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Religious lobbying

Date: May 13, 2011
By: Martin Kramara
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, the State’s lobbying laws enforcement agency, there are more than 1000 registered lobbyists in Missouri.

Among various different groups of interest, religious institutions aspire to voice their positions and influence lawmaking process in Jefferson City Capitol, too.

While numerous small religious organizations like charities, hospitals, nursing homes or family centers hire lobbyists to represent their interests, only two faith denominations do the same on their institutional level: Catholic Church and Baptist Convention. The first one runs its own agency with several employees; the other one relies on one registered lobbyist working in the Missouri State Capitol.

“There is a place for faith in the marketplace,” said John Gaydos, bishop of Jefferson City diocese, one of four Catholic sees that stand behind Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy arm of Catholic Church in the State of Missouri. “What we are doing is encourage our own Catholic people to witness to their faith in the marketplace. There are all kinds of areas where we want to do this, for example social justice and life issues – in order to encourage good public policy for the state”, explains Gaydos.

Kerry Messer who lobbies for the Missouri Baptist Convention said there are about 2000 autonomous Southern Baptist Churches involved in the association he represents: “I represent the issues that the church has as concise position on,” he said. “Rather than just talking about pornography, homosexuality and abortion, which are the big three social issues - while we are engaged on those three fronts - I try to get legislators and Christians to understand that we are also concerned about economic issues or about economic development but from a biblical prospective,” points out Messer.

“In the Missouri Catholic Conference, we have what we call management staff, which would be four people and then there’s some operation staff, as well,” said Mike Hoey, the MCC executive director. “When there’s a bill we have position on, one of our staff people will go and testify before the committee. Other times, we try to get other people to come and testify: nurse in a Catholic hospital or a Catholic school parent... We take positions on maybe 50 or 60 bills out of the 1,500 and then, as the session goes on, it’s kind of like a horse race or like a funnel, it gets more narrow, so the agenda gets more focused,” Hoey said.

When asked about their job’s primary motivation, religious lobbyists agree on the one fact: they take it as a ministry. Some of them even describe it as a vocation from God: “I felt called to work as lobbyist for the Church because I think we need more witnesses to Christ’s truth,” said Tyler McClay, attorney who joined Missouri Catholic Conference in 2010 and now works as MCC General Counsel.

“I hope I can witness for Christ to help restore our culture and our nation to the truths of God,” he adds. “No one is paying me to be here,” said Kerry Messer, “I can’t afford to be here. But it’s OK, because I feel convicted and I have a peace in my life that I am doing what the Lord has called me to do."

Sam Lee, who does not lobby for the Missouri Catholic Conference, but is a lobbyist and Catholic hierarchy member at the same time, described his first inducements: “I was involved in peaceful protests at abortion clinics and I have been arrested for trespassing. So I became interested in law and eventually also in passing some legislation here. I started lobbying in the mid eighties,” he said.

“I am a catholic deacon, but there’s no real restriction on lobbying: I did this long before I became deacon and there’s certainly nothing inconsistent with my work. I have restrictions put on me as deacon in terms of political activity – but lobbying is my service to the church and there’s not any disconnection from my catholic faith in it,” clarifies Lee, who is a registered lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri.

Though in many cases faith appears to be the reason why they chose the job, lobbyists don’t apply it as criterion when looking for legislators to sponsor a bill. “If you work with Catholics only, you will never be able to pass anything. We have had major bills sponsored by people that are not Catholic,” said Mike Hoey, executive director of Missouri Catholic Conference.

“I would never choose to work with a legislator on a given topic based on his or her personal religious affiliation. What I look for is someone who has the right set of values and personality that fits that particular legislation,” states Kerry Messer. 

Sam Lee said he doesn’t recall choosing legislators based on their faith either, but he adds the right choice of sponsor can be many times hardened by the length of legislators’ service: “It usually takes two or three years, if at all, for legislature to get enacted and as soon as we get someone who is really good, they’re term limited out,” he explains.

MCC executive Mike Hoey said that even legislators who don’t believe in God may share many viewpoints with the Conference: “One of the gifts that the Catholic Church has in its teaching is the natural law. We believe that in the heart of man and woman, there’s a natural desire, knowledge of right and wrong. So we can appeal to the moral conscience in everyone.”

His colleague Tyler McClay added: “Emmanuel Kant said: Two things amaze me: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me. We try using reason and argument to appeal to this moral law within.” “And we have had non-Catholic legislators come up and say: I am fascinated with what the Church is saying on this issue, could you give me some more information?” recalled Hoey.

Speaking about special moments they witnessed in the Capitol, religious lobbyists look in various directions. “The most satisfying legislation was in 2006 when, after years and years, tax credits to those who donate to pregnancy resource centers were passed,” Lee said. “The best thing I have witnessed was the House of Representatives passing the Human Trafficking Bill by a vote of 155 to 0. I was thrilled to see this bill pass unanimously,” said Tyler McClay from MCC. He goes on adding another experience, however: “The worst thing was when the House was debating a bill to regulate the adult men’s sex clubs. One member of the House stood up on the floor to speak in opposition to the regulation of these clubs and said: “Morals have no place in this body!”

Kerry Messer from the Missouri Baptist Convention also pointed out his disappointments concerning the culture in Capitol, but he said he is glad to have seen many improvements, as well:

“Twenty seven years ago, when I first came here, it was not acceptable to carry a Bible through the Capitol. The culture at that time was dominated by excessive filthy language, hard liquor drinking and partying, with very little focus on Biblical values. We have invested a lot into trying to change that culture inside the Capitol building. And I really think where we are today is such a contrast to where we were a quarter century ago. I’d say being part of that cultural change is our greatest contribution.”

Regarding financial retributions for lobbying, staff from the Missouri Catholic Conference gets paid by bishops of four Missouri Catholic dioceses: “We are on the calendar budget,” explains Mike Hoey, the MCC executive director. “In December of each year we submit a proposed budget and then they send us a quarterly allocation based on the population of the diocese. So the archdiocese of St Louis contributes a greater percentage of the budget than, say, the diocese of Springfield which has a smaller number of Catholics.”

Kerry Messer said that from the point of view of money, he mostly has to take care of himself: “I do independent fund raising: I put out a newsletter and ask people for donations. My family and I live off donations – and we have done it for 28 years – so that’s just what the Lord has done in our lives. And it’s OK. I am here because of my world view, because of the convictions of my heart.” For a moment, he hesitates, then smiles and concludes: “When Lord has called me to do something, I think it’s simply not worth being in disobedience”.

Editor's note: Martin Kramara is a priest from Slovakia studing journalism at MDN under an exchange program with the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.  He obviously has a special interest in this issue -- something that made him concerned that he had a conflict of interest that precluded his coverage.  However, he was encouraged to write the story with the understanding that an editor's note would be attached -- Phill Brooks, director, MDN.

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