(WOMENSENEWS)--The country's leading pro-choice religious lobby is rolling out a profound re-visioning of its mission and method in light of the changing climate around reproductive rights.
This week, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice also hired a new president to lead it into the new era. Rev. Harry Knox, previously best known as a national gay rights leader, will take the helm as president and CEO in July.
The Religious Coalition was founded in 1973 to organize religious groups to defend the gains in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that protected abortion as part of a woman's right to privacy. But the group has recently broadened and deepened its agenda under the rubric of reproductive justice, since access to health care and education, economic security and a safe environment profoundly affect meaningful reproductive choices. The Religious Coalition says it sees this as a necessary response to the wave of state-level anti-abortion legislation in recent years and as a way of building powerful alliances across a range of concerns.
"This is a new phase of a justice movement that has been in process for years," the group's board chair, Rev. Dr. Alethea Smith-Withers, told Women's eNews. "The best way to turn the tide is with faith communities and this new justice paradigm will enable us to do that. I do think we will see some pay dirt in the very near future."
"Pay dirt" may mean a higher profile for the Religious Coalition in the media and in state and national coalitions.
"This is important," said Communications Director Marjorie Signer, "because we are a religious organization and religion has been seen as the enemy of women's reproductive rights."
The Religious Coalition intends to challenge that idea, stressing that anti-choice groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council do not speak for the majority of people of faith in America. The group will also be telling some liberals that matters of reproductive health and rights must not be marginalized.
"Too many social justice efforts," Signer said, "are dominated by groups that exclude women's reproductive health issues. That will stop!"
The group has always included such issues as infant and maternal mortality rates, sexually transmitted diseases and access to health care in marginalized communities, especially among African Americans. But listening and responding to other aspects of environmental, gender and economic justice is now also part of the task.
"Justice movements require you to be able to hear the voices and the needs of people who have the least," said Smith-Withers.
The Religious Coalition has also embraced a stronger organizational identity to drive its new approach. As a coalition, it comprises some large institutions such as The Episcopal Church, with more than two million members, while some groups are much smaller. Other members include such major Protestant and Jewish bodies as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, Union for Reform Judaism and The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism.
Since each coalition member has its own decision-making processes, emphases and policies, however, it's sometimes been difficult to find more than narrow agreements amidst such diversity. The Religious Coalition's solidified organizational identity, the group says, will allow it greater flexibility in balancing taking broader stands and implementing an ambitious organizing agenda, while also fairly representing the pro-choice religious coalition on areas of agreement.
Taking the Plunge
While the group has long embraced the idea of reproductive justice, it is only now taking the plunge into creating a program to fully integrate the idea at all levels of the organization, including its 21 state affiliates.
Angela Ferrell-Zabala, whose staff responsibilities for the Religious Coalition include field organizing, describes a renewed effort to increase the organization's clout by shifting its emphasis from the "grasstops" to the grassroots.
"We had been advocacy-oriented, academic, doing legal work and working with legislators etcetera," said Ferrell-Zabala, explaining the group's shift to a holistic, bottom-up approach to movement-building. "We try to really hear what people have to say about the challenges they are facing in their lives and communities. I think that is the most authentic way to do it."
Following the principles of influential organizing theorist Marshall Ganz, she emphasizes building relationships among people and building movement capacity.
"It is not about bringing a message or talking points to them," Ferrell-Zabala added. "We are not giving or creating strategy in the sense of one size fits all. People are creating it and owning it themselves."
To jump-start the process, the Religious Coalition recently held a three-day conference in mid-April in Washington, D.C., for grassroots leaders who were trained in organizing techniques such as public narrative, creating effective leadership teams and building local and national organizational partnerships.
"We will be using our considerable grassroots power," Signer said, "to bring religious people and groups that are pro-choice into the broader social justice movement."
Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist and author. He is editor of "Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America," IG Publishing, 2008.
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