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‘It’s Christ or chaos’: Idaho’s newest family policy center and its biblical beliefs

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The stage at Sovereign Grace Church on March 12 in Nampa, Idaho, where the Idaho Family Policy Center hosted its most recent Biblical Activism Boot Camp. (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho Family Policy Center pushed three major social policy bills this legislative session

By this date in 2021, the Idaho Family Policy Center did not exist as an organization.

Less than a year later, it became the organization to help draft and push three of the biggest and most controversial pieces of legislation during the 2022 session — a bill banning most abortions in Idaho by allowing civil lawsuits against medical providers, a bill making it a felony to provide gender care to a minor, and a bill holding librarians criminally accountable for children accessing “obscene materials.”

Gov. Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1309, the abortion bill, into law in early April, but the Idaho Supreme Court issued a stay on the law’s implementation pending other court rulings. The two other bills did not receive hearings in the Idaho Senate.

This session wasn’t the first time the center’s president, Blaine Conzatti, could boast legislative achievements. In 2021, he led the way to pass House Bill 366, a law prohibiting abortion when cardiac activity is detected in a fetus, which is often by six weeks of pregnancy. He also helped craft a bill that became law prohibiting the use of public funds for abortion, and in 2020, he helped pass a bill called “Simon’s Law” which requires notice to parents if a medical professional decides to withhold treatment from a child.

This year, the three bills Conzatti pushed for dominated conversations around the Legislature from February to March.

While the Legislature is not in session, the Idaho Family Policy Center is busy educating church members about how they can get involved in cultural public policy issues, partly through what the center calls Biblical Activism Boot Camps. Discussion at the boot camps focuses on the biblical justifications for becoming involved in politics and how the foundation of America supports the idea of advancing Judeo-Christian values through lawmaking.

Conzatti said despite the disappointment and frustration he felt with the process that led to two of his major legislative efforts dying in the Senate this session, he’s confident about their status as an organization.

“In the short time that we’ve been here, we’ve become the most effective conservative organization in the state,” he said. “A lot of people focus on some of the other groups, and they might throw fire bombs, but they’re not actually getting policy work done, whereas we are.”

Family policy center grew out of similar efforts in Idaho dating back 20 years

The Idaho Family Policy Center received its 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization at the end of February of this year and filed the initial article of incorporation with the Idaho Secretary of State on May 11, 2021. Among its founding incorporators are former Idaho state treasurer Ron Crane, father of Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and Ben Toews, a North Idaho resident running for Idaho Senate in the Republican primary. Conzatti and a local real estate agent named Kelly Kitchens were also incorporating members, but Conzatti is the only paid staffer.

Ron Crane is also a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative and libertarian group that has advocated against certain social issues in education and ranks legislators each year based on how closely their votes align with Freedom Foundation recommendations. Conzatti said beyond that, the two organizations don’t mix in advocacy efforts.

Conzatti grew up in a liberal area of Washington and didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration in 2016 from Liberty University, a private evangelical school in Virginia, and went on to earn a master’s degree in law and public policy from Regent University, a private Christian university, in 2020. Before coming to Idaho, Conzatti worked for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

The Idaho Family Policy Center grew out of several similar efforts that haven’t been as successful in the past, Conzatti said. One of the earliest was Idaho Family Forum, a group tied to the national nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, which is known for its promotion of socially conservative views, including strong opposition to gay rights and abortion. Focus on the Family has a lobbying organization called Family Policy Alliance, which used to be called Focus on the Family Action and then CitizenLink.

Shortly after the Idaho Family Forum dissolved in 2000, a similar group started Cornerstone Institute of Idaho. Conzatti said that organization failed as well. In 2017, the Family Policy Alliance took over Cornerstone and turned it into the Family Policy Alliance of Idaho.

That led to the creation of the Idaho Family Policy Center in 2021, Conzatti said, because the former organization had too many financial responsibilities to other states, and what worked in nine or 10 other states might not work in Idaho. The Family Policy Alliance lists organizations in 37 other states as “allies,” including Montana, Washington and Wyoming.

