The halls of power are crowded with collars, stoles, and yarmulkes this week, as groups from across the religious spectrum descend on Capitol Hill to make the religious case against the GOP-led effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
As Republican senators continue to debate various ways to repeal and replace (or just repeal) the Affordable Care Act on Thursday afternoon, they may bump into a small group of faith leaders huddled in prayer just inside the Senate Chambers. The pray-in — whose close proximity to lawmakers is atypical in the well-policed Capitol Building — was organized by the Circle of Protection, a coalition of religious organizations dedicated to defending federal programs that help the poor.
Participants, most of whom oppose virtually all bills that have been put forward during the GOP’s whirlwind effort to undo the ACA, say they plan to pray for senators as they pass.
“This [health care effort], as it has been presented, will have a horrible impact on poor and hungry people,” said participant Bishop Jose Garcia, Senior Adviser for Prayer and Strategic Initiatives at Bread for the World, a faith-based group that works to fight hunger. “We are not at all in agreement with the way that this has been presented.” He added that the GOP’s current rushed approach to Obamacare repeal is “like a quick fix, not well thought-out, and will do more harm than any benefit.”
The roughly dozen members of Thursday’s prayer circle include Jim Wallis, head of progressive Christian advocacy group Sojourners; David Beckmann, head of Bread for the World; Aundreia Alexander of the National Council of Churches; Diane Randall, the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers); and Jane Adams, an organizer with Circle of Protection.
“I’m here because we want health care to serve everybody, and just make sure they’re not run over in this process,” Elizabeth Drury of the Wesleyan Church told ThinkProgress.
Many of her fellow faithful agree. Religious groups were instrumental in helping pass the ACA in the first place, with some using their own sanctuaries to help people sign up for health care plans. Now, activists say spiritual leaders are particularly concerned about Republican proposals to cut Medicaid, which aids poorer Americans.
On Monday, more than 7,100 Catholic nuns from all 50 states signed on to a letter decrying the GOP repeal-and-replace bill, as well as “any upcoming proposals that would repeal the Affordable Care Act or cut Medicaid.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposed both the BCRA and the full ACA repeal bill, reiterated the same sentiment in a statement released this week, saying, “The current [health care] proposals are simply unacceptable as written.” The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America encouraged members to call their senators on Thursday morning to discourage lawmakers from cutting Medicaid, and Stosh Cotler — the head of Jewish advocacy organization Bend the Arc — called the push to repeal the ACA “a vote to destroy lives.”
Faith groups have also staged other, far louder protests on the Hill in recent days. On Tuesday, clergy led a mock funeral procession — complete with a faux coffin — to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, highlighting the plight of millions who could be detrimentally impacted by an ACA repeal. More than 20 faith leaders and activists were eventually arrested, several escorted out by police as they chanted “kill the bill.”
“The strength of a nation can be measured by the health of its people. A sick people will never be a strong people,” Rev. Traci Blackman, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ, said in a statement released on Tuesday regarding the day’s protest. “We are not here as Republicans or Democrats. There are some issues that are too large for partisan politics…We are here because of the cries of the people. We are here to remind you of their cries.”
“We know that as leaders of faith, we can’t just pray for our leaders and walk away. The Bible tells us we must protest, we must say to them what the word of God is.”
By Thursday, another band of faith leaders stood outside the Capitol — this time in front of real coffins — as they were joined by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Clergy handed the lawmaker a letter from people of faith, asking him to read it on the Senate floor in opposition to the GOP health care effort.
“This is about death, and life,” Rev. William Barber II, prominent progressive faith activist and head of Repairs of Breach, told ThinkProgress. “We are here to dramatize that while mostly poor and working poor whites will be hurt, this will…disproportionately hurt African Americans and people of color.”
Barber insisted protest was part of his spiritual duty.
“We know that as leaders of faith, we can’t just pray for our leaders and walk away,” he said. “The Bible tells us we must protest, we must say to them what the word of God is.”
Barber also quoted Isiah 10:1, which reads, “Woe to those who make unjust laws; to those who issue oppressive decrees.”
A short time later, the group entered the Senate gallery to engage in a form of silent protest, standing and observing lawmakers as they pass. Their intent, according to officials at the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, was to act as the “eyes of God” watching how senators vote on health care.
And it doesn’t end there. Thursday evening, when senators are expected to continue debating the ACA repeal late into the night, yet another interfaith group is scheduled to gather near the Capitol for a vigil to “save the ACA.” The group calls itself the Interfaith Health Care Coalition, and includes representatives Bread for the World, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, NETWORK Catholic Lobby, The Religious Action of Reform Judaism, American Muslim Health Professionals, United Church of Christ, National Council of Churches, and United Methodist Church.
“We as Christians, as people of faith, feel called to protect the poor and vulnerable,” Jane Adams told ThinkProgress shortly before entering the Senate chambers to pray on Thursday. “We are urging them to not only protect the poor and vulnerable, but to [address] the brokenness of the process.”
Addy Baird contributed reporting for this article.