How Christians Can Help Save Democracy

By Sheila Freed

The research branch of The Economist magazine has for the past several years published an annual report about the health of democracies around the world.  In 2017 they downgraded the United States from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.”   We knew that, one might say, and it’s certainly true that most Americans report dissatisfaction with the way our government functions.  The Economist uses statistics for its analysis, and has documented declining faith in the functioning of government and a significant drop in political participation.  In vernacular terms, we can say we think government is beyond fixing, so we’re dropping out.  Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong approach because it allows the worst abuses of government to grow.

I was stunned recently to hear Professor Fred Lokken, chair of the Political Science Department at Truckee Meadows Community College, say that he tells his young students, “You will live under facism in your lifetime.”  That is a really grim prediction, and it derives in part from what he described as the lack of an engaged electorate.  This is true at all age levels, but especially students.  Under-30 people are often very good at protesting and Tweeting, but the majority do not vote or register to vote.

The ELCA Social Statement “The Church in Society:  A Lutheran Perspective” speaks directly to the danger of losing our freedom due to apathy.  The Statement says, “The witness of this church in society flows from its identity as a community that lives from and for the Gospel.  . . . The Gospel does not take the church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and enter more deeply into the world.  . . . This church must participate in social structures critically, for sin is also at work in the world.  . . . This church, therefore, must unite realism and vision, wisdom and courage in its social responsibility.  It needs constantly to discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values, and powers.”

The statement names many ways we Christians carry out our baptismal vocation in daily life, and then says, “Christians also exercise their calling by being wise and active citizens.”  The statement closes with several Commitments on behalf of the entire church, including:  “Promote sound, critical and creative citizenship and public service among its members,” and “Expect its pastors, bishops and lay leaders to pray for and to exhort those in positions of authority on the basis of God’s prophetic Word.”

The ELCA’s position clearly is that staying on the sidelines is not an option.  Democracy doesn’t just happen, and we Christians, who believe all are equal, must work through public institutions to make equality the hallmark of our democracy.  Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada exists to carry out both the commitments.  We work to keep people informed on issues Nevada Lutherans care about, and we have an Advocate at the Legislature to do the prophetic exhortation.  Our name says it all.

The next Nevada legislative session will begin in February 2019, and we expect the topics most in need of attention will be shortage of affordable health care, shortage of affordable housing, and education.  We will share information on these and other issues as we learn it.  However in the meantime, LEAN will be offering an exciting learning experience.  This will be a role-playing time at the Nevada Legislature, in which people can experience firsthand the give-and-take required to pass legislation.  More details will be published soon.

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LEAN Names New Advocate

By Sheila Freed

Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada is pleased to announce it has retained a new Advocate.  William (Bill) Ledford will be LEAN’s voice at the Legislature in 2019 as well as the organization’s representative in congregations and the larger church.

Ledford comes from a not-Lutheran background, and therefore provides a fresh perspective on our issues and activities. He is presently a Master of Divinity student at Multnomah University, and did his undergraduate work at Simpson University in Redding, California. Until recently he was the Youth Pastor at Valley View Christian Fellowship in Reno. Before that he was Youth Pastor at Discovery Fellowship Baptist Church, and while an undergraduate he led youth activities at faith organizations in the Redding area.

Ledford is articulate and thoughtful, and brings to the job an ability to form relationships.  This skill is central to advocacy.  In reviewing his qualifications, the LEAN board asked him to read the ELCA Social Statements, since all LEAN’s advocacy springs from them.  His responses overcame any concerns about his conservative evangelical roots.  Here are some excerpts from that letter:

“It is not an easy time being a more liberal “socially minded” Christian in the cliché Evangelical environment that I have been in for years.  . . . . I have found it impossible to divorce my devotion to the Gospel with my desire to defend the oppressed, the marginalized, and the environment.  . . . . While I have not spent any time with a Lutheran church, I have familiarized myself with the Social Statements and find myself refreshed in my agreements with almost all of them. . . . . These issues [social justice] are my life, my faith, my passion.  . . . . And it would be my absolute joy to prove this to the organization and, in so doing, make a difference for the Gospel in my state.”    

Ledford starts work with LEAN on December first.  Two previous Advocates and continuing Board members, Allan Smith and Pr. Mike Patterson, will train him and introduce him to church officials at all levels.  In the coming year will find Bill will reach out to congregations throughout Nevada while parishioners share with him their hopes and concerns for the 2019 Legislative Session.

