Interfaith Leaders Drive Policy Innovation
Religious freedom is fundamental for the transatlantic relationship, a key component of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Through an increasing role in the public policy process, interfaith leaders are working to safeguard religious freedom, and also to model constructive engagement and contribute to the public policy discussion.
Leaders of interfaith movements on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly acting as catalysts in the public policy field, giving recommendations and engaging in advocacy. In several cases, these leaders are playing a role in advancing not only policies to strengthen religious freedom, but also policies that favor inclusion and equity; counter global warming; enact living wages; improve delivery of social services; and advance LGBT rights and immigrant rights, among other achievements. This engagement builds on more established forms of interfaith action, which started with dialogue among leaders of different faiths, developed into shared participation of constituents in community service through such pioneer projects as the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Corps, and now also includes a public policy role. The bonds developed among faith leaders and groups through civic engagement strengthen community resilience during times of stress—as evidenced during the current period of tension in some capitals around the flashpoint of Gaza.
Interfaith leaders are working as policy innovators across a variety of fields. Perhaps the most high profile work at this time is that of Muslim and Jewish interfaith leaders in Europe to push back against legislation that would impact religious rituals such as ritual slaughter and male circumcision. The Interfaith Committee of the Intercultural Center in Turin, Italy, which is facilitating reform to accommodate the needs of diverse religious communities, provides a local example within the sphere of religious practice. As a result, meditation rooms have been incorporated into public hospitals, and religious structures beyond those serving Catholics are being constructed on cemetery grounds. Coexister, in Marseille, France, provides another urban example. This organization strengthens social cohesion with a commitment to “diversity in faith, unity in action.” Coexister’s impact includes assisting the French Ministry of Education in designing school programs to counter stereotypes and increase social cohesion.
In terms of advocacy on secular issues, in London an organization called Citizens UK is working to alleviate poverty with the creation of the Living Wage Campaign and Foundation. Gaining the support of employers, these groups influenced the Greater London Authority to inaugurate the Living Wage Unit in order to calculate the London Living Wage. Since its inception, the Living Wage Campaign has been able to impact tens of thousands of employees’ lives as over £210 million have been granted as wages to low wage earners. At the regional level, in the German region of Nordrhein Westfalia, an initiative bringing together faith based and other social service agencies grew into a national council that advises the government on social service policies. The grouping of non-profit welfare associations of Nordrhein Westfalia expanded to form the Berlin-based “Federal Association of Non-Statutory Welfare Services.”
In the U.S., interfaith policy initiatives span the nation. Farthest to the West, Oahu offers an example of an interfaith group’s policy impact to improve access to public services for non-English speakers. Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), a non-profit interfaith group, convinced the state, given the state’s rich linguistic diversity, to offer driver’s license exams in multiple languages. A law suit as well as direct action proved necessary, as FACE organized a group of women of Micronesian and Marshallese descent to take over a local Department of Transportation (DOT) office on Maui to gain the government’s attention, and a group of clergy took over the state headquarters of DOT later in the campaign. With persistence, the desired result was reached with the finding in FACE’s favor, and the exam is now offered in twelve languages. And far to the East, in Massachusetts in 2013, the Brockton Interfaith Community (BIC) advocated for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour. BIC joined other interfaith groups in the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition to increase the minimum wage and ensure that indexation would be pegged to inflation. BIC collected over 12,000 signatures, and the topic was placed on the 2014 ballot and passed in both the Massachusetts House and Senate. On the environmental front, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light in Decatur, Georgia, successfully intervened with Georgia Power, resulting in the company’s Advanced Solar Initiative. Consequently, Georgia Power offers a solar energy purchase program and encourages developers to sell photovoltaic solar arrays on the market.
Liberal democracies are rightly considered secular, including policy and technocratic circles that focus on innovation and change. Yet it is useful to keep in mind both the prevalence of religiosity—according to Pew Forum, 84% of people globally claim a faith—and the role of interfaith leaders in building support for change, including in public policy. Interfaith leaders engaged in this process merit recognition for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field, their role in strengthening resilience, and the potential they demonstrate to scale innovative solutions.
Muddassar Ahmed is the CEO of Unitas Communications, Lora Berg is a Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives at GMF, and Lisa Bertocchi is an Intern, Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives at GMF.