Faith leaders head to Capitol to promote values in state policy

Members of the state's diverse faith community created the Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center to press lawmakers on common concerns, including criminal justice reform and access to health care. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

A group of Georgia religious leaders from a variety of faiths are rallying together to influence the state’s approach to policies where they find common ground including criminal justice, access to health care and environmental causes.

The Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center was at the Capitol in early January to support a bill that would raise the age for juvenile offenders. It’s of the first piece of legislation the new organization is pressing lawmakers to pass.

The Jan. 6 meeting let the religious advocacy organization hear from the judges, lawmakers and other organizations that could help determine if 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent crimes will go through the juvenile court system becomes a reality.

The inaugural members of the interfaith nonprofit hope they find strength in numbers, joining together faith traditions to create tangible results by influencing legislation that affects the lives of Georgians who fall through cracks in the system.

The makeup of the 13-member board represent a variety of faiths, including Baptists and Lutherans, as well as other religions like Judaism and Islam.

Executive director Carole Maddux, an archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, said the center’s creation is inspired by a Virginia interfaith organization that’s 23,000 members strong.

Maddux makes it a point to attend most of the daily legislative sessions in the House and Senate and someone from the center is usually on hand for committee meetings where lawmakers  hash out legislation the interfaith members want to help shape. Maddux attended a public hearing in Rome last year to urge state officials to fully expand Medicaid instead of the more limited approach it is pursuing.

To help move policy makers to adopt their positions, board members encourage its congregations to contact lawmakers and speak out publicly in favor of legislative priorities, such as Raise the Age, restoring felon voting rights, Medicaid expansion and more.

“Our main values are love, justice, hospitality and mercy so we stick to issues that intersect with our core values,” Maddux said. “I imagine we’ll also be as busy outside of the legislative session as during it. An important piece of what we’ll be doing is helping people develop their own spiritual formation, by helping them see how their interfaith can affect their public lives.”

The center’s membership is also notable for the powerful political connections.

That includes Peter Berg, rabbi of Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, The Temple. He was named one the 50 most influential rabbis in the nation by Newsweek.

Rev. Raphael Warnock of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church is also on the board. His church in Atlanta is where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent nearly a decade as a pastor and now has a congregation of 6,000. This month he entered the race for a U.S. Senate seat and he’s already attracting high profile endorsements.

Prominent business and civic leaders on the center’s board, include nonprofit consultant and former IBM executive Ann Cramer, Grady Healthcare System Senior Vice President Howard Mosby and Arnall, Golden, Gregory Partner David Marmins

Bringing together people with a variety of beliefs to work together on policies they all agree are important shows differences can be bridged, said board member Soumaya Khalifa, the executive director of the nonprofit Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta.

The executive director of The Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center Carole Maddux, right, and board member Soumaya Khalifia met recently at The Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

“It brings so many different people from so many different walks of life and tradition to work together for the common good,” Khalifa said.

While the members are busy at hearings and meetings at the state Capitol, the center’s focus is to work for the good of all Georgians.

A key goal is to bring as many people into the fold by involving more religious leaders from communities across the state, said Chester Fontenot, an ordained Baptist minister and professor at Mercer University in Macon.

Those leaders are able to spread the word to their congregations to build awareness of policies lawmakers are crafting at the Gold Dome in Atlanta. That potential audience is huge. In Georgia, the population of black Baptists alone is more than 520,000.

“We have a pretty sizable number of people who are church members, so we want to know what their concerns are here in the state of Georgia and even in terms of national policy,” he said. “How can we address the needs of not only our congregations but also how can we bring a better life for people who are downtrodden, people who don’t have a voice?”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.