Chipotle's pork choice—and religious freedom

Avid Chipotle customers seeking carnitas burritos for dinner may be disappointed over the coming weeks. The restaurant giant is reportedly no longer serving pork at about a third of its locations after it dropped a pork supplier that failed to live up to the corporation's standards of humane animal care.

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Despite the possibility that Chipotle's decision to pull pork from almost a third of its restaurants will come at a cost, the corporation's commitment to serving "food with integrity" has outweighed its quest for financial gain. "We would rather not serve pork at all, than serve pork from animals that are raised in this way," Chris Arnold, the company's communications director, told the Washington Post.

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Chipotle's founder and CEO, Steve Ells, has made a decision to commit to self-imposed standards, which he personally finds important, enabling him to live out his commitment to environmental care and sustainability through how he runs his business. His example has also drawn others—employees, investors, and customers alike—by giving them a place to work and patronize that shares their beliefs and values. As the Washington Post observed, "The unparalleled success of the chain is glaring proof that people are willing to pay a bit more for that promise."

Or, as one online reviewer put it, Chipotle is "a fast food chain with a conscience."

It is a wonderful thing that individuals are not only able to start and build a business in their chosen trade, but they are also free to structure that business in a way that reflects their personal beliefs and values. In turn, a wide market of choice is provided for employees and consumers, offering an opportunity to partner with a larger association with a shared commitment to a common cause. In America, we have the ability to act out our individuality and diversity in every aspect of our lives, and not just in our private or personal decisions.

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Protecting corporate conscience acknowledges that behind a company name, individuals with their own identities, perspectives, freedoms, and convictions are making decisions that affect real people—owners, employees, customers, and the community.

There is a distinct social good to preserving the freedom of individuals to form and operate a business based on deeply held principles rooted in conscience. Many great leaders throughout our nation's history have understood the importance of this freedom—how it elevates and benefits our society as a whole when individuals openly and fully live their lives according to the moral values that motivate them, even when reasonable people disagree with those values.

It is time that we take a step back from unnecessarily politicized debates about corporations and acknowledge the simple fact that many Americans are motivated to be a force for good in their communities because of, not in spite of, their faith. Faith animates compassion, and compassion leads to greater integrity and ownership of caring for those in need around us. Furthermore, organized compassionate responses need not come solely in the form of a church or charity to be appropriate, authentic, or effective.

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There is also a pragmatic reason to defend corporate conscience. A recent study revealed that, though religious populations are growing worldwide, more than seventy-five percent of the world lives under significant religious restrictions. These religious prejudices are, in turn, having a negative impact on businesses around the globe. This has led noted social scientist Dr. Brian Grim to conclude that, "[W]here there is freedom in the market place—including freedom to live out the Golden Rule and bring belief systems to the proverbial table—this . . . fosters more trust within a company and enlarges public trust toward a company . . . ."

It is crucial that the same freedom enjoyed by the leadership of Chipotle remains equally available to business owners of faith. Indeed, much more so as freedom of religion is explicitly protected by the First Amendment. We cannot simultaneously laud the leaders of a business motivated by a commitment to environmental sustainability and discriminate against the leaders of a business motivated by religious belief.

If a decision based on moral convictions is celebrated, shouldn't a decision based on the free exercise of religion – a right guaranteed in the Constitution – be even more so?

To be sure, religious freedom is not just a choice of convenience – it is a fundamental right given to all Americans by the Constitution. As we recognize Chipotle's decision, let's remember that a clear constitutionally supported civil right of religious freedom should be cherished and respected in every corner of this nation.

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We live in a country whose laws respect freedom and diversity, and our Constitution has always had robust protections for all Americans to live and work by their religious convictions. Americans do not check their religious freedom at the door when they leave their home or place of worship and enter the public sphere.

We must not fall prey to the hypocrisy of defending the freedom of operating a business on convictions of sustainability, but reject that same freedom when the convictions are based in faith.

Commentary by U.S. Senator James Lankford and Rep. Randy Forbes. Lankford is serving his first term as the junior Senator from the state of Oklahoma. Rep. Randy Forbes is serving his eighth term as U.S. Representative of the Fourth Congressional District of Virginia. They both serve as Co-Chairmen for the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Follow them on Twitter @SenatorLankford and @Randy_Forbes.