To read the ELCA Social Statements visit https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements.

LEANING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK

LUTHERAN ENGAGEMENT and ADVOCACY in NEVADA is the new LEAN, and we now have a Policy Council in place.  The Policy Council has set out for our Advocate, Allan Smith, LEAN’s advocacy agenda for the remainder of the legislative session.

Two priorities carry over from the 2015 session, and both have to do with economic justice.  They are “payday lending” and minimum wage.  LEAN continues to be interested in these, based on the ELCA Social Statement, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All.”  (The new LEAN, like its predecessors, takes its policy positions from the Social Statements.)

Assembly Bill 163 provides significant new protection for people who use so-called payday lenders.  These short-term, high interest loans often start a downward spiral of endless debt, because when the borrower can’t pay, lenders simply give them another loan.  AB 163 requires lenders to evaluate the borrower’s ability to pay before making a loan.  AB 163 also restricts a lender’s ability to “cure” a defaulted loan with a payment plan.

There are three measures dealing with minimum wage.  Senate Bill 106 calls for a gradual increase of seventy-five cents per hour every year until the minimum wage reaches $12.00 per hour.  Senate Joint Resolution 6 also gets to $12.00 per hour, but on a different timetable.  Assembly Bill 175 began as a straightforward increase of the minimum wage, raising it one dollar per hour every year to reach $15.00.  Recently AB 175 has morphed into something quite different.  As amended, the bill refers to the Nevada Constitution, which allows a minimum wage of one dollar per hour less if health insurance is provided by an employer.  The amendment defines the kind of health plan required to qualify as “health insurance.”  The amendment significantly raises the standard, and by doing so, gets at employers who offer a “bare bones” plan and pay wages at the lower rate.  This may be a legislative maneuver to make employers, who argue that a higher minimum wage kills jobs, to either pay more on the health care side or agree to the proposed wage increase.

Increasing the minimum wage has been proposed in the past, and like this session, it has encountered resistance.  Rev. Mike Patterson was the LEAN Advocate in the 2015 legislative session.  He spent time with Assemblyman Ira Hansen, one of the most conservative people in the Assembly.  Mike was able to convince Mr. Hansen that apart from the moral considerations, an increase in the minimum wage makes economic sense.  Mr. Hansen concluded that many low wage workers qualify for public assistance in the form of subsidized food, housing, medical care, and other.  In true conservative fashion, he questions the role of government in such programs, and calculated a “breakeven” point of $15 to $17 per hour to shift these costs to employers.  Assemblyman Hansen actually made a chart showing his figures and submitted it to his committee colleagues in support of the original 2017 bill.  Advocacy works!

Advocate Allan Smith is in Carson City, speaking on behalf of the poor as well as others who suffer injustice.  To express your opinions on AB 163, AB 175, or any other bill, go here.   Or start with the Legislature home page, then click on “Share Your Opinion on Bills” in the upper right corner.

LEAN Returns With New Lutheran Life

By Sheila Freed

Many Nevadans have wondered why the legislative advocacy effort known as LEAN has been dormant recently. Indeed, advocacy in Nevada has been re-organizing, and now it’s time to move forward.

The previous organization represented by this Web site, Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada, is now LUTHERAN ENGAGEMENT and ADVOCACY IN NEVADA.  Adding “engagement” to the organization’s name highlights the fact that everyone is invited to do advocacy and to be an engaged citizen.  Nevada is a fast-growing state with many acute needs, and since the 2016 election there has been a huge outpouring of activism on the part of individuals.  As with its past iterations going back to LAMN (Lutheran Advocacy and Ministry in Nevada), LEAN will provide tools and information to enable all to work for good within Nevada at the legislative and policy-making levels.

Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada now has a lobbyist at the legislature, just as our predecessor organizations did.  Mr. Allan Smith is already working at the Legislature.  Allan was the lobbyist for Religious Alliance in Nevada (RAIN) until it ceased operations last year.  In that capacity, he provided a unified voice for Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics as well as Lutherans and Episcopalians.  Allan has become familiar with the Lutheran Social Statements and supports the LEAN/LAMN commitment to base all policy positions in the Social Statements.

Allan is a member of Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, and serves on the Session (ruling board of a Presbyterian church).  He has held other offices and chaired various committees as well.  Allan is retired from the State of Nevada, where he was Manager of Information Systems for the Legislature.  The award-winning legislative website, to which LEAN has often referred, was begun by Allan.  He has a deep understanding of the legislative process, and will be an enormous asset to LEAN as we move into the future.  The Legislative Session is about half over now, and we are grateful that Allan has the skills to regain some of the momentum lost while LEAN has been reorganizing.

