In the spring of 2022, Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator, governor of Kansas, and U.S. ambassador, co-founded the National Committee for Religious Freedom (NCRF) to, in his words, “protect the right to the free exercise of faith for all Americans.”
NCRF’s board members decided to set up the non-profit’s bank accounts at JPMorgan Chase.
“We’ve got a bipartisan national advisory board that includes members who are Christians, Hindus, Jewish, Mormon, Muslims,” Brownback recounted in a May 16 video conference. “In April of 2022 we opened a bank account for the NCRF at Chase; we chose Chase because of the national footprint and the multi-generational relationships that our team had with the bank.”
Three weeks later, he went to cash a donor’s check and was told the accounts were closed. Days later, Brownback said he received a letter from Chase saying they decided to end their relationship with the NCRF.
Despite the fact that the accounts had only been open for 24 days, Brownback said he was told that the NCRF’s accounts were closed because it had failed to provide requested background information within 60 days. When he protested that he had never received an information request, he was told that accounts could be reopened if NCRF would disclose the names of its donors, as well as the names of political candidates the organization intended to support. He declined.
“By November, Chase pivoted to a different explanation,” Brownback stated, “saying in an email that I am a politically exposed person.”
Brownback’s story and others like it prompted 19 state attorneys general to write a letter of protest to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, stating that the bank “persistently discriminated against certain customers due to their religious or political affiliation.”
On March 23, 14 state treasurers penned a letter to Dimon, stating their “concern that the bank is engaged in what appears to be politically motivated de-banking of certain industries, individuals, and groups.”
It also prompted longstanding shareholder David Bahnsen to issue a proposal at JPMorgan’s shareholder meeting on May 16, calling for the bank to investigate the matter and clarify its position on religious and political discrimination against its customers.
JPMorgan Fights Back, Denies Allegations
JPMorgan first fought against the proposal, first by asking the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to disallow it. But the SEC ruled on March 29 that the proposal could proceed to a vote.
The bank then urged shareholders to vote against the proposal. JPMorgan Chase has since denied the allegations of political or religious discrimination. One day prior to the shareholder vote, JPMorgan’s board of directors issued a statement that Bahnsen’s proposal was “based on allegations that are not true.”
“It is not our policy to debank people because of their political views or religious affiliation,” the bank stated. “We believe [JPMorgan Chase] has a strong corporate culture that values diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and experience and effectively works to prevent discrimination.”
“The company’s statement of opposition repeatedly claims ‘it is not our policy to debank people because of their political views or religious affiliation,’” Bahnsen stated. “I believe them, but that doesn’t really answer the question. Of course there is no explicit policy of political or religious discrimination.”
What he hoped to achieve, Bahnsen said, is for JPMorgan Chase to investigate whether its actions, like closing the NCRF’s accounts, are a case of activist employees going rogue or a de facto protocol of the bank. Ultimately, bank management prevailed in the shareholder vote and Bahnsen’s proposal was defeated.
Pressure on Large Banks to Debank Conservatives
Because of the rise of mutual funds, index funds, and pension funds, about 70 percent of all corporate shares in America are held by institutional investors. Many of the world’s largest banks, asset managers, and pension managers—including JPMorgan—have joined progressive clubs like Climate Action 100 and the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative (NZAM) and support progressive agendas like the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) movement.
JPMorgan Chase’s largest shareholder is BlackRock, which has also been a prominent advocate of progressive causes. BlackRock did not support Bahnsen’s proposal.
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure on large financial institutions to debank people because of their religious or political beliefs that are out of line with progressive values, and for the folks who are debanked that’s a terrifying prospect,” Jeremy Tedesco, ADF senior counsel, told The Epoch Times. “But the real damage is to civil society.”
Tedesco said that “politicized debanking appears to be on the rise at Chase.” He cites a discrepancy between the bank’s top ratings from left-leaning organizations and dismal ratings according to more conservative criteria like viewpoint diversity.
On social issues, JPMorgan Chase scored a perfect 100 percent on the Human Rights Coalition’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies according to their “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Equality.” However, according to the Viewpoint Diversity Index published by ADF, JPMorgan scored only 9 percent out of 100, a decrease from 15 percent the previous year.
Bahnsen says he is not a shareholder activist. He has been an owner of JPMorgan stock for 14 years, both for his personal investments and “on behalf of the billions of dollars of capital we manage for clients,” he said.
In his address to shareholders, he stated that “JPMorgan is perhaps the best there is when it comes to running its core business, but it is ill qualified to be a political or cultural arbiter. This company that I and you, my fellow shareholders, own has shown a concerning pattern of debanking conservatives and religious organizations who have had accounts cancelled without notice or explanation.
“The Alliance Defending Freedom gives our company 15% out of a possible 100% in respect for diverse viewpoints,” Bahnsen stated. “The 1792 Exchange’s Corporate Bias Report classifies the company as ‘high risk’ when it comes to the probability of denial of services based on views and beliefs. The American Conservative Values Fund lists JPMorgan Chase as among the ‘Worst of the worst companies most hostile to conservative values.’”
In November 2022, 60 finance professionals signed the “Statement on Debanking and Free Speech,” which charges that banks including JP Morgan Chase attempted to punish account holders with mainstream conservative political beliefs.
“In a particularly egregious display of viewpoint discrimination, JP Morgan Chase refused to process payments for a GOP-aligned organization,” the statement alleges.
Damage to Civil Society
When banks target customers because of their views, Tedesco said, “the real damage is to civil society.”
“When there’s a threat that a bank will debank you because of your religious or political beliefs, it chills people’s willingness to exercise their free speech and religious freedom rights, or to engage in the democratic process,” Tedesco said. “So banks have to take seriously the threat they pose by having these unbounded policies that allow them to do just that.”
Scott Shepard, a director at the National Center for Public Policy Research, told The Epoch Times that banks like JPMorgan have become like public utilities in that their size means they can dominate consumer markets and that most Americans today are unable to live their lives outside of the banking system.
Banks that are too big to fail “have to be too big to discriminate,” Shepard said. “All American taxpayers backstop these too-big-to-fail banks, and all of their viewpoints should be respected equally.”
“One thing I am certain of is that the next time a bank manager decides to close an account for somebody like Ambassador Brownback, they’re going to think twice about doing it,” Bahnsen said. “This was covered far and wide by both the left wing press and the right wing press, and I do not believe it looked good upon JPMorgan. I think, even with this resolution failing, the shareholders of JPMorgan were very well served by this effort.”