Religious Liberals Take Lead In Massachusetts Health Debate

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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As Democrats debate the proper role of faith in public life, liberal religious activists and organizations in Massachusetts are mobilizing to ensure that a new state health plan is offered to residents at a low cost.

From Seventh-day Adventists praying in a former Jewish synagogue in Roxbury to members of Boston’s gleaming Temple Israel, the members of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization — a decade-old 65-member coalition of faith groups, unions and social service agencies that includes seven synagogues and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston — are holding dozens of “affordability workshops” in an effort to persuade the state to hold down the costs of the new insurance policies.

The effort, the coalition’s latest step in a multiyear health care campaign, comes as Massachusetts grapples with the implementation of its historic health care reform law, passed in April, which requires nearly all state residents to have health insurance by July 2007. The new plan — a mix of subsidies and new requirements for both individual and corporate contributions to health care — has been hailed as an out-of-the-box win, both for the state’s Democratic legislature and

for Republican Governor and possible 2008 presidential contender Mitt Romney. For activists, the push for the new law and the debate over its implementation have provided a chance to prove that religious groups can be marshalled behind liberal issues at a time when faith is more commonly associated with conservative social causes, such as the campaign against same-sex marriage.

“It’s a tremendous story about the power of the pews to organize for justice — and particularly, the Jewish pews,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who helped head the interfaith coalition from his post as a religious leader of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Boston. Pesner recently assumed leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism’s new Just Congregations initiative, which aims to replicate the successes achieved in Boston.

Within Massachusetts’s wider health care coalition, the religious activists are known for contributing both manpower and moral power. Religious volunteers gathered more than 40,000 of the 110,000 petition signatures that were collected to force a universal health care state ballot initiative in the event that the legislature failed to pass acceptable reform. Religious leaders also have publicly been framing the issue in moral terms. After the bill’s passage, the president of the interfaith coalition, the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, said in a statement that “there is no question that a spirit of generosity and respect for the dignity of the person is written throughout this bill.”

With their willingness to inject religion into public policy debates from a liberal vantage point, Boston’s religious leaders have waded into a national debate, currently bubbling on the left, about whether to counter the right with liberal religious rhetoric or fight to keep all references to faith out of the public discourse.

Last month, Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama sparked the latest round of debate with a speech, delivered at a conference of the liberal religious group Call to Renewal. Obama chastised fellow Democrats for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people” and insisted that the party compete for the support of religiously observant Americans. He also called for liberals to moderate their opposition to faith-based initiatives and to some expressions of religion in public life.

“It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God,’” Obama said.

The speech drew some negative reactions from liberal bloggers and from church-state watchdogs, including the Anti-Defamation League, but was also praised by many on the left.

“I cannot overplay the extent to which the Obama speech is still on people’s minds,” said Mik Moore, director of communications of the anti-poverty organization Jewish Funds for Justice. Moore is the blogger behind jspot.org.

He said that discussions of the relationship between faith and politics featured prominently at a convention of about 50 progressive religious bloggers, held at New Jersey’s Montclair State University last weekend. The convention was co-sponsored by his organization and the Washington, D.C.-based organization, Faith in Public Life.

In an interview with the Forward, Pesner said that he agreed with much of Obama’s analysis: “I really say to progressives, it’s time to get over” any fears about religious rhetoric or activism in the public square.

“For some reason, liberals get uncomfortable when people act on their deeply held beliefs together, because there’s a language of faith undergirding those beliefs. But in a democracy, we don’t and we shouldn’t have a litmus test about where those beliefs come from,” the rabbi said. He added, “The progressive side may get uncomfortable because we disagree with the positions that people on the religious right take… but that doesn’t mean that in a good, functioning democracy, people shouldn’t organize around the things they believe in.”

At the same time, Pesner and the other leaders of the interfaith coalition are quick to point out that its membership is broad based. Individual members include Democrats and Republicans, and participating congregations and organizations fall at all points on the religious spectrum. While Pesner’s flock at Temple Israel has fought particularly hard for same-sex marriage, Hamilton, the pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, has said publicly that he opposes it.

“One of the great things about being part of [the coalition] both from a faith standpoint and a political standpoint is that you’re permitted to be who you are,” Hamilton said in an interview with the Forward. “We agree to disagree on narrow stuff, and we agree to work independently on those things, because that’s who we are, but we agree to work together on the broad stuff.”

The Jewish community’s work in the coalition appeared to pay off in the fight to stop Christian denominations from divesting from Israel. Last year, for example, when the General Synod of the United Church of Christ took up the issue of divestment from Israel, it was Boston-area clergy involved in the interfaith coalition that led the effort to defeat the initiative.

“We who have had good, strong relationships with the Jewish community that go back a long ways were sort of pulling the reins on this,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor of Boston’s Old South Church. “We said, ‘this is a nuanced matter and let’s talk about selective investment rather than divestment.’”

The interfaith coalition and its partners in the larger, ad hoc coalition — dubbed Affordable Care Today! — that pushed for the new health care law are carefully monitoring its implementation. Of the 515,000 uninsured people in Massachusetts, about 200,000 are living at or below 300% of the federal poverty line — $29,399 for a single person — which will entitle them to buy subsidized health care plans through the state. By law, Massachusetts is required to determine by October 1 what benefits those plans will include and how much they will cost.

While Romney has suggested that the plans will likely be available for $30 to $140 per month, the coalition is pushing for $15 to $30 per month, according to Brian Rosman, policy director of the not-for-profit group Health Care for All. Because the new law also specifies that all Massachusetts residents must purchase heath care plans as long as they are “affordable” — or be penalized on their income taxes — the legislature also has tasked a state agency with defining affordability more generally by the year’s end.

Members of the interfaith coalition say that they plan to inject moral values into what is sure to be a series of technical debates in the coming months about what a decent health care package should include and how much it should cost.

“We want to make sure the definition that the state comes up with for affordability is truly affordable,” Hamilton said. “What we want the state to do is deliver on those promises.”






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