“Becoming an independent organization with an entirely local board that is catering to the needs of Idaho and what’s practical here was a strategic advantage,” Conzatti said.

The board of directors for the Idaho Family Policy Center includes Ron Crane, Kitchens and Toews as well as Israel Waitman, a Boise resident who owns an investment firm, and Toby Sumpter, an associate pastor at the controversial Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.

Legislator: We need more family policy centers in Idaho

The center is part of a network of more than 40 state organizations that do similar work, Conzatti said. It is an alliance with four parent organizations: Focus on the Family, Family Policy Alliance, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council. When Conzatti has legal questions, he can consult with resources from those organizations, and he said the entire network meets for a conference every year.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, has been deeply involved with legislation prohibiting transgender girls and women from participating in sports. Ehardt sponsored the first bill that became law in Idaho in 2020, and state legislatures across the country have passed similar bills or bills with the exact same wording in the two years since. Ehardt enlisted the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based nonprofit focused on “religious freedom, sanctity of life and marriage and family,” to help her write the bill and turn it into model legislation that could easily be repurposed in another state with the same language.

Since 2020, at least 30 states have considered passing the same law, including Oklahoma at the end of March and Kentucky in mid-April. Ehardt was absent during parts of the legislative session this year, on one occasion when she traveled to Indiana to testify at a hearing on the legislation there. Ehardt said various pro-family groups have paid for her travel there but didn’t specify which ones.

Based on her travel to other states, Ehardt said Idaho needs more pro-family groups who work together on social policy issues.

“Idaho is really behind the 8-ball when it comes to pro-family groups to help with this type of thing,” Ehardt said. “I don’t think it hurts us at all if we have another couple of pro-family groups. Even with what we have, there’s only (Conzatti) on staff. So even if this pro-family group had more people on staff, it would be helpful.”

Longtime Idaho senator chose not to hear two policy center bills this session

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, served as an Idaho legislator for 22 years before announcing she would retire after this term. Lodge worked with Conzatti to sponsor the bill allowing civil lawsuits against abortion providers and worked with him in 2021 on the heartbeat bill related to abortion.

“I think (Conzatti is) very smart, he has a lot of outside contacts with other big groups,” Lodge said. “I also think he hasn’t been in Idaho very long, and he’s tied himself up with some folks that I don’t think are as compassionate as maybe some of the folks I want to see be involved in this process.”

As chairwoman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, Lodge could have scheduled a hearing for the other two bills regarding transgender medical care and minors accessing obscene materials in libraries. Ultimately she chose not to, killing both bills for the session.

Conzatti tried to persuade Lodge to hear the bills, along with his counterpart at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, Christian Welp. Lodge told them she wouldn’t consider a hearing on either one until she saw changes that removed criminal penalties.

“When I read the bills, I thought, ‘Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, how did these pass the House?’” Lodge said. “When they came in, I said, ‘How could anybody read this and think this is right?’ This is not social justice in any way.”

Lodge said she received thousands of emails about both of the bills, and she was especially surprised and humbled by stories from parents with transgender children. Many parents discussed facing a choice between jail and their child dying by suicide.

“I got one email from a father who said, ‘I’m going to be put in jail for trying to save my son’s life.’ How can you not be moved by something like that?” Lodge said. “I was asked by many, many senators to hold the bills because they knew they were wrong. They knew they were wrong.”

‘There’s no neutrality here,’ says Nampa biblical boot camp speaker

As a nonprofit organization, the Idaho Family Policy Center can only devote a certain amount of time to legislative efforts. Conzatti said that amounts to less than 10% of the center’s activity, while the rest is spent engaging with churches and church members. He’s also working on a devotional publication to distribute so Christians can intentionally pray for cultural issues and elected officials.

The center also holds events like the Biblical Activism Boot Camps. Two of those have taken place in the past six months, with guest speakers that have included Rep. Brent Crane and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian. Crane is also chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.

