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Yelp deserves a one-star rating for religious liberty

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Unsplash/Frederik Lipfert

I recently attended the annual meeting of Yelp, a large, San Francisco-based tech company that runs a business review website and app. As the success of small businesses depends in part on reviews posted through services such as Yelp and Google, they have enormous potential influence over our economy. This should concern you, because Yelp’s anti-Christian-conservative activism is so complete it even dwarfs other giants in the “woke capital” industry:

  1. They endorsed the Equality Act. (As I have written about here, here, and here, the Equality Act would be a disaster for religious liberty and traditional values.)
  2. They joined a campaign by the Human Rights Council (a radical anti-religious liberty organization) opposing state bills that restrict cross-sex sports participation and gender reassignment procedures for minors.
  3. Their CEO Jeremy Stoppelman publicly opposed religious liberty bills in Mississippi, Indiana, and North Carolina.
  4. They donated to the SPLC, a partisan left-wing organization. (Source: 2ndVote)
  5. They signed an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to rule against religious liberty in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
  6. They matched gifts to Planned Parenthood. (Source: 2ndVote)

I sat in on their annual meeting as a member of a team that designs ETFs, one of which has a substantial financial stake in Yelp. I was not a fan of the way this company, which has a legal and moral responsibility to protect their shareholder’s interests, was behaving like the corporate arm of the Human Rights Council. Like many other Christian investors, I want these companies to stay true to their obligations to shareholders, not take sides in a culture war – especially not the side opposed to religious freedom.

The only shareholder resolution on the ballot this year aimed to turn Yelp into a public benefit corporation. What was telling about this particular proposal is that it used Yelp’s own “wokeness” against them, asserting that their status as a for-profit corporation was inconsistent with their commitment to “racial justice.” The proposal was protracted and unrelenting, saying Yelp was “replete with sexist and racist harassment,” “pyramid schemes,” and sexual misconduct. The presenter concluded by calling for Yelp to account for “racial justice as well as financial return,” implicitly accusing them of hypocrisy for vowing support for “black-owned businesses” while still being a for-profit corporation.

Of course, to the degree that there is racism within Yelp, they ought to oppose it and take whatever reasonable steps are within their power to stamp it out. That is a moral requirement – and it is also in an entirely separate universe from implicitly allying the company to a broad “anti-racism” movement. The presenter of the proposal argued that Yelp cannot fulfill its promise of anti-racism crusades if they are still weighed down by outdated concepts like providing for their shareholders. Yelp obviously opened themselves up to the activists by playing their game. The presenter of the proposal bookended her accusations by appealing to Yelp’s preexisting statements in support of a particular social agenda around race. Had they adopted a “no-politics” stance, as other tech companies recently have, the proposal’s central argument would have been hamstrung. But they did not. The stewards were faithful to ideology instead of their shareholders, and the results speak for themselves. When you make social objectives irrelevant to the business your priority, you will be held to that new standard.

This proposal demonstrated, yet again, that the secular left-wing activists will never be satisfied. Yelp’s myriad demonstrations of support for that social agenda has afforded them no benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, their unshakable commitment to left-wing politics appears to have made them a bigger target for secular totalitarians. There is no point at which the activists and institutions opposed to conservative and Christian values will declare victory and go home.

Though management recommended a vote against the proposal, the contrast between how they dealt with this attempt to change the corporation at its core and how they dealt with my mere question about religious liberty could not have been starker. To those who accused them of racism and sexism, and operating a business characterized by revenge porn, pyramid schemes and binge drinking – and tried to completely change their entire corporate structure, Yelp said, in essence, “You don’t need to vote for this proposal because we already do everything you want us to do.” See pages 39 through 42 in their proxy statement for their full response.

By comparison, my relatively tame question about politicization and political activism received a condescending, boilerplate, terse answer from the CEO: “Yelp opposes discrimination in all of its forms and believes strongly in protecting rights for our employees, our consumers, and our customers. We oppose legislative efforts to restrict our employees’ ability to bring their full selves to work and believe it’s good for our business to do so. Thank you for the question.”

Consider this disparity for a moment. Respectful shareholders simply asking a question receive an insultingly brief, corporatese-laden stock response, containing no actual information, and delivered with all the enthusiasm of a teenage retail worker asking if you want to sign up for a rewards card. But accusing them of racism and sexual harassment results in a lengthy expression of their deep commitment to left-wing social causes. (Again, pages 39-42 here.) By contrast, anything that smells of conservative Christianity is treated as a nuisance.

This episode is illustrative of the importance of corporate engagement. Corporate activism, which seeks to tear down traditional religious values and politicize the business world, cannot be opposed if it is not understood. My experience with Yelp showed me again the condescension with which religious shareholders are treated, and the depths to which corporations will go to pander to activists – who will then pursue even more radical objectives.

Those of us on the side of religious freedom barely even attend the meetings, let alone dictate their subject, as the activists do. Christian investors should be up there advocating for religious liberty, political neutrality, and the biblical principle of faithful stewardship. We ought to care about one of the main hubs for reviews of small businesses, as well as an investment held in the portfolios of many Americans. Instead, the loudest voice in the room was that of a radical who saw an opportunity to transform another corporation. The activists aren’t being deterred; they’re being encouraged.

For them, all institutions have to bow – to what? It might be racial equity today, and religious liberty tomorrow, and climate change the day after that. And the Yelps of the world will continue to chase after them, seizing every opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty – all the while, alienating their Christian and conservative customers, employees, and shareholders. The cause changes, but the objective remains the same. The bowing is what matters.

For the record, these were the questions I submitted, as well as the CEO’s response:

  1. (Submitted at the start of the meeting.) “We are increasingly concerned about excess politicization by the management of the companies we own. For example, Yelp endorsed the Equality Act which explicitly weakens the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Yelp has also joined in public statements opposing legislation in various states which reaffirms religious liberty rights. And there was also an amicus brief vs Masterpiece Cakes, another religious liberty case. Is it really necessary to drag the company into one side of a cultural war? If so, can we at least do it in a way to choose protections of both LGBTQ people and the traditional religious people?”
  2. (Submitted after the shareholder resolution was read aloud.) Question: “Was it wise for management to open this door by using stakeholder-type rhetoric?”
    Response: “Yes. We believe we have a duty to our employees to defend them against efforts to restrict their liberty and ability to live and work as they need to. We extended these efforts to protect against discrimination to our consumers, users, customers, and all the Yelp stakeholders. Again, thank you for your question.”

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.”

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