Issues Of Faith Liberal, Conservative Denominations Assert Themselves In Olympia Religion And Politics
Christian groups are competing for the souls of state lawmakers this year in Olympia.
From welfare and crime to health care and gay rights, Christian lobbyists are weighing in on several lightning-rod issues.
Although they start with the same Bible and worship the same God, the churches often find themselves at odds over public policy.
“You can have diametrically opposed views and still come from the same faith value system,” said Sister Sharon Park, associate director of the Washington State Catholic Conference.
Lobbyists who work on behalf of liberal and conservative religious groups say the 1995 Legislature is more receptive to the voices of the church than in previous years.
“People this time are much more willing to talk about a faith perspective,” said Park, a veteran lobbyist for the Catholic Church. “How will those beliefs influence the political process? These are all moral issues.”
Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is one politician talking about faith. At a welfare reform hearing earlier this month, she donned a button quoting the book of Matthew: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
“I take very seriously the representatives of church groups because I know they are sincere,” Brown said. “But I don’t believe anybody has that hotline directly to God to get the divine perspective on any issue.”
Dave Welch, director of the Christian Coalition of Washington, said lawmakers are much more “like-minded” this year in their politics as well as their religious beliefs.
“You identify the saints and the sinners, and then there’s the save-ables,” Welch said. “These are generic terms, of course. The people they would call saints, we would not,” he said of other religious lobbyists.
Bob Higley, president of the Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, said his organization was founded in response to the 1993 legislative session.
“A lot of things were passed that we felt were contrary to the Bible,” he said. “There was no conservative Christian voice.”
More lawmakers, particularly in the House where Republicans gained control this year, have close ties to Christian churches, said Doug Simpson, a former lobbyist for the Evangelical group.
He’s now working for House Republicans, helping new members learn the ropes.
While Christian lobbyists find their philosophies in scripture, they translate those beliefs into the language of public policy when they talk to lawmakers.
That is how different churches find themselves on opposite sides of the table during committee hearings on specific bills.
Caught in between are people like Sen. John Moyer, R-Spokane.
As a Catholic and a doctor, Moyer said he sees the need for government to help the poor and the vulnerable. But as a lawmaker, he said he sees that government can’t always do the job.
“I see both sides of the issues very clearly,” he said. “There are some government programs that just aren’t working. We can’t continue to pay for all that.”
The battle over welfare reform is a good example of an issue that has divided Christians.
The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Public Policy Office and the Washington Association of Churches are against most of the proposals aimed at limiting benefits.
The three groups are fighting bills that call for limiting the time people can be on welfare, eliminating welfare for teenage mothers and freezing benefits when welfare parents have additional children.
“We in the church community need to remind them it is aid to dependent children,” said Ned Dolejsi, of the state Catholic Conference.
But the Christian Coalition and the Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government disagree. Lobbyists from both groups say welfare, as it is currently administered, detracts from stable family life.
“The important factor in the whole focus is to make a safety net, not a hammock,” said Welch, of the Christian Coalition. “We should not encourage promiscuous behavior. Parents should be the ones responsible for their children.”
Simpson added that he believes churches and individuals should help the needy, not the government.
The Catholics and the Lutherans - organizations that run two of the biggest private charities in Spokane County - say there is no way the churches can handle any more.
“There ought to be no illusions about that,” said Tony Lee, legislative director for the Washington Association of Churches. “We are doing everything we can to keep up with the human need out there before any cuts are made.”
Other topics where Christian groups find themselves in opposition include:
Juvenile justice. The Christian Coalition and the evangelical organization support laws that would permit parents to commit their teenagers to drug or alcohol treatment, allow police to arrest runaways and order judges to treat violent teens as adults.
The Catholic Church and the Association of Churches take a more cautious approach to committing teens to treatment. They want parents to be able to commit children under age 15, not age 18 as proposed in some bills. They are against arresting runaways and changing the laws regarding when juvenile offenders are treated as adults.
Health care reform. The Catholics and the Association of Churches are opposed to the repeal of the health care reform package passed two years ago, which ensured health care coverage for almost everyone.
“In 1993 the message the Legislature got from the people was cost control and cover everyone,” Park said. “In 1995 the people are saying, `I don’t want to pay as much and I don’t want to lose the choices I have.”’
The Christian Coalition supports overturning all or most of health reform. It representatives say it will cost too much and limit the availability of health care to families.
Minority status for homosexuals. Conservative Christians say that granting minority status is equivalent to condoning a lifestyle forbidden in the Bible.
The more liberal churches supported the measure as a human rights issue that would protect gays from discrimination. Such a law has been unsuccessfully proposed for the past 17 years.
The issues create so many divisions among groups of Christians it is disheartening at times, said Dolejsi.
Christian lobbyists claim the moral high ground when they speak on various proposals. But as they argue among themselves, they run the risk of fading into the background with the other lobbyists.
“We have lost our commitment to the common good,” Dolejsi said. “And we are in danger of losing our capacity of engaging in civil public debate.”
Welch said all Christians must set an example by being respectful.
“We can disagree and do it in a spirit of love and brotherhood,” he said. “The problem comes when you get into personal attacks and go into inflammatory rhetoric, which has happened on both sides.”