Pastor Hickey can finally get off Bishop Zellmer’s back. Yesterday, 433 voting members at the annual assembly of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America approved Resolution #3 on predatory lending in South Dakota. The resolution calls for four actions:
- SD Synod ELCA members should “learn about predatory lending practices.”
- The Synod condemns interest rates greater than 36% as usury.
- The Synod “encourages” and “empowers” its congregations to “become trusted sources of information on the two 2016 South Dakota state ballot measures related to predatory lending; to advocate support of Initiated Measure 21 which puts a 36% APR limit on payday loans, car title loans, and installment loans; and to oppose adoption of Amendment U which changes the State Constitution to allow unlimited interest and fees on these loans” (I know, that’s three actions, but Resolution 3 folds them all into one Resolved clause).
- The Synod directs Bishop David Zellmer “to communicate this resolution to the Governor and members of the State Legislature, and to advocate to the South Dakota voting public on behalf of these actions.”
The vote, as reported on the SD Synod’s live online video, was 87% in favor, 13% against.
Resolution #3 faced some opposition. A delegate from Pierre
(which is also where Bishop Zellmer and some key payday-lending industry lobbyists are based)* proposed a substantial amendment—in the Legislature, we’d have called it a hoghouse—that struck everything after the first Whereas clause and replaced that text with far more general, less condemnatory statements that payday lending has costs and benefits and that payday lenders provide thousands of jobs in South Dakota and useful financial services. Removing any provision for the Synod to take a position on either payday-lending ballot measure, the amendment called for members to educate themselves and vote their own conscience.
The Pierre delegate (Tim… but sorry, I missed the last name) contended that the original resolution, by advocating for legislation, could imperil tax-exempt status for ELCA churches and the Synod. As Bishop Zellmer noted after debate, that statement is false: while 501(c)3 rules ban non-profits from endorsing political candidates, churches and other non-profits “can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena.”
Delegate Bob O’Connor of Sioux Falls rose to speak in favor of the proposed amendment. O’Connor called predatory pending a “plague” but expressed concern about turning the bishop into a political advocate.
“Ticked-off” (his phrase) Pastor Jeff Sorenson of Sioux Falls, who spoke up against Rep. Kris Langer’s (R-25/Dell Rapids) effort to undermine the IM 21 36% rate cap with legislation during the last Legislative Session, called the amendment “smoke and mirrors.” Pastor Sorenson said “Jesus was involved politically” when he kicked over the tables in the temple to make a political statement against usury. The First Amendment, said Pastor Sorenson, is not meant to prevent the religious community from participating in government. “Lutherans do not withdraw from the world,” he concluded.
Pastor Siri Beckman Sorenson (Jeff’s wife!) of Sioux Falls noted that advocating for the 36% rate cap was as politically acceptable for the ELCA as the Bishop’s advocacy against the transgender potty bill of the last Legislative Session. Pastor Siri contended that such advocacy is a matter of evangelism: reaching youth requires speaking to the issues of the day.
Nick Rob of Yankton agreed with Pastor Jeff’s assessment of the amendment as smoke and mirrors. Acknowledging that Lutherans aren’t Catholic, Rob said that if the Pope can speak up on issues, so can the Bishop and the ELCA.
Randy Kolden of Sioux Falls said predatory lending is a social justice issue, requiring church action as surely as feeding the poor.
Pastor Erika Lehman of Dimock serves on the Synod Hunger Task Force and participated in authoring Resolution #3. Pastor Lehman spoke against the deliberate deception of Amendment U, the industry-backed fake rate cap that seeks to sabotage the legitimate 36% rate cap of IM 21.
Pastor Paul Rohde of Augustana spoke for the original resolution and against the amendment. Pastor Rohde said he has seen families crippled by high interest rates. He said 36% is still too high an interest rate, but he said the Yes vote on IM 21 and the No vote on Amendment U called for by Resolution #3 are appropriate.
Pastor Jackie Brown of Salem invoked Pastor Hickey’s favorite Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to say the ELCA should enter this conflict and oppose payday lending.
Pastor Jeff Otterman of Belle Fourche moved the previous question. 96% of the Assembly voted to end debate. The delegates voted down the amendment 12% to 88%, then adopted the original Resolution #3 87% to 13%.
Immediately after the vote, Bishop Zellmer cautioned the membership and particularly ELCA pastors that they must be careful with the language they use in carrying out this resolution. Bishop Zellmer said that advocating and “emoting” (a key word he used more than once) from the pulpit on the payday lending ballot measures unavoidably marginalizes some members, including congregants who work for payday lenders. “The Gospel is a gift for everyone,” said the Bishop; Lutherans must not use the Law (capital L, as in God’s Law) to attack their neighbors (neighbors—harkening to the potty bill again?). Bishop Zellmer said he will do what Resolution #3 asks him to do, but he said, “We must be pastors for the entire church, not just those who agree with us.”
Related: South Dakotans for Responsible Lending, the sponsors of the real 36% rate cap, report that the South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ adopted a resolution supporting Initiated Measure 21 yesterday in Belle Fourche. The rate cappers also note a Thursday letter to the editor from Cathy Brechtelsbauer which states that at a meeting of 60 area social workers, not one of those social workers said he or she “had ever recommended a payday loan or auto title loan to a struggling client.”
Correction 22:47 CDT: I need to nuke both of my parenthetical notes!
- Bishop Zellmer is well-connected in Pierre, but he lives and works in Sioux Falls. Bishop Zellmer was pastor at Lutheran Memorial in Pierre prior to his election as Bishop in 2007.
- As I learned while researching my post on District 19 GOP candidates’ propaganda and ballot measures this afternoon, the Committee for Regulated Lending, formed by Pierre lobbyists Brett Koenecke and Doug Abraham to fight the 36% rate cap initiative, filed its termination notice on May 24.