareholder, that General Motors withdraw its operations from the Republic of South Africa until the country’s racist system apartheid was abolished. Pushed by congregational grassroots activism on this issue and called to respond by the Anglican Church in South Africa, Presiding Bishop Hines, along with the Executive Council and its newly formed Committee on Social Criteria for Investments, had decided to act. 

Other faith organizations soon joined the campaign and organized themselves into an organization that was eventually called the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). This coalition of faith organizations, labor unions, pension funds, and other groups worked together to put pressure on companies involved in South Africa—both through shareholder resolutions, and in many cases, including the Episcopal Church in 1985, eventual divestment. ICCR has since grown into an important network of over 300 institutional investors who work collaboratively on a range of ethical issues including human and labor rights, gun violence, and the environment. The Episcopal Church is still an active member of ICCR to this day. 

Many Episcopalians probably do not realize that it was the Episcopal Church taking action to bring shareholder advocacy on ethical issues to the corporate world that led to this movement being formed!

ICCR’s members are today regarded as serious investors with the ability to foretell the emerging social and environmental issues that lead to business risk. Most Fortune 500 companies now have corporate responsibility departments and are formally disclosing their environmental and social impacts and their governance practices. This work of bringing ethical concerns to companies via proxy resolutions and other forms of advocacy is sometimes called “ESG” investing – addressing Environmental, Social, and Governance risks.

Attacks on Responsible and Sustainable Investing

As this work has become more successful, some deep-pocketed special-interest business groups and elected officials have pushed back in recent years on the ability of investors to bring ethical risk issues forward. More than 160 legislative proposals have been introduced in more than 37 states to restrict institutional investors from considering all material financial risks, such as sustainability factors, in decision-making. There is also a growing effort to prohibit insurance companies from considering climate risk in their underwriting decisions despite the clear risk-management responsibility of the industry. At least 22 of these laws have now been passed in 14 states.

However, many of these proposals have also failed amid concerns over taxpayer costs to police these policies, as well as concern over government interfering with businesses’ freedom to invest responsibly. Restrictive bills in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming have all failed to pass. There are also positive bills in some states, such as in Illinois and Oregon, which now have policies to protect the right to consider sustainability and other material financial factors. Recently, California passed a first-in-the-nation law that would give investors, consumers, employees and other stakeholders far more insight into companies’ efforts to manage climate-related financial risks. At the federal level, President Joe Biden issued his first and only veto since taking office to protect a U.S. Department of Labor rule allowing employee pension plan fiduciaries to consider all materially relevant financial risks. Institutional investors are organizing against these attacks in a coalitional advocacy effort, called Freedom to Invest, led by the environmental investor non-profit group CERES.

In 2024, ExxonMobil raised the stakes by suing in a Texas court against two institutional shareholders who brought forward proxy resolutions on sustainability risk concerns, rather than pushing back via the Securities and Exchange Commission as has been the norm. When those investors withdrew their proxy filings, ExxonMobil persisted with the lawsuits, which investors perceived as both punitive and potentially chilling. ICCR members have been active in a variety of strategies to push back on these attacks, including proxy exempt solicitations and calls for votes against Exxon directors. 

Episcopal Church Support for the Freedom to Consider Ethical Issues 

Resolution A028: Freedom to Consider Ethical Issues in Investing calls on the Church to lament, condemn, and oppose efforts to suppress consideration of ethical criteria to assess investment risks and opportunities and also calls on the Church to advocate publicly for the freedom to invest responsibly and against legislation that would prohibit divestment as well as consideration of environmental, social and governance factors relevant to responsible investment decision-making. 

Legislative Committee 13 felt strongly enough about calling attention to our Church’s response to the attacks on the freedom to invest responsibly and sustainably that the committee (both Deputies and Bishops) decided to split the original into two different resolutions. The first is amended version of A028 that is focused on calling attention to the attacks on ethical investing. The other resolution, now in the vbinder as A163: Affirming the Ongoing Work across the Episcopal Church in Consideration of Ethical Issues in Investing, lifts up the 50+ years of work of the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (CCSR) of Executive Council—the successor group to the original Committee on Social Criteria in Investments founded in 1970 with the push from Presiding Bishop John Hines.

More Than 50 Years Later: The Church’s Work in Ethical, Sustainable Investing Continues

Other resolutions sent to the 81st Convention by CCSR are A029: Divest from Fossil Fuels, to put a clear, soon end date to the long process first undertaken in 2015 for the Church to divest from fossil fuels; and A030: No Investments in Certain Weapons, which, if passed, would direct CCSR to develop an investment screen for weapons systems implicated in mass civilian death, including the newer lethal autonomous weapons systems being used in several conflicts around the world now, including Gaza. CCSR already periodically makes recommendations to the Executive Council for the Church’s No Buy List based on corporate involvement in tobacco, militarism, private prisons, fossil fuels, and human rights violations.

The storied history of CCSR work is told in a short 50th anniversary video, The CCSR Story, and CCSR will be hosting a 50th anniversary luncheon in Louisville (postponed from Baltimore), with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry attending, to honor Paul Neuhauser, former deputy from the Diocese of Iowa, founding member of CCSR, active expert member and legal consultant for 50 years, and volunteer even today at the age of 90 in drafting the Church’s proxy voting proposal to Executive Council.