Cleric Legislators Balance Political, Religious Roles

By: - October 7, 2003 12:00 am

More than two dozen state legislators double as spiritual leaders, and must walk a fine line in reconciling their dual roles with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Hawaii’s Bud Stonebraker and Florida’s Frank Peterman Jr. are cases in point.

Stonebraker, who represents Hawaii Kai, a high-income ethnically diverse district on the eastern side of the island of Oahu, also serves as the unpaid assistant pastor of Honolulu’s Calvary Chapel , a non-denominational church with a congregation of 1,000 people. The 31-year old Republican got into politics despite having “a bad impression of politicians” because becoming a dad started him thinking about such issues as education, crime and the environment. He was elected to the legislature in 2001.

Peterman, a former telephone worker, is pastor of a 90-member Baptist church in St. Petersburg and couples his ministerial duties with service in the Florida legislature. He represents a middle-income district that spans from St. Petersburg to northern Sarasota. A Democrat, the 41-year-old African-American was elected the state House in 2000 after three years as a city councilman. His involvement in politics stems from his desire to get more resources for his constituents.

Members of the clergy are far outnumbered in state legislatures by lawyers and business owners, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which began tracking occupations of state lawmakers in the mid-1980s. Only 0.4 percent of the 7,382 state senators and house members list their occupation as “clergy.”

The percentage is based on a survey of state lawmakers in which only 6,900 lawmakers listed an occupation. Twenty-seven identified themselves as clergy. Of these, 10 said they were Baptists. The only other religious affiliations reported were Lutheran, Pentecostal and Congregationalist.

The number of clergy in the 107th U.S. Congress, three out of 535, was about the same percentage as the state level, according to the reference book, “Vital Statistics on Congress, 2001-2002.”

The U.S. Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The framers’ intent is a matter of continuing dispute reflected in contemporary legal wrangling over issues ranging from displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings to the reference to God in Pledge of Allegience.

Stonebraker sees no conflict between his political and spiritual duties. He has been a leader in fighting for tougher sentences for repeat criminal offenders. He said faith and religion shouldn’t be eradicated from public circles, and that the Constitution is meant “to keep politics out of church and not vice versa.”

Peterman, however, recalls an instance in his political life when he was torn between what his constituents wanted and his religious beliefs. Even though pro-gaming groups and dog track owners in his tourism-dependent district favored an expansion of legalized gambling, feeling it would mean more jobs and income, he voted against it because he felt it was morally wrong.

Robert Drinan, Georgetown University law professor and Roman Catholic priest who was a U.S. Congressman for 10 years before the Vatican banned Catholic clery from holding public office, said lawmakers who are clerics “can look at their own values and appropriately use them in public policy.

“The key word is appropriately. That has to be debated and thought out. Everybody has a core belief, and every member of Congress is elected and has a right and sometimes a duty to follow his own moral views,” he said. 

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