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Church takes clout to capitol

A committee from Idlewild Baptist Church tours Tallahassee this week. Members will lobby representatives on morality and family issues.

By TIM GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


CARROLLWOOD -- A delegation from Idlewild Baptist Church will travel to the state capitol this week to meet representatives, tour the city and see for themselves how a bill becomes law.

It has become an annual road trip for the Call to Action Committee of Tampa's largest Baptist church. For two days during the legislative session, they visit lawmakers and make a stand for bills that affect morality and family values.

Tallahassee Tour 2001 begins Tuesday with a five-hour bus ride starting at 7 a.m. The 47 church members will return home late Wednesday night.

"When you take the time to go to Tallahassee, our legislators know you're concerned, you're interested and you're paying attention to what they are doing," said Reno Zunz, head of the committee.

As one of the largest and most influential congregations in the Florida Baptist Convention, Idlewild plays a key role in shaping state laws that its members think will promote strong families.

Idlewild members are watching as many as 300 bills related to gambling, alcohol, pornography and homosexuality as they move through committees to a vote on the House and Senate floor.

In fact, the tour guide for the Idlewild trip, Bill Bunkley, is an Idlewild member who works as a lobbyist for the Florida Baptist Convention during the legislative session. He identifies bills of interest to the convention and provides status reports on their movement through the legislative process.

Bunkley knows his way around the capitol. He has lobbied for the state Baptist Convention for six years. Before that, he lobbied for the mortgage industry.

"A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes in Tallahassee and not in committee meetings and not on the legislature floor," said Don Hepburn, public relations director for the Florida Baptist Convention. "That's why we feel the need for a presence there to represent our point of view and our concerns during the decisionmaking process."

Among other gambling bills, Florida Baptist are opposed to HB-151, which would allow the pari-mutuel industry to operate card rooms in their facilities to increase income. The Baptist group supports SB-720, which would prevent people giving, showing or distributing obscene materials to minors from having their records expunged or sealed.

Hepburn said the Florida Baptist Convention also works closely with lobbyists from other special interest groups such as the Catholic Conference of Florida, the Christian Coalition and Focus on Family.

Idlewild's Call to Action Committee started visiting the capitol and monitoring legislation six years ago when several Baptist pastors in the state felt the need for a Christian lobbying presence in Tallahassee.

Ken Whitten, senior pastor, said he thinks the Tallahassee trip is an important church mission.

"It allows our people to understand that the process of making laws in Tallahassee is spiritual in nature and has a great spiritual effect on the state," Whitten said, adding that it helps members become better "prayer warriors" on behalf of their state lawmakers.

"I personally believe what makes a good Christian also makes for a good citizen," Whitten said.

Mostly, members say, this trip is a chance to have fun, learn about government and enjoy two days of Christian fellowship with other members.

They will tour famous landmarks such as the Governor's Mansion, the Supreme Court building, the old capitol and the Florida Museum of History.

Tuesday's highlight will be dinner at the Silver Slipper, a popular political hangout where untold laws have been hatched over steaks and salads.

Although the church is providing the bus, the 47 committee members, ages 8 to 78, are responsible for buying their own meals and one night at the Cabot Lodge.

The people who will being going on the trip are excited about seeing people and places that they have heard about in the news.

"I'd like to know just how the state is run," said church member Rachel Powers. "I'd like to meet the lobbyists and maybe even some senators and even Katherine Harris, if she's not too busy."

Idlewild member Tami Webb won't be on this trip, but she will never forget the one she took three years ago.

"One politician told me he was elected by 19 votes," Webb said. "That made a big impression on me. I learned the value of a vote."

Bill Davenport will make his first trip this year. He wanted to go after hearing what others who had been had to say.

"I've always wanted to find out how the government works, and this gives me a chance to see what's going on in Tallahassee first-hand," he said.

Sara Tillis helped form the Call to Action Committee and was part of the first group who traveled to Tallahassee in 1992. This is the sixth Tallahassee trip she has helped plan for Idlewild Baptist.

"One reason we go is to support and meet our pro-family legislators," Tillis said. "A few will have dinner with us in a relaxed atmosphere and answer questions. I know our people are always impressed at the pressure they have to go through."

Not all of the legislators they meet agree with their positions on family and moral issues, said Zunz.

"But they are still impressed we would come take the time to get in their world," he said. "I think going to Tallahassee during the legislative session is the next logical step when you want to be an informed citizen."

-- To reach Tim Grant call 226-3471, or e-mail him at grant@sptimes.com.

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