The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) is well-known at the State Capitol, long advocating for family and children’s services. But lawmakers and fellow lobbyists may be unaware that this coalition could be unique in the nation.
For nearly 50 years, the group of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and more recently Muslim leaders have forged a joint legislative agenda that crosses religious borders. While it’s not uncommon for faith groups to form alliances on certain issues, a group working together for decades, putting aside differences, is a rarity at a state capitol.
More than 600 of the group’s supporters will descend on the Capitol next week for its annual “Day on the Hill.”
“There are [policy] collaborations on the state and the local level, but I don’t know of any that have lasted this long or are organized in this way,” said John Carr, who worked in the JRLC office when it was founded in the 1970s and now directs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
“The group is clear about what they can do together and what they can’t do together — and there is respect for both,” he said.
Coalition board Chairman Bob Rubinyi, representing the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the coalition is particularly important during this time of national divisiveness.
“It’s an only-in-Minnesota kind of thing,” said Rubinyi. “The coming together of people of different faiths, and often different political parties, is what the JRLC is all about.”
The coalition’s model is a lesson in equal opportunity. The 12-member board is divided equally among its sponsors — the Islamic Center of Minnesota, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Minnesota Council of Churches and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Every position paper, every public statement, is approved by all four.
The board chairpersons alternate by religion. Keynote speakers at the Day on the Hill also rotate by faith. So do the opening prayers at each board meeting.
“It’s really beautiful to see how other people practice their faith,” said longtime board member Patrice Critchley-Menor, who directs social outreach for the Catholic Diocese of Duluth.
Different faith groups have different priorities, she said, such as Catholic support for abortion restrictions. But those are taken up separately and outside of the group.
“We don’t abandon the parts of us that we disagree on,” said Critchley-Menor. “We just strengthen the parts that we agree on.”
That agreement typically occurs around issues that support families, children and low-income Minnesotans. Coalition executive director Anne Krisnik can be found door-knocking at the Capitol this time of year, urging lawmakers to support that agenda.
Priorities this year include bills to expedite child-care assistance for homeless parents, increase grants for parents in the Minnesota Family Investment Program and eliminate the law allowing the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, which advocates say puts an unfair burden on the poor.
Krisnik said she’ll also be monitoring the tax bill to make sure provisions such as the property tax refund, renter credit and working family tax credit remain.
This week is particularly busy for staff, who are cranking out handouts for the Feb. 7 Day on the Hill. Hundreds of statewide supporters of the coalition will gather at the downtown InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront hotel. They’ll learn the ABCs of talking to legislators, listen to inspirational speeches, participate in a rally in the Capitol rotunda and then head to their lawmakers’ offices.
The coalition was created in 1971 with Catholic, Jewish and Protestant sponsors. But after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Islamic Center of Minnesota joined, said Ashraf “AJ” Siddiqui, center president at the time.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” said Siddiqui, now a coalition board member. “We are cousins in religion. We are all Abrahamic faiths. We all want to lobby for people … who are down on their luck.”
Peg Chemberlin, former president of the Minnesota Council of Churches and former president of the National Council of Churches, said the coalition’s impact can be felt beyond the Capitol’s walls. During five decades, it has helped build a statewide network of interfaith leaders who can address other issues.
She said when President Donald Trump called for a travel ban in early 2017 that affected people from several majority-Muslim countries, religious leaders of all faiths quickly pulled together a major news conference calling for its reversal.
“Because we knew each other, we knew who to call,” Chemberlin said.