With the start of a new year, state lawmakers will return to their chambers for a new legislative session. Christians should pay attention to bills under consideration. Although the debates and tweets in Washington, D.C., capture more media attention, laws passed in statehouses often have a more direct and immediate impact on the lives of those in our communities. When people do not pay attention and advocate, legislators can sneak in provisions for special interest donors at the expense of the common good.
Already it seems obvious there are a number of important issues to track in 2018. For instance, Kansans will soon have a new governor once the U.S. Senate confirms Sam Brownback as the next U.S. Ambassador-at- Large for International Religious Freedom. It’s critical that the new administration hears the concerns of Christians. We shouldn’t wait until we’re upset to show up. Communicating priorities early — and letting lawmakers know when we appreciate something good they did — gives our voices more credibility when we push them to reject a bad bill. And there will be plenty of bad bills!
In Missouri, a key issue lawmakers will likely address is a repeal of one of last year’s bad bills, SB 43. That new law makes it easier for employers, landlords and others to discriminate The sponsor of the bill wrote it after he was sued for discrimination as his rent-to-own business refused to rent to residents in a majority black neighborhood and a supervisor regularly used the ‘n-word’ and other racial slurs. Now, that state senator will be able to discriminate without worrying so much about lawsuits.
But there’s a hitch. Last fall, the public learned that the administration of Governor Eric Greitens had been warned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in February — before lawmakers passed the bad bill — that the bill would put Missouri out of compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws. Yet, that warning was not communicated to lawmakers. Then, in July, the Greitens administration received another HUD letter noting that since Greitens had signed the bill into law, Missouri would lose $500,000 per year in federal funding to the Fair Housing Assistance Program unless lawmakers repeal or substantially change the law before March 1. Even that warning was not communicated by the administration until journalists discovered the HUD letters in October.
The same lawmakers who passed SB 43 and the same governor who signed it will now need to clean up their mess. I’m hopeful they will. But it will help if people of faith speak out and demand their lawmakers act quickly to repeal SB 43 and restore Missouri’s legal protections against discrimination.
Thankfully, many Christians were on the record last year opposing SB 43 before its passage. Wallace Hartsfield Sr., pastor emeritus of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., was among those voices. Hartsfield, who is black, was joined by Missouri NAACP leaders and other clergy members in denouncing the bill.
“This bill makes it easy to discriminate, and those in a protected class would no longer have any protection,” Hartfield declared during a June rally. “We can’t afford to take Missouri’s civil rights back to 1961. I’m almost 90. I do not want to live through this tragedy twice. I will hope and I will pray that things will get better in our state.”
Sadly, the Missouri Baptist Convention passed a resolution in October — after the letters from HUD became public — praising SB 43 due to a religious clause, but remained silent about the weakening of racial and other discrimination protections. If we cheer something we think helps us even while it hurts our brothers and sisters, that’s not the promotion of religious liberty but, at best, selfish indifference like that of those who walked past the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
The passage of SB 43 didn’t put me at risk. But I cannot remain silent while my neighbors face discrimination simply because God made them another color. Unlike rich donors just buying favors for themselves, as Christians we must advocate for our neighbors, for ‘the least of these,’ for the common good.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.