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Georgia Clergy Launch Faith-Based Campaign Against Gun Violence

April 14, 2015, 1:21 pm | Posted by

Atlanta, GA – A broad coalition of clergy and people of faith from across Georgia gathered at The Temple on Tuesday to kick off a campaign to curb gun violence and prevent more harmful gun legislation from passing in the state legislature.

The group was a fraction of the more than 300 clergy who are a part of Outcry: Faith Voices Against Gun Violence.

“It’s not easy for all of us with this much theological diversity to agree on anything. But on gun violence, we all agree. We know gun violence in Georgia stems from many places, and won’t be solved by just one action, “ said Rabbi Peter Berg, Senior Rabbi, The Temple. “This journey will be filled with obstacles and unexpected turns, but we’re ready to begin a plan of action that will make a difference in our communities.”

Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, Senior Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, said “I’m not a politician, just a preacher. But we believe that what you say on Sunday, you must live on Monday. We have metal detectors at our Statehouse. We ask our politicians who advocate for these gun laws, if they make sense in schools, why not in the legislature? It’s time to have an honest debate about this issue. It’s time to get serious. Our message is plain. The gun lobby and gun manufacturers should not own our state. So will be advocating throughout the summer and into next session for common sense gun laws.”

“This kind of violence and bloodshed we’re seeing is a revolt against love. As a father, I struggle to explain what I see on the news to my children. If you want to see if it passes a logic test, try explaining the logic of gun violence to a child,” said Bishop Robert Wright, Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

“We believe that the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is fear, and we strongly oppose the ways in which those who profit most from the sale of weapons prey most on the fears of our citizens,” said Rev. Dr. David Bartlett, Theologian in Residence, Trinity Presbyterian Church.

“God is on everyone’s side. As we go about our work, whatever we do, we do knowing that God’s will is that none should be lost to violence,” said Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams, retired minister, Presbyterian Church (USA).

Rabbi Loren Lapidus, Associate Rabbi at The Temple said, “Through our understanding of God and Scripture, we know that gun violence is a moral issue. And our faith compels us to take action.”

Over the next year, Outcry is planning to grow their coalition, meet with lawmakers to advocate for responsible firearm legislation, and engage congregations through a banner campaign, educational events, and prayer.

Outcry has been played a key role in the campaign for common sense gun laws, including protections for houses of worship in last year’s “guns everywhere” law, and with this year’s HB 492. The coalition seesTuesday’s launch as the first step in a long, faith-centered journey toward safer communities.

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Can Francis break the US climate change stalemate?

April 7, 2015, 11:05 am | Posted by

This commentary was published in Global Pulse magazine on April 6.

A resurgent libertarian ideology drowns out authentic debate and progress

For decades now, scientists have raised increasingly urgent warnings about human-induced climate change. Headlines grow more ominous every day. Global carbon emissions are at record levels. Water shortages, including in the western United States, have reached crisis proportions. The Pentagon expects climate change to intensity global instability. The world’s poor—those least responsible for the carbon emissions in the first place—are already paying the heaviest price. Even in the face of this stark reality, a growing number of Americans say global warming is not occurring, or rank the issue low in importance. This is both dispiriting and unsurprising. A well-funded climate denial industry, politicians nestled in their pockets, casts a cloud of doubt over the overwhelming scientific consensus that our world faces a threat of existential proportions.

Enter, Pope Francis.

If anyone can help break the stalemate over climate change and reach an audience far beyond the progressive choir, it’s a global leader with approval ratings  most politicians crave and the moral gravitas they usually lack. The first pope in history to take his name from Francis of Assisi – the saint most associated with poverty and reverence of nature – is working on a highly anticipated encyclical focused on the environment, expected to be released in early summer. When it comes to the Catholic Church, Francis is not exactly a maverick on this issue.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both addressed care for the environment as a profound moral issue and called for action to tackle climate change. “The depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions,” said Pope John Paul II back in 1990. He applauded “a new ecological awareness” that “ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” for taking steps to make the Vatican the first carbon neutral state in the world, also warned against delay. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?” he asked in 2010.

While Pope Francis is clearly following in the tradition of his predecessors, he will make a much bigger splash by becoming the first pope in history to issue a lengthy encyclical about the environment. From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has linked what he calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality” with ecological devastation. “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it,” he told a meeting of social movements last fall. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is one of several Vatican officials helping Pope Francis shape his encyclical. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related, and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today,” Turkson said in a recent speech.

Expectations are high.

The encyclical will be released in advance of Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations in September and before high-stakes climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the year. “We have been negotiating this issue at the political level for more than 20 years, and we look to Pope Francis to untangle this stalemate, because this issue is beyond merely a political issue,” Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ climate commissioner told Democracy Now. “It is a profound moral issue that affects the whole world.” Sano, whose country was devastated by a typhoon in 2013 that killed more than 7,000 people, thinks the pope’s encyclical will be a “game changer for the international process.”

A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Conservatives?

