Anyone who thinks faith and politics don't intersect—or collide—hasn't spent much time around the Idaho Statehouse. In her 2014 essay, "The Power and the Glory," Boise State University history professor Dr. Jill Gill wrote that religion "has operated as both a cultural divider and a uniter, helping to determine which of its citizens should be treated as part of an in-group or an out-group by including or excluding, according to religious determinations."
So, it was fitting the Interfaith Equality Coalition gathered on the steps on the Idaho Statehouse on Jan. 7 in what it called "Draw the Circle Wide," mere hours before the Idaho Legislature gaveled in its 2018 session.
"We're a coalition of faith communities to just offer our prayers for compassion, justice and equality," said Rev. Sara LaWall, minister at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. "Our platform is built on, let's say, four pillars: religious respect, economic justice, climate care and human rights."
LaWall said that although some people think religion and politics should steer far clear of one another, they will inevitably mix.
"When we talk about a common good or a shared humanity, there's a deep intersection in the political environment. We have to be agents for change," said LaWall. "We're intent on inviting as many people as possible into a circle which we draw wider and wider. All are welcome. If we're not giving public voice to that and if we're not being a voice for world clarity, then we're not living fully to the call of our faith traditions."
When those traditions clash at the Idaho Statehouse, however, it's not pretty. The most recent conflict, which is expected to rear its head again during the 2018 legislative session, was over religious-based exemptions from civil or criminal liability. Proponents insist it's a matter of a constitutional right for people to heed their religious beliefs and not look to modern medicine for help, no matter how dire the health scare, if they choose. Opponents say the protection from civil or criminal liability has resulted in the deaths of at least 182 Idaho children because of faith-healing exemptions. The debate hit a crescendo in March 2017, when lawmakers proposed a "compromise bill" to existing Idaho law, but the measure found little support from either side of the issue.
"We can respect religious freedom and a parent's right to prayer while also demanding that children receive life-saving medical care," said Bruce Wingate, founder of the Protect Idaho Kids Foundation. "But we can't give up. Beginning with a march on the Capitol [on Monday, Feb. 19], we'll be back at the Statehouse this year."
Meanwhile, on the Capitol steps Jan. 7, Rev. LaWall spoke to about 100 attendees.
"We're here to promote human dignity, equality and justice for all, particularly for those on the margins and the most vulnerable among us: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the children, the undocumented, those who need healthcare, those who are marginalized because of their identity," she said. "We're committed to raising our collective voice and presence here at the center of our state government, the people's house."
Hours later, Pastor Tom Dougherty, senior pastor at Cloverdale Church of God and official chaplain of the Idaho House of Representatives, lead lawmakers in prayer inside the Statehouse chambers.
"What a great day it is, a day to make Idaho greater," Dougherty said in the opening prayer of the 2018 Idaho Legislature. "God, we ask that you be with this session today. Thanks, and praise in Jesus' name."
It will take more than prayer for some faith leaders to be heard during the 2018 legislative session, though. When asked what her level of optimism was for the 2018 session, Rev. LaWall smiled and took a long pause before she said, "That's an unfair question." After saying she needed a moment to think, she added, "How about if I say I'm cautiously optimistic. I've been around long enough to know that we aren't likely to see a lot of legislation that aligns with the kind of hopes and values we're talking about today. It's a bit like grains of sand on a scale. We just keep adding those grains. Then a few more grains the next year. A few more. A few more. The scales will begin to tip and, at least, balance out. So, in that way, I have some optimism."