As part of my recent campaign of attending shareholder meetings, I participated in the annual meeting of Marriott International, one of the world’s largest hotel operators. As a member of a team that manages and designs ETFs, I asked Marriott directly at the annual meeting about their political activism – and received a surprisingly encouraging response.
Before we get to management's answer, here’s some background on why I wanted to push Marriott on their involvement in social and political causes. According to 2ndVote.com (which tracks corporate activity from a conservative Christian perspective) Marriott has the lowest possible score in the “Basic Freedoms” category, indicating that they have been systemically biased against religious liberty in their donations and public advocacy.
Marriott was a member of Georgia Prospers, a business coalition that opposed the state’s 2016 religious liberty law. They were also a member of a similar coalition surrounding Missouri’s own freedom of religion law, and, in 2017, sponsored an annual event for Equality California, another organization dedicated to instantiating modern gender ideology into law. They are corporate partners of several LGBT lobbying organizations. And, of course, they also endorsed the Equality Act, alongside hundreds of other companies. Passed by the Democrat-controlled House in 2019 and awaiting a vote in the Senate, the Equality Act contains numerous controversial clauses – including its direct undermining of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In addition to their public endorsement of the Equality Act, Marriot has signed on to a public statement opposing bills passed in state legislatures concerning gender transitioning and cross-sex sports participation for minors. To me, none of this seemed to have anything to do with what ought to be their core mission – being a faithful steward of their shareholders’ money. It seemed very much like taking one side (the one opposed to religious liberty) in an ongoing political battle that has nothing to do with their business. One wonders how Marriott’s conservative Christian employees and shareholders feel about management publicly endorsing legislation that effectively declares their views illegitimate?
When Marriott reiterated their support for the Equality Act this past April, they did so with enthusiasm, saying they were “proud” to support the Act and that their “principles of non-discrimination extend to all travelers.” What about discriminating against conservatives and Christians? If passed, the Equality Act that Marriott supports would cement, in federal law, discrimination against anyone who holds to traditional notions regarding life, gender, or sexuality.
With all that in mind, I submitted a question about their activism, particularly when it comes to the Equality Act. While my question was grouped in with others, Marriott did actually give me a response:
“Of course, Marriott has endorsed the Equality Act to ensure our employees are protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which is consistent with our practices and values. We believe the Equality Act is an important step forward in the effort to ensure equality and fairness in the workplace, which is our primary focus. [inaudible] We also support the ongoing deliberation that will continue as the U.S. Senate considers the legislation, which may address some of the concerns you raised.”
This goes directly to the heart of the matter: Do these corporations truly support a bill that would force Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, to choose between following the law and following their conscience? On that point, Marriott has changed their tune: adding a qualifier to their previously unhedged, straight-forward, “proud” support of the Equality Act. Their official position is now in support of the “ongoing deliberation” in the Senate, specifically around the “concerns” I raised. Both my question, and the current Senate discussion, are focused on the Equality Act’s undermining of religious liberty.
Yes, Marriott still backs the bill in general – but they are also signaling support for the current process that would revise those aspects of the law that infringe on freedom of religion. After one question, they backed off their formerly unequivocal, wholesale advocacy of the law. That was in response to a relatively small amount of pressure: I did not write a shareholder resolution, or threaten a boycott, or pursue any of the more confrontational options. I just typed a short question into a box on the website. Marriott's addendum represents, if not an outright change in their official position, then a change in their messaging around the law.
If that’s how they responded to minimal pressure from a single investor, imagine what would happen if Christian shareholders engaged with these companies diligently: attending meetings, emailing IR departments, voting on resolutions, and, yes, just asking questions. That’s all I had to do. If you want corporations to get out of the culture war and stop advocating against religious liberty, you should consider following suit.
Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”