The most recent boot camp took place over about six hours on March 12 at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Nampa, with guest speakers Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Gary DeMar, founder and president of American Vision, another Christian nonprofit organization. Both organizations have been designated as anti-gay and trans hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center for actions such as defending criminalization of gay sexual acts as a public health issue and a required sterilization law for transgender people in Europe.

The Alliance Defending Freedom says it did not defend the law itself, but filed a brief stating an international court did not have proper jurisdiction to strike down the law. The organization also filed an amicus brief in a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case saying same-sex sodomy is a public health issue and states have a right to regulate it.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, DeMar said in 2009 that a long-term goal should be “the execution of abortionists and their parents,” because if the argument is that abortion is murder, then the death penalty must apply. In DeMar’s 1987 book, “Ruler of the Nations,” he also wrote, “The law that requires the death penalty for homosexual acts effectually drives the perversion of homosexuality back into the closet.”

Conzatti told the Capital Sun he was unfamiliar with those quotes and would be shocked if they were accurate in context, particularly since some were sourced by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Every employer I’ve worked with has been labeled a hate group by them, and they’re really dishonest in how they tend to represent things,” Conzatti said.

At the boot camp, DeMar said the goal is not just to change the top branches of government, but to change the entire system to bring it back “into biblical reality.” The goal is not to take power, he said, but to become involved politically to reduce the power of political actors.

“We don’t want to force people to become Christians, that’s not within our power to do,” DeMar said. “Our goal is simply to make sure God’s word is applied consistently in every area of life, because there’s no neutrality here.”

DeMar acknowledged in his remarks that the Bible discourages the idea of imposing ideas of morality onto others but said today’s world makes it necessary to act.

“A lot of morality is being imposed today. They want you not to impose your view of morality on other people, why? So that they can gain power so they can impose their morality on us,” DeMar said. “This is not very difficult to understand.”

Conzatti also spoke during one session of the boot camp on the importance of Christians getting involved in public policy. He uses historical examples from the founding days of America as the standard that should be followed today for promoting Christianity through government, such as prayer proclamations that directed people to spend a day praying, offering thanksgiving and sometimes fasting. He also cites election sermons from the 1800s, when state legislatures would bring pastors to the statehouse to talk about what the Bible says regarding issues before them such as taxation.

“We need to find a way to get back to this, right?” Conzatti said to those in attendance. “It’s incredible. Think about how much better our policy would be if studied Christian pastors went to state legislatures to tell them what the Bible says about the issues.”

Idaho has to choose between God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom in lawmaking, director says

Stewart Gardner, an associate professor of political science at Boise State University, said while it’s true that America’s Founding Fathers all identified as Christians, they believed in freedom of conscience and keeping the operation of government separate from religion. The idea was that people would govern themselves to a great extent, and Christians would listen to their churches without a need for government intervention on moral issues.

“They thought the combination of ambitious priests and politicians was harmful, that they led to holy wars and all kinds of injustices,” Gardner said. “The whole Protestant reformation was sort of grounded in the idea that one dominant church and it getting mixed up in political power, as it had (historically), was bad for humanity.”

In an interview with the Idaho Capital Sun, Conzatti said people can be free in their religious convictions while the public sphere promotes Christian principles. Western society developed under Christianity and biblical underpinnings, Conzatti said, and all law reflects one morality system or another.

“We have to decide as a society whether we will rely upon man’s wisdom or God’s wisdom as we pass laws and create more policy. Man’s wisdom leads to mob justice, whereas God’s wisdom leads to flourishing, it leads to social stability, it leads to individuals reaching their highest potential,” he said. “We really do have to choose: It’s Christ or chaos.”

Conzatti said there is distrust of the organization’s motives, but all of their advocacy efforts are rooted in love of God and neighbor. The funding comes entirely from individual donors, he said, and the center operates on a small budget. The goal isn’t to raise a lot of money or to start a lobbying wing of the organization, he said — it’s to get into the dirty work of policymaking.

“If we truly love our neighbors, we would want them to live in a society thoroughly permeated by biblical principles where they can flourish most,” Conzatti said. “And that’s the reason for what we’re doing and in line with what Jesus tells us.”