Wouldn’t it be great if justice included the poor?
Religion and politics are the two things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. Yet these two forces guide us through a myriad of choices, individually and collectively, that determine our personal and societal values. The intersection between these two forces can be fraught with thorny issues, especially when a religion’s belief system conflicts with an individual’s freedom of choice.
One key example from the 2013 Legislative session involved SB 192, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which would have “protected” freedom of religion while interfering with reproductive rights by giving pharmacists and doctors the opportunity to deny prescriptions or medical services they morally rejected, such as birth control.
The bill passed the Senate but died in the Assembly when it was clear there were no specific examples of government interfering with the exercise of religious freedom as guaranteed by the Nevada Constitution in Article 1, Section 4. Allowing health professionals to refuse to provide treatment based on a personal religious belief had the potential to create much harm and legislators wisely rejected the bill.
This is the third time in recent years RFRA has been presented to the Nevada Legislature, although without the support of many mainstream religious groups. The history of RFRA and a host of other social justice issues is recounted in a new book, A Humble Walk for Justice: Advocacy for the least of these in Nevada, 2001-2012, by Larry Struve. The work of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Nevada (LAMN) and the Religious Alliance in Nevada (RAIN) is well documented, providing a fascinating look back at recent history and the evolution of advocacy ministry.
Struve served as the RAIN lobbyist, representing the coalition of five mainline Christian denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, and Lutherans). RAIN is a statewide organization, with no national counterpart, unique to Nevada. Members are motivated by instructions from the Bible, including the words in Proverbs 31: 8-9:
“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Struve explains the role of advocacy ministry in the context of serving as the “voice of conscience in legislative deliberations” while also assisting the various congregations to understand “what justice required in modern times.” The advocacy efforts on behalf of Nevada’s most vulnerable populations fulfill Christian values while also providing a balancing religious voice to the extreme-right.
Some of the social justice battles, won and lost, of the last decade have faded from memory but Struve discusses them in chronological detail, beginning with the fight over Gov. Robert Miller’s signature program, “Family to Family Connection,” in 2001. He recounts the multi-session advocacy efforts in criminal justice, the death penalty, child welfare and homelessness, along with the still unresolved issue of tax reform. The multi-year tortuous effort needed to enact common-sense change, such as ensuring discharged felons have proper identification documents, is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to assist an unpopular group of citizens.
Equally intriguing are the personal encounters between religious leaders and individual legislators including one insulting letter from an assemblyman received by Episcopalian Bishop Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori in response to her appeal on behalf of the poor in 2003:
“There’s gotta be more Episcopalian Bishops besides you. Your opinion is pretty far out there, and strikes me as an opinion of a woman with no taxpaying parishioners (who would suffer greatly if your advocacy were granted). Sure seems to be an abuse of the protestant flag.”
For those who believe elected officials need to be reminded to focus on serving all the people, not just the wealthy or those promoting tantalizing film or technology industries, the history of LAMN and RAIN and their unique advocacy ministry in Nevada should be required reading.