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Formation of the JRLC
In 1967, Fr. Edward Flahavan, Roman Catholic priest and director of the Office of Urban Affairs of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and Rev. Bill Merriman, associate director of the MN Council of Churches, met each other in the State Capitol as they were testifying in support of the same bill. Finding so many similarities in their respective legislative agendas, they discussed the potential for a partnership between their organizations to better achieve common goals. By 1969, the MN Catholic Conference and MN Council of Churches formed a joint committee to formalize this budding relationship, as well as to develop an organizational structure and legislative agenda for their new Joint Church Legislative Committee. This involved organizing task forces comprised of individuals with expertise in key policy areas and mobilizing statewide support for their movement. In 1970, the committee expanded to include the Minnesota Rabbinical Association (later replaced by the Jewish Community Relations Council), and this led to the organization’s present name.
The JRLC entered the 1971 legislative session with 15 position papers, written by task forces and approved by the three religious organizational members, that focused on issues of “taxation, agricultural workers, consumer affairs, criminal justice, alcohol and drug abuse, ecology, education, housing, human rights, senior citizens and welfare.” They brought forth a new, moral perspective to lobbying that leveraged religious principles to “seek laws which are useful, fair, and just in meeting human needs and in attaining human justice.”1 The effects of the JRLC on the Minnesota religious and political landscape during the time can be classified into two categories.
Katherine E. Knutson, Interfaith Advocacy: The Role of Religious Coalitions in the Political Process (Routledge, 2015).↩
They brought forth a new, moral perspective to lobbying that leveraged religious principles to “seek laws which are useful, fair, and just in meeting human needs and in attaining human justice.” - Katherine Knutson, Interfaith Advocacy
First, as the first long-term statewide interfaith advocacy group in the U.S., JRLC showed the potential for major religious organizations to work closely together over extended periods of time. While other coalitions tended to dissolve after a particular issue of focus was resolved, former longtime executive director Brian Rusche reflected that JRLC’s efforts to formalize their structure in order to “speak in a unified voice, acting together where common ground existed and engaging in self-censorship on controversial issues," gave it a staying power unique to the organization. The success of the JRLC set forth a trend of interfaith advocacy nationally, with other groups contacting the coalition for advice on establishing their own interfaith advocacy networks.
Secondly, the JRLC worked to counteract the growing prevalence of conservative Christianity in public life. Formed during the 1980s in response to perceived attacks on traditional American culture, the Religious Right with issues of focus including gender roles, abortion, and religion in public schools.2 While the JRLC avoided direct confrontation with other religious organizations, political scientist Katherine Knutson, points out JRLC's very presence made a strong statement that the narrow acceptance of only one set of theological ideas was outdated.3