The first pope from Latin America will likely find his toughest audience in the United States, a country he will visit for the first time this fall. Some conservatives are already throwing punches. The pope is part of “the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress,” writes Stephen Moore, a Catholic who is an economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.  Robert George of Princeton University, a prominent Catholic philosopher, argues that the pope should steer clear of an area where—in his own misguided view—the science is unsettled.

Powerful Catholic politicians are climate change skeptics. Speaker John Boehner, who invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress, routinely blasts the Obama administration for “job killing” environmental policies. “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical,” the graduate of Xavier University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, has scoffed.

Prospective GOP presidential candidates are also singing from a different hymnal than Pope Francis.  Sen. Marco Rubio has denied that human activity is driving climate change and saysmeasures to reign in emissions warming the planet will “destroy our economy.” Jeb Bush, a leading GOP presidential contender whose conversion to Catholicism was recently profiled in the New York Times, concedes global warming “may be real” and took steps to protect the Everglades from off-shore drilling, but is nonetheless a self-described “skeptic.”

Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate and a likely contender in 2016 who frequently invokes his Catholic faith, thinks any human role in climate change is “patently absurd.” He strongly opposed an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting mercury emissions from coal fired plants, a ruling lauded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently announced his candidacy at Liberty University – founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — has mocked “global warming alarmists” who he compares to “modern day Flat Earth proponents.”

Some vocal evangelicals, a pillar of the Republican Party and the religious group most skeptical of climate change, are preparing for a fight. “The pope should back off,” says Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an organization that has called the environmental movement “un-biblical.” Critics of Pope Francis need a basic theology lesson when it comes to the environment. The pope isn’t cribbing talking points from Greenpeace or sprinkling holy water on a progressive agenda. His views are rooted in a traditional religious commitment to protect the gift of God’s creation, a biblical call to be good stewards, and respect for the sanctity of life and human dignity. “A Christian who does not protect creation,” Francis says bluntly, “is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”

Environmental justice and prudent action to address climate change should not simply be a progressive cause. Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and later Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, understood that stewardship and conservation matter. After all, classic conservative philosophy begins with preserving what is good, and surely our fragile environment is an inheritance we don’t want to squander. As Pope Francis himself said, it’s not just a legacy from the past, but a loan for our children. Conservatism traditionally casts a skeptical eye on the notion of progress at any price, and rejects a view of human flourishing that is only measured by the standards of crass consumerism.

A resurgent libertarian ideology is drowning out the voice of authentic conservatism. It has made an idol of free-markets and a virtue of self-centered hooliganism. The bottom line is protecting children from deadly toxins, safeguarding limited natural resources and transitioning to a more sustainable energy policy should all be part of a pro-life, conservative agenda.

If Republicans can’t stomach listening to progressives in Washington, perhaps they might take a cue from the world’s most popular religious leader?

John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. Anthony Annett is a Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor for the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. 

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Georgia Clergy Applaud Defeat of “Religious Freedom” Bill

April 3, 2015, 12:36 pm | Posted by

Atlanta, GA – Today, Georgia Clergy United Against Discrimination issued the following statement on behalf of the more than 250 Georgia faith leaders who voiced their opposition to divisive “religious freedom” legislation:

We are relieved and heartened that Georgia state legislators have heard our call to back away from legislation that would have legalized discrimination in the name of religion.  Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans, but religious freedom does not give us the right to harm or exclude others.  This is a victory for all Georgians. Today we have chosen to embrace a spirit of love and self-discipline over and against a spirit of division and exclusion. We’ve chosen to work for the common good, rather than sow seeds of intolerance.

A diverse coalition of Georgia clergy played an integral role in helping to defeat the RFRA bills. In addition to issuing a letter signed by more than 250 religious leaders, the clergy convened press conferences, wrote op-eds, ran newspaper ads and lobbied lawmakers. They made it clear that this dangerous legislation was not representative of Georgia’s faith community, and was fundamentally at odds with their values.

Media coverage of their actions included:

Clergy Speak Out On ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Proposed In Ga, Associated Press

Faith leaders denounce religious liberty bill ahead of hearing, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Supporters tout “religious liberty” bill, as clergy criticize it, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Baptist clergy oppose ‘religious liberty’ bill, Baptist News Global

‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Debate Heats Up At Georgia Capitol, WABE

Georgia Baptist leaders call ‘religious freedom’ bill a ‘religious manipulation’ bill, Georgia Voice

Clergy come out against ‘religious freedom’ bill, Project Q Atlanta

 

 

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Georgia Clergy Respond to Dangerous New Gun Legislation

April 1, 2015, 1:47 pm | Posted by

Atlanta, GA – Today, a diverse group of clergy responded to the Georgia House’s passage of HB 492. The bill would further expand the state’s “guns everywhere” law, eliminating the ability of state agencies – like school boards – to regulate gun possession on their property, abolishing the fingerprint requirement for gun license renewals and reducing the discretion of probate judges to decide whether to issue gun licenses.

