Episcopal Church welcomes White House's consultations with faith groups

Government relations office bases Washington advocacy in baptismal covenant
February 23, 2009

Beginning with his transition team in the days after Barack Obama's election November 4, and continuing now with his administration, members of the 44th U.S. president's administration have been routinely inviting representatives of faith communities to offer policy advice.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently called the administration's desire to listen to religious leaders "refreshing and exceeding hopeful." The Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations (OGR) has already participated in a number of meetings on policy issues, she said, "and we only expect that to grow."

Maureen Shea, OGR director, told ENS that during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations OGR staff members attended meetings with Obama's staff on eco-justice, domestic needs, torture, reauthorization of foreign aid, immigration, and the Middle East. Those conversations have continued into the new administration, she said.

Jefferts Schori recently joined with other members of the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program to meet with Carol M. Browner, who is Obama's energy coordinator at the White House.

Obama announced on February 5 the formation of a 25-member President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council is meant to advise the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Formation of such an office is not an entirely new idea. In fact, Obama amended a January 29, 2001 executive order by then-President George W. Bush which established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

In creating the office, Obama said that its goal "will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."

Based on resolutions passed at General Convention and by Executive Council, OGR staff members advocate for the Episcopal Church's social-justice policies with Obama's administration and the U.S. Congress.

The advocacy work is seen as a function of living out the church's Baptismal Covenant vow to "strive for justice and peace."

"One way we seek to fulfill our Baptismal Covenant is by pursuing broad, social change through public policies that will bring about a more just and peaceful world," Shea explained. "We use our networks and our expertise, both with the administration and Congress, to change those policies and to have a strong voice in the public square."

OGR staff members have targeted portions of the Obama administration's agenda, both domestic and foreign, for special attention in the coming months.

Economic stimulus package
During the debate on the recently passed $787 billion stimulus package, OGR staffers made the administration and Congress aware of the Episcopal Church's stance on unemployment compensation; food stamps; Medicaid funding and the Women, Infants, Children nutrition program, along with Gulf Coast recovery efforts and Native American issues.

DeWayne Davis, OGR's domestic policy analyst, told ENS that in addition to what he called "needed spending" on programs such as food stamps, health care, and unemployment insurance that were included in the bill, "we are particularly pleased that there is $2.5 billion in assistance for Native Americans." The money will go to Indian health and hunger programs, reservation housing and other infrastructure, public safety, education and energy and water projects, according to a summary here. The bill also included another nearly $2.5 billion in bonding authority for tribes to use in economic development and school construction.

During the transition between administrations, Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy to the Presiding Bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, met with colleagues in Christian Churches Together in the USA to refine the group's three-year-old statement on domestic poverty. Epting said the group's message to the Obama administration was that the poor should not be left out of the economic recovery package.

Other domestic-policy issues
Other domestic priorities for the Episcopal Church include energy, climate change, and health-care reform, said DeWayne Davis. He added that each of those had connections in the stimulus package.

"Included in our message about energy is its link with climate change," Davis said. The Episcopal Church and other religious advocates asked the transition team and leadership at the House Energy and Commerce Committee to re-engage in United Nations international climate negotiations "to address global climate change and encourage Congress to let justice, stewardship, sustainability and sufficiency be the principles that guide any attempt to address climate change," he said.

Specifically, the Episcopal Church and others are calling for Congress to ensure that the average temperature does not rise more than two degrees Celsius and to protect those living in poverty from the impacts of climate change and climate legislation through focused resources to low-income people living in the U.S., Davis said.

Faith groups supporting health-care reform scored an early victory February 4 when Obama signed a 4.5-year reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) that had just been passed by the new Congress. The Episcopal Church has "firmly supported and advocated" for the reauthorization which expanded SCHIP to an additional 4 million children and extended coverage to immigrant mothers and children who had been in the U.S. less than five years, Davis said. In recognition of the church's role in supporting SCHIP, Shea was invited to the White House signing ceremony.

Passage of the SCHIP bill "will be considered the first step in the move for comprehensive health care reform," Davis said.

Advocates are working first to get coalitions of faith groups, unions, think tanks, and social policy advocates to agree on broad principles -- in this case for achieving comprehensive health care reform that provides universal access to health care -- to coordinate their message to the administration and Congress, according to Davis. "Although it is by no means clear that major health care reform will get done, all indications are that the administration and both the House and Senate are prepared to do the heavy lifting to pass a reform bill," Davis told ENS.