Our former LEAN Advocate, Rev. Mike Patterson (Gift of Grace Lutheran Church, Fernley) has agreed to “re-engage” (pun intended) as a member of the new Policy Council.  He is joined by Vic Williams and Sheila Freed.   Diane Drach-Meinel, Pastor of Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Henderson, will join Dr. Ed Cotton in Las Vegas to represent the south.  Appointment of a third person from the south, plus a secretary and a treasurer, are still pending.

Until we finish getting the new LEAN up and running, please check this website for news and updates. We hope that engagement will be the hallmark of this new effort.  Please join us.

Get Out Of Jail Free?

PRETRIAL RELEASE OUTCOMES STUDIED BY NEVADA JUDICIARY

By Sheila Freed

Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada is proud to be part of a movement that could radically change the justice system in this state.  The proposed changes line up beautifully with the ELCA Social Statement, “The Church and C criminal Justice:  Hearing the Cries” (2013).

James Hardesty, Associate Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme court, spoke to members of LEAN in May.  Then at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly in June, the featured speaker at the LEAN-LOPP Advocacy Breakfast was Washoe County Public Defender Jeremy Bosler.    Justice Hardesty has worked for many years to make the criminal justice system in Nevada fairer and more efficient.  As the Public Defender, Mr. Bosler sees first-hand how the justice system is much harsher on the poor.

Both Mr. Bosler and Justice Hardesty spoke about something lawyers call “pretrial release,” which for most people means making bail.  A person gets arrested and either is able to muster the money to bail out or raise enough to post a portion of the bail and get out on bond.  It goes without saying that the bail system works against those who lack the financial resources to make bail.  Justice Hardesty pointed out that the system also releases the wrong kinds of people.  He used the example of a drug dealer, who can easily raise cash and therefore is back on the street within hours, as against a low-income single parent, who writes a bad check.  When that person must remain in jail, someone must be found to care for children, a job can be lost, and more.  Judge Hardesty reminded the audience that although both the drug dealer and the single parent enjoy the same legal and constitutional presumption of innocence, the negative consequences of arrest fall disproportionately on one.  Mr. Bosler noted that simply remaining in jail for more than a few days actually increases the likelihood that a person will commit another crime.  The reason is that the “pro-social connections” we all have in our daily routines begin to wither.

Many jurisdictions around the country have looked at the bail system and concluded that it isn’t fair.  Furthermore, it doesn’t work.  Justice Hardesty said that the federal courts have concluded that “a money bail system is unconstitutional.”  He cited a little known fact: In Nevada, it can cost a different amount of bail for the same offense, depending on what jurisdiction you’re in.  Washington, D.C., the states of Kentucky and Ohio have all moved to an “evidence-based” pretrial release system.  Their experiences are that if released with no bail, most people appear for court.  In Washington D.C., 92% appear, a higher percentage than with the bail system.

Justice Hardesty and his colleagues on the Supreme Court are now studying how moving to an evidence-based system would work in Nevada.  The key questions a judge must decide are whether the arrestee is a flight risk, and whether he or she is a danger to the community.  If neither is true, release on one’s “own recognizance” is appropriate.  In some cases, a person is neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community, but should not be released unsupervised because they are addicted or mentally ill or otherwise not functioning well.  Judges have authority to release that person with conditions.  So a release with a requirement to go into treatment could be issued.  The justices have reviewed various “assessment tools” used by other courts to determine the best course of action for a particular person.  In July, several courts around Nevada will begin “field testing” the assessment tools.  Washoe and Clark District Courts are among those participating.  At some point, the Supreme Court will issue rules that will standardize pretrial release practices throughout the state.

Judge Hardesty noted that no legislative action will be required to make the change; judges now have discretion to release people on their own recognizance, and often do.  Bail bondsmen are understandably against eliminating bail for most arrestees , and some legislators could try to stop the change because they don’t want to appear “soft on crime.”    Judge Hardesty urged LEAN to participate in the Court’s study and discussion of this topic.  To learn more, go to http://nvcourts.gov/AOC/Committees_and_Commissions/Evidence/Overview/.  For all details, click on “Documents and Forms” to the right.  Parishioners are invited to join the dialog by contacting LEAN Advocate, Rev. Mike Patterson, at mp4675@att.net.