Earlier this year, New York became the seventh state to recognize an interesting new category of business: the “benefit corporation.”
Unlike the typical for-profit corporation, which must be run to maximize shareholder profits, the benefit corporation is explicitly enabled to balance its profit-maximization objective with some other “public benefit” of its choosing. The statute sets forth a list of qualifying “public benefits,” which includes a variety of worthwhile causes. Conspiciously absent from this list is anything having to do with religion.
The full list is as follows:
“ (1) providing low-income or underserved individuals or communities with beneficial products or services; (2) promoting economic opportunity for individuals or communities beyond the creation of jobs in the normal course of business; (3) preserving the environment; (4) improving human health; (5) promoting the arts, sciences or advancement of knowledge; (6) increasing the flow of capital to entities with a public benefit purpose; and (7) the accomplishment of any other particular benefit for society or the environment. “
One could attempt to form a benefit corporation with a religious orientation by arguing that such a focus fits within category 7, “any other particular benefit for society.” Whether that would pass muster and qualify is an open question.
Two things make the absence of an explicitly religion-oriented category of benefit corporations from the statutory list particularly ironic.
First: historically (especially prior to the 18th century), a business could only be chartered as a corporation if it served some public purpose / the common good. Thus, it could fairly be said that, regarding the first corporations, they were all “benefit corporations.” Interesting, however, among the most commonly recognized public purposes for which a corporation could be formed back then were purposes having to do with religion (such as the construction of a church).
Second: in recent times, some of the most vocal advocates for greater corporate social responsibility have come from religiously inspired voices.
It is difficult to believe that the absence of religion from the list of qualifying “public benefits” was a mere oversight. Rather, it seems to reflect the prevailing notion that religion is a wholly private matter, with little connection to the common good.