Religion keeps
strong political

Christian, Muslim and interfaith
groups lobby on gambling
and other issues

State legislators had office visits early in this session from a newly organized constituency, the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii, not content to wait for a committee hearing to share its positions on gambling, juvenile prison reform and campaign spending reform.

Elected officials are acquainted with another church-backed group, the Hawaii Christian Coalition, which testifies on such issues as same-gender unions, physician-assisted death and abortion, and prepares a report card on politicians that carries weight in the voting booth.

Politicians have found themselves put on the spot at an "Accountability Assembly," asked to go beyond a campaign promise and sign a pledge. The Faith Action for Community Equity group took Gov. Linda Lingle to task last year about fulfilling her promise of open-door accessibility.

And new on the scene, a local chapter of the American Muslim Council is rallying the local Islamic community to register to vote and to become familiar faces to island politicians by speaking out on issues. "Traditionally our community was out of the loop -- we pray and we go home," said M. Ali Khan, of Chicago, executive director of the national organization, who was here this month to introduce local Muslims into active participation in the political process.

"In the past we would focus on foreign policy," Khan said. "Today we focus on civil rights. The Patriot Act is upon us." Khan spoke to state and city officials about Muslim concerns about being targeted in security and law enforcement operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In his home state of Illinois, Muslims are backing a proposed law to prohibit racial profiling.

"Muslim values are conservative values. Islam is based on the family," he said, and the local Islamic community opposed same-sex marriage when the issue was put on the ballot in 1998. "But we are diverse on issues. We are strong civil rights partners with the ACLU," Khan said of the 10-year-old national organization. Some Muslims, including local residents, have reservations about the council, which with other Muslim groups endorsed George W. Bush in 2000. The council is struggling now to rebuild after the arrest of a former leader for illegal dealings with Libya damaged its image.

The Faith Action for Community Equity group has organized low-income areas to flex their political muscle.

The Muslims will find themselves testifying on the same side of the same-sex union issue with the Hawaii Christian Coalition, one of the community forces that have persuaded legislators against legal status for homosexual unions. The coalition has operated here for 10 years, a branch of the national organization representing conservative Christians.

"From the time the country was formed, communities were built up around churches, which were the logical voice of a community," said chairman Garret Hashimoto. About 100 local churches belong to the coalition.

His office rallies island church members through its Web site. Hashimoto said he sends out the alert when "hot topics" are scheduled for hearing, such as the recent brief revival of a civil union bill.

He is also watching a bill detailing measures a physician may take for patients' pain management, which he sees as a way to slip physician-assisted suicide into law. "We're against it. We value human life," Hashimoto said. "Hitler started that way -- the defective, the lame were not considered human beings. We have to learn from history."

Another "perennial" that Hashimoto expects to fight is the move to legalize gambling in Hawaii. "It is a matter of moral perspective, the effects on a family-based community."

Hashimoto said: "I try to develop relationships with politicians. I want to meet on a one-on-one basis; that's how I do business."

The coalition's most powerful political tool is its voter guide, due out in August. "We send questionnaires to candidates on moral issues and print their response," Hashimoto said. Patterned on the national coalition's report card on candidates, it is available when voters enter the polling booth, a form of endorsement.

The Christian Coalition would find itself on the same side of the gambling issue -- but not on other matters -- with a new religious alliance. "We don't need to bring into Hawaii another addictive activity," said Judy Rantala at an Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii January press conference at the state Capitol.

Alliance members from Christian, Buddhist, Reform Jewish and Unitarian congregations distributed a packet of position papers to lawmakers that:

>> Affirmed that same-sex civil marriages "do not endanger any of our religious traditions" and that government has no business "defining the sanctity of some traditions to the exclusion of others."

>> Backed the individual's right to choose "death with dignity." The stand by Religious Leaders for Assisted Dying is that "those who oppose assisted dying based on their own moral, ethical or religious beliefs simply need not participate."

>> Called for refocusing the juvenile justice system by developing a network to provide rehabilitation for youthful drug abusers instead of imprisonment.

>> Joined the Hawaii Clean Elections Coalition campaign to offer a new way to fund campaigns that cut the tie between special-interest money and elected officials.

"One of differences about the alliance is that we are not all on the same side of the same issue, but we want to find a way for people to have respect for each other and not be divided by wedge issues," said the Rev. Vaughn Beckman, president. "The idea is listening to people and looking at them from their perspective, not my own. We have such diversity in the religious community. We have to find a way to walk in this century."

No group can claim zeal more authoritatively than F.A.C.E., which has organized low-income neighborhoods to flex their political muscle during its seven years. Its victories include getting the city to provide driver's license tests in a variety of languages, getting traffic slowed on Pali Highway and the Waiau interchange, and getting federal funding for renovation of Kalihi Valley Homes.

"We cut our teeth on bus shelters. ... We got the mayor to put up shelters in Waipahu and Kalihi where people stand out in the rain," said the Rev. Alan Mark, president. "Mayor Harris ran with it and got federal funding."

"Ours are quality-of-life issues ... health care, housing," Mark said of the grass-roots group that now has 45,000 members from 24 Christian, Unitarian, Jewish and Buddhist congregations.

One of their goals this year is to get affordable prescription drugs for the uninsured, a matter before the state Legislature.

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