Middle East concerns
When Israel began bombing suspected Hamas targets in Gaza in late December, Jefferts Schori challenged both Israelis and Palestinians to end the violence. She called for a "comprehensive response to these attacks" and underscored the church's position that Obama should make Middle East peace a priority.

OGR's advocacy in the Gaza situation is rooted in the Episcopal Church's long-term stance. "Based on the policies of the Episcopal Church, we will continue our strong advocacy in support of a two-state solution with Jerusalem as their shared capital," Shea told ENS.

Shea said that the Episcopal Church's Middle East peace advocacy includes independent work as well as efforts with Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and the National Interreligious Initiative for Peace in the Middle East. One of those joint efforts occurred February 11 when a CMEP delegation met with Daniel Shapiro, the White House's National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation gave Shapiro a letter signed by 41 church leaders, including Jefferts Schori, calling on Obama "to work for a better future for all the children of Abraham in the land that is holy to us all."

Shea told ENS that "the need for a final status agreement that establishes a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is key not only for peace in the Holy Land, but in the whole region."

"Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians still see a two-state solution as the best solution to this tragic conflict, but all recognize that the opportunity for achieving it is narrowing and the United States must act now," she added.

OGR's efforts will focus on Congress as well as the White House, Shea said. "Congressional support is often a significant factor in how an administration conducts its foreign policy," she explained.

Immigration policy
The administration's Middle East policy has implications for immigration policy. Ana G. White, OGR's immigration and refugee policy analyst, told ENS that Iraqi refugees will be a "central issue" for the Obama administration. "Iraqi refugees and internally displaced individuals in Iraq continue to be a serious humanitarian crisis that affects the whole region," White said. She noted that during the campaign Obama said the U.S. will have an important role in this crisis.

Another resolution from the March 2007 Executive Council meeting (INC017) called for the church to urge the U.S. government to "address the severe humanitarian crisis of refugees and others being displaced by the ongoing violence resulting from the war in Iraq," by attempting to end the war, helping Iraq's neighbors and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees deal with refugees, finding ways for potential refugees to leave Iraq safely, and granting temporary protected status to Iraqi refugees in the U.S.

Overall, immigration reform, with its foreign- and domestic-policy implications, will soon face the administration and Congress. "There are high expectations for comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of the Obama administration," White said. The "key and most challenging" aspects of immigration reform, she predicted, will be a legalization program for the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants, the enforcement of immigration laws and the management of future immigration movements. White said passage of an immigration reform bill will need a bipartisan effort in Congress, combined with leadership from the Obama administration.

"Even if immigration reform is not accomplished in the short term, there are many changes that can come from the new administration, particularly with policies dealing with immigration enforcement," White said.

White said comprehensive immigration reform must include extending full recognition to the rights of immigrant workers; including the possibility of permanent status and eventual U.S. citizenship; addressing family immigration in what she called a "realistic way"; employing effective workplace and border enforcement strategies; creating ways for workers to enter the country legally for jobs; reducing backlogs of family-reunification applications; and creating "workable incentives" for the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. to register with the government.

The Episcopal Church's stance on immigration reform is guided by the policies set out in Resolution A017 passed by the 75th General Convention in 2006. The policy includes committing the church to welcome strangers "as a matter of Christian responsibility, to advocate for their well being and protection and to urge its members to resist legislation and actions which violate our fundamental beliefs as Christians, including the criminalization of persons providing humanitarian assistance to migrants."

The Episcopal Church is also working with the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC), a partnership of faith-based organizations committed to enacting fair and humane immigration reform. The Episcopal Church and members of the IIC organized a prayer vigil campaign of "Prayer, Renewal and Action on Immigration" coinciding with the first recess of this session of Congress from February 13-22. At more than 150 events across the country, people of faith reflected on the scriptural and spiritual roots of the work to support immigrants in this country, highlight the moral aspects of the immigration issue and remember the consequences of failed U.S. policies on immigration. Along with Methodist, Jewish, Evangelical, Lutheran, Catholic and other faith groups, Episcopalians across the country hosted and participated in these vigils.

Foreign policy issues
In the foreign-policy realm, International Policy Analyst Alex Baumgarten said three major issues will get OGR's attention: foreign-aid modernization and reform, the Cuban embargo and debt cancellation.

In the first instance, Baumgarten said what he called "a broad coalition of development advocates and implementers, think-tank organizations, faith-based groups and others" are in the early stages of advocating for a full-scale reform of the United States' foreign-assistance efforts. Our aim is to make the alleviation of poverty and disease as a "central, strategic objective of American foreign policy," he said.

