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Lobbying for the Lord

Even liberals do it. A little.


FRIENDLY SOMETIMES: Larry Page and ACLU lobbyist Rita Sklar.
  • FRIENDLY SOMETIMES: Larry Page and ACLU lobbyist Rita Sklar.

The Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council started out in 1899 as the Arkansas Anti-Saloon League, a temperance group. The drys of that day were part of the larger Progressive movement, but temperance came to be associated with conservatism over time, and the Faith and Ethics Council now represents evangelical conservative church groups, according to its executive director, Larry Page.

The Faith and Ethics Council and the Family Council are the two big players — if we may use that word — of the Religious Right lobby in Arkansas. If Jerry Cox of the Family Council is better known at the moment, it's probably because Page has stayed reasonably clear of some of the hot-button issues that Cox grabs hold of. Much of the Faith and Ethics Council's membership is Baptist, and Page seems more comfortable with traditional Baptist concerns like drinking and gambling. Both Page and Cox campaigned, unsuccessfully, against the lottery amendment, but Page says his organization “was not heavily involved in Act 1,” the explosive Family Council proposal to prohibit unmarried cohabiting couples from fostering or adopting children. Page says he personally is more interested in encouraging Christian families to adopt and foster, and in getting the church to do more to help these families. He and his wife have adopted two children and fostered others.

While Page and the Faith and Ethics Council may not have been heavily involved with Act 1, many Baptist churches and churchgoers were. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention adopted resolutions supporting Act 1 and opposing the lottery. And the Faith and Ethics Council's website encourages opposition to the “homosexual agenda,” which the Council says includes redefinition of marriage and acceptance of homosexuality as normal. The F and E Council also lists several of what it calls “homosexual myths,” including “Homosexuals are born that way” and “Homosexuals are an oppressed minority who need special protection.”

In the early days of the current legislative session, Page was keeping an eye on lottery legislation, and standing ready to oppose any bills to legalize medical marijuana, or to change the state's local option laws in any way that would help the wets.

Page was born in Benton, and except for four years in the service and two years in college in New Mexico, he's spent all his life in Arkansas. He was trained as a lawyer, and lawyered for awhile, but the Faith and Ethics Council seemed a good way to blend his interests in faith and public policy.

Both Page and Cox are accessible to journalists — accessibility is part of their job — but some in the media see Page as more of a regular-fellow sort. There's a certain reserve about Cox; a hint of school-teacher superiority, perhaps. In a legislative committee room, Cox probably wouldn't be mistaken for a legislator himself. Page might well be. Incidentally, while the two often labor on the same side of public issues, separate interviews with them leave the impression that they're not real tight.  

Most of the faith-based lobbyists working the Arkansas legislature are from the political Right, but the Left is not bereft of Christian soldiers. Rev. Steve Copley, a Methodist minister and political activist, is among the most prominent. He's worked with labor groups, among others, and chaired the Arkansas Interfaith Committee For Worker Justice, a coalition that succeeded in raising the minimum wage. He now chairs the Arkansas Friendship Coalition, which hopes to prevent passage of legislation detrimental to immigrants. The Coalition fears discrimination against newcomers and believes that immigration policy should be set at the national level, not by the separate states.

Religious Right lobbyists don't deal much with questions about separation of church and state. Most of them don't believe in the concept, and if someone suggests that preachers stay out of politics, they're apt to note the political involvement of black preachers like Martin Luther King Jr.

As a liberal, Copley sometimes has to confront the church-state question, though it's not something he agonizes over.

“My understanding of church and state is that the state is not to establish a state religion,” Copley said. “The Constitution didn't exclude people with religion from speaking in the public square. All voices should be heard in the public square, including the religious voice. We all make decisions on what's right or wrong based on our values. My values include religion.”

Copley's had no contact with Cox, other than seeing him around the Capitol. He said he'd “had discussions” with Page. In response to a question, he said the discussions weren't hostile.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a liberal group very active at the legislature, sometimes enlists “the faith community” in its efforts to help low- and middle-income families.

Naturally, the Protestant Christian voice is the loudest at the Arkansas legislature. An inquiry to the Little Rock Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church about lobbying was never really answered, but a check of registered lobbyists showed the Diocese with nine, including the bishop, Anthony B. Taylor, so they can field a sizeable force, if needed.

Presumably, they diocesan lobbyists would be opposed to abortion, but the bishop recently encouraged Catholics to consider war, domestic violence, racism and poverty as “pro-life” issues, along with abortion and euthanasia.

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