Sick leave, casino questions resonate with faith groups
BROCKTON — The politicking began just moments after formal worship ended last Sunday at St. Edith Stein Parish.
A handful of women lingered in the church basement after the Cape Verdean Mass, dialing numbers from voting lists and reminding their neighbors in Cape Verdean Creole to support the ballot question requiring employers to offer earned sick leave.
One caller, Monica Tavares, 29, said support seemed strong. “I just called a couple of people and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, Question 4,’ ” she said.
Religious activists are involved in all four of the ballot questions this year, but the casino repeal, Question 3, and earned sick leave measures have drawn the most support among religious leaders, congregations, and organizations.
Tavares was recruited into the political effort by Brockton Interfaith Community, a local group that is part of a statewide coalition of religious, community, and labor groups working to build support for the measure.
Another group, Faith for Repeal, is asking religious leaders to preach about the downsides of the casino industry, to engage their congregations in the discussion, and to pray that their low-budget campaign is “supernaturally effective.”
“I pray that people’s eyes and minds and hearts will be open to hear all the information and I ask for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide them in their thinking and in their decision making,” said the Rev. Lauren Holm, a casino opponent and pastor of Bethesda Lutheran and East Congregational Churches, in Springfield.
Unlike in 2012, when the Catholic Church took the lead in organizing a successful $4.8 million dollar air war against a ballot question that would have authorized doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, religious involvement in the ballot campaigns this year is mostly a low-budget affair.
Though the state’s four Catholic bishops and the leaders of all the major mainline Protestant churches have taken firm stands against casinos, they have not raised enough to run television commercials to answer the casinos’ multimillion-dollar political campaign.
The Archdiocese of Boston contributed $250,000 in 2012 to fight “Death with Dignity,” which the church saw as a grave threat to its teaching that life is sacred from conception to natural death, and which it feared could make its way to other states if it passed.
Boston Catholic TV and St. John’s Seminary, the main training ground for Boston priests, each contributed $1 million. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, one of the country’s most powerful Roman Catholic churchmen, helped raise millions from Catholic individuals and organizations across the country, funding a massive last-minute TV blitz. The measure failed by 2.5 percentage points.
Asked why the church had not ascribed the same urgency to the casino repeal or earned sick leave, Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said other entities decided to take the lead on this year’s ballot questions.
Fred Bayles, a professor at Boston University who studies ballot initiatives, doubted the church could interest out-of-state Catholic entities in fighting the gambling industry here.
“It’s not as strong a moral and visceral issue,” he said. “Suicide versus casino gambling — the subjects are not in the same column.”
The Faith for Repeal group grew out of a neighborhood effort last year in East Boston to defeat a proposed Suffolk Downs casino, said Rob Pyles, a coordinator with Faith for Repeal and an East Boston resident. The referendum victory in November by underfunded casino opponents was among the big election upsets of 2013.
“Several of the ministers who participated last year saw the crucial role the various communities of faith placed in that battle,” Pyles said. “It was clear to them that there was a need for this statewide.”
The group is a clearinghouse for information and talking points on casinos, which religious leaders can use to stimulate conversations in their congregations.
Economic justice, rather than morality, is the main argument religious proponents cite in favor of the casino repeal.
“They’re not saying it’s a sin to gamble,” said the Rev. Laura Everett, director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the state’s main ecumenical group, which has been leading informational sessions about all four ballot questions. “What I hear religious folks saying on this is, ‘There will be people hurt by this even if they never set foot into a casino — children of people who are addicted to gambling, the small-restaurant owner who can’t compete with the $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet.’ ”
Churches are often on the front line responding to people who are hurting in a community, offering food, shelter, rental assistance, or other help, and they have been hit hard since the last recession, she said.
“So I think there is real concern among pastors about who will be showing up at churches if there is an increase in gambling addiction, or increased need in the community, and not really having sufficient resources to attend to the human suffering,” she said.
On Question 4, religious groups brought in one-third of the signatures required to get the earned sick leave measure on the ballot, said Lew Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a faith-based community improvement organization whose membership includes local interfaith groups.
Since the drive, religious people have continued working alongside others in the coalition to push the measure to passage, helping to make calls, canvass neighborhoods, and raise awareness through social media. About 50 congregations held “voter Sabbaths” in which clergy preach about the earned sick time initiative and parishioners do outreach afterwards.
“Every time I speak in front of a Jewish group, I‘m pushing Question 4,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It is an absolute priority for us.”
Sheila Decter, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, said 15 synagogues and three Jewish organizations have participated in “Tzedek Reflections,” to address the problem of income inequality. They have collected signatures, canvassed, and made phone calls in support of earned sick time, and, earlier, the minimum wage increase.
On Monday, Decter’s group is participating in a “thunderclap,” or simultaneous tweet, in favor of Question 4, organized by the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.
But there appears to be less unanimity among religious activists on casino repeal.
“Question 4 and the notion of earned sick leave is definitely a widely held consensus view within the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as simple or clear that all people of faith line up on one side of the [casino] issue.”
Worshipers who belong to trade unions, for example, are hearing a different message on casinos from union leaders who want to bring casino jobs to Massachusetts, said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College casino expert.
The Rev. Joseph K. Raeke, pastor of the Catholic Tri-Parishes of Brockton, which includes St. Edith Stein, is planning to talk about Question 4 in his homily this weekend, but not the casino repeal. In Brockton — not far from Plainville, the community slated to host the state’s first slots parlor — it might feel too political for his parishioners’ taste, he said.
Better to focus on sick leave, and the clear religious case for loving thy neighbor and caring for the sick, and let the bishops’ statement against casinos stand on its own.
“I don’t want to complicate this,” he said.