Baumgarten said the United States' current foreign-aid system dates to 1961 and is "outdated and messy, with too many agencies in the U.S. government working at cross purposes, and a lack of an overall guiding strategy." The Episcopal Church and other advocates spent much of 2008 studying the issue. The Episcopal Church, along with Bread for the World, is co-chairing a religious working group on foreign-aid reform, and also participating in other discussions that include secular advocates and development agencies. The goal is to develop "broad principles for reform," which he said will be similar to those advocated during the 2008 debate on the U.S. farm bill. Those principles will guide advocacy work with House and Senate committees, and the administration, for redesigning the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, according to Baumgarten.

"We believe we have sympathetic audiences in several key committees in Congress and among members of the new administration, though we will be working in the first part of the year to increase awareness across-the-board in congressional offices," he said.

The Episcopal Church is one of more than 15 church bodies and faith groups that signed a statement on foreign-assistance reform that circulated on Capitol Hill during the week of February 15 outlining those principles.

Baumgarten also called for continued increases in funding for foreign-aid programs that fight poverty and deadly disease, consistent with the church's strong support for the Millennium Development Goals even as Congress and the White House work to address the financial strains facing the U.S.

"One of the aspects of the world financial crisis we've heard the least about in the media is that it will likely push nearly 50 million new people around the world into deadly poverty," Baumgarten said. "People are suffering everywhere, with the worst suffering being in the poorest countries, and part of being a global community is continuing to provide hope for our neighbors living in crushing poverty."

Baumgarten said that the past eight years have brought dramatic expansions in U.S. foreign aid focused on the world's poorest countries. These efforts include fighting AIDS and malaria, putting children in schools, and empowering women to start businesses that feed their families and promote economic growth in their communities.

During the presidential campaign, Baumgarten said, Obama stressed the need to continue and expand that trend, but his administration signaled that this expansion may have to wait because of the U.S. economic crisis. "The Episcopal Church and other faith advocates will strongly urge the administration to stand by the President's campaign pledge to continue growing America's compassionate response to our neighbors who are suffering and dying."

Debt cancellation is the third area of foreign-policy concern for OGR. The Jubilee Act, which provides debt cancellation to countries that need it to meet the Millennium Development Goals but have not yet qualified under the World Bank's and IMF's debt-relief initiatives, died at the end of the last Congress when the Senate failed to join the House in passing it.

Baumgarten said his office is working with the lead sponsors in the Senate -- Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Dick Lugar (R-Indiana) -- for reintroduction and passage in the new Congress. Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate and thus it is expected that he would sign the measure into law.

In terms of Cuba, the Episcopal Church -- as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church World Service, and other faith groups -- has targeted the Cuba trade embargo for removal or reform. Such reform is consistent with a long history of resolutions from the General Convention (most recently by way of Resolution C045 from the 73rd General Convention in 2000), and is strongly supported by the Episcopal Church of Cuba, a church of the Anglican Communion that receives shared primatial oversight from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Province of the West Indies.

Baumgarten said Obama, during last year's campaign, signaled a willingness to reassess the embargo that restricts U.S. economic ties with Cuba. Congress endorsed such a move in recent years, but faced opposition from the Bush White House.

Despite that congressional support, Baumgarten said, "we believe a great deal of advocacy work is necessary to ensure that promise becomes reality, especially given the complexities of the current political situation in Cuba and the various blocs of American citizens committed to the embargo's continuation."

If Congress and the Obama administration do not seek an immediate end to the entire embargo, Baumgarten said, then the Episcopal Church's priorities would include an end to the ban on American travel to Cuba, particularly for visits by religious groups, and the strident limits on financial remittances from American citizens to persons living in Cuba, and reform of the U.S. process for granting visas to Cuban citizens to travel to the U.S.

The federal government denies travel visas in nearly all situations, according to Baumgarten. These denials include religious-travel visas to Cuban clergy and laity who wish to travel to the U.S. for church-specific business.

"We also welcomed the announcement by President Obama regarding his intention to work with Congress to restore United States financial support for the U.N. Population Fund," Shea said. In late January, the president announced that he wants the U.S. to resume contributing to the program in which 180 other donor nations are working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.

"We are pleased that it appears that we will have a solid working relationship with the Obama administration," Shea concluded. "We will not always agree and we will be forthright when we do not, but knowing that our views will be heard is important as we face our many challenges both at home and abroad."