Georgia’s faith community is deeply concerned by this bill and the risk it poses. As they continue to organize and engage around gun legislation and its impacts on public safety, they hope that Governor Deal will consider vetoing this dangerous proposal.

The following statements are from prominent Georgia faith leaders responding to the passage of HB 492:

Bishop Robert C. Wright, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta:

“HB 492 makes our gun laws more lax. This bill solves nothing. It only creates the potential for more gun violence and increases political polarization in Georgia.”

Rabbi Neil Sandler, Senior Rabbi at Ahavath Achim Synagogue:

“The recently passed bill will tie the hands of local school boards, among other potentially helpful bodies, when it comes to regulating the possession of guns on school property.  We speak of our places of worship as ‘sanctuaries.’  When it comes to guns and the well – being of our children, shouldn’t our schools also be ‘sanctuaries’ where the most precious among us, our children, are safe and protected?”

Rev. Damon P. Williams, Senior Pastor at Providence Missionary Baptist Church:

“Expanding the ‘guns everywhere’ law is another step in the wrong direction that makes it harder to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to the community.”

Rev. Matthew Ruffner, Associate Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church:

“Once again the legislature has shown reckless indifference to the dangers posed by irresponsible ‘guns everywhere’ laws. I’m asking Gov. Deal to pause and consider the consequences of making it easier for dangerous people to walk our streets armed.”

 

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Ohio Faith Leaders Urge Support for Federal Crackdown on Predatory Lending

April 1, 2015, 12:38 pm | Posted by

Columbus, OH  –  Today, faith leaders and consumer advocates joined together to support strong regulations to rein in the predatory lending practices of payday lenders. The press conference follows proposed draft rules by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that call for reigning in short-term loans that often have interest rates in excess of 400 percent.

In 2008, Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot issue to cap interest rates at 28 percent.  However, the payday industry has found loopholes to continue to take advantage of Ohio borrowers.

“The payday lending crowd found a loophole and things got even worse,’’ explained Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio and who led the 2008 campaign. “Voters have made themselves clear by a two-to-one margin that they want to see regulation on these short term, high interest rate loans. We are happy to see the CFPB is taking some action.This issue requires a comprehensive national solution.”

Others who spoke include, Sister Roberta Miller, Dominican Sisters of Peace who said, “I have seen students who sometimes have two or three jobs struggle with this debt. And my own faith believes that this debt is wrong.”

“Many of you may know that Pope Francis believes that when a family gets caught up in debt and they can’t provide the clothing, food and shelter that they need. This is not Christian, and not even human,” said Miller.

Faith Leaders across Ohio joined together to release a letter signed by nearly 100 clergy calling for an end to predatory lending practices. “Scripture is replete with condemnations of those who prey upon the poor, vulnerable and weak people,” says the letter, in part.

Rev. Deniray Mueller, of Columbus said that, “Ohio clergy have united in sending a letter to the Bureau and the legislators to try and make them realize they have an obligation to end these immoral lending practices. If they are Christian, then they need to listen to their moral compass.”

Participants in the press conference said they will work to strengthen and improve the proposed new federal rules.

The text of the letter from faith leaders is below. The letter and full list of signers can be found here.

As faith leaders, we hold diverse views on many issues, but we are united in the belief that usury is a sin. We therefore oppose the predatory practices of payday lenders who charge up to 400% interest on loans that trap struggling families, seniors, low-wage workers and veterans in a cycle of debt that leads to poverty, suffering and bankruptcy. Scripture is replete with condemnations of those who prey upon poor, vulnerable and weak people.

Right now, abuses such as exorbitant interest rates, extending loans to people who clearly cannot repay them, and directly siphoning money from borrowers’ bank accounts even if they can’t afford food and shelter are perfectly legal. This is unconscionable, and it must change.

While payday lenders claim to provide quick emergency loans that help people get out of financial trouble, the reverse is true. The average payday loan borrower is still paying off debt six months after taking out her first payday loan. More than half of all payday loans get renewed or rolled over so many times that the borrower eventually repays twice the amount borrowed in the first place. All too often, borrowers’ credit is left in ruins. These loans lead to poverty, not security.

In 2008, the Ohio faith community came together to champion reform of the egregious practices of payday lenders in our state. We supported passage of the Ohio Short-Term Loan Act and then defended it at the ballot. But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Act was not sufficient to regulate payday lenders, and payday lending has grown. Families again often face over 400% interest rates as unscrupulous lenders take advantage of arcane lending laws. 

We call on you to urge the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to issue a strong regulation in order to end the payday loan debt trap and support legislation capping the rates on payday loans at 36% annualized interest. These are two complementary and important steps that help protect Ohioans from predatory debt.

Many issues you face as an elected official are morally complex, with competing legitimate moral arguments on both sides. But there is no moral ambiguity about whether to end predatory payday lending practices. We urge you to fulfill your responsibility as a public servant.

 

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