The Religious Conversion of Corporate Social Responsibility

56 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2021 Last revised: 25 Jan 2022

See all articles by Elizabeth Sepper

Elizabeth Sepper

University of Texas at Austin - School of Law

James David Nelson

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: April 12, 2021


This Article debunks the analogy often drawn between principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and claims for corporate religious exemption. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which held that for-profit businesses are eligible for religious exemptions from general laws, a rising tide of scholars and advocates has argued that the two programs are symmetrical and mutually supportive.

Looking to the intellectual history of CSR, we demonstrate sharp conflicts—rather than congruence—between the analytical underpinnings of CSR and religious exemptions for corporations. Whereas CSR enlists law-abiding corporations to advance public objectives, these religious exemptions oppose state laws in the personal interest of shareholders. Our analysis uncovers a fundamental mismatch between the political and economic orders imagined by CSR and corporate religious exemptions. Corporate social responsibility posits a distinctly democratic political economy with the state leading its corporate allies in pursuit of societal goals. Proponents of corporate religious exemptions subvert this tradition: corporations defend private liberty from the threat of the public. This vision of the state and the corporation in law, politics, and the economy proves anathema to the project of corporate social responsibility.

Keywords: corporate social responsibility, religious liberty, Hobby Lobby, religious exemptions, corporate purpose

Suggested Citation

Sepper, Elizabeth and Nelson, James David, The Religious Conversion of Corporate Social Responsibility (April 12, 2021). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 71, No. 2, 2021, U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Sepper (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin - School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

James David Nelson

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4170 Martin Luther King Blvd.
Houston, TX 77004
United States

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