Faith Communities and Dedicated Citizens Play a Key Role in Animal Protection

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May 11, 2012

By Christine Gutleben

Grounded in the biblical call to care for God’s creatures, communities of faith have long played a vital role in the history of advocating protection for animals.  As citizens engage in local and state policy to prevent inhumane treatment, the critical support of faith leaders and their communities has opened the way for a more humane society.

A brief scan of history reveals a long-standing tradition of advocacy for animal welfare within the Christian community. For example, the first-ever piece of animal welfare legislation, the “Bill for the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle,” was passed in England in 1824 after faith leaders campaigned for the measure. Two years later, Rev. Arthur Broome and the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce established the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which worked to protect horses and animals in markets and slaughterhouses and to “effect a change in the moral feelings of those who had the control of animals.”

Not surprisingly, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the nation’s largest animal protection organization, owes much of its success to the support of clergy and religious individuals. Two of the organization’s presidents were also pastors whose combined leadership spanned 35 years. In 1955, during the first annual report to the members of HSUS, then Chairman of the Board Robert Chenoweth said, “Our faith is that there is a God who created all things and put us here on Earth to live together. Our creed is that love and compassion are due from the strong to the weak … If we hold this faith and accept this creed, we are morally bound to be teachers and preachers and evangelists.”

Today, HSUS receives assistance from a Faith Advisory Council and maintains a Faith Outreach program. Its work to protect animals includes supporting public policies at the state and federal levels, as well as citizens’ ballot initiatives, among other efforts.

In the case of farm animal welfare, citizen initiatives, followed by state laws, led to unprecedented industry support for federal regulation. In 2008, HSUS spearheaded a campaign in California to ban three types of extreme confinement of farm animals: the confinement of veal calves in small crates that prevent them from turning around; the detention of egg-laying hens in cages too small to allow hens to even spread their wings; and the confinement of breeding pigs in gestation crates, cages roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies, which virtually immobilize the pigs for most of their lives. Hundreds of faith leaders endorsed this measure and many more lent support by collecting signatures, hosting informative meetings, panel discussions and film screenings. Prior to the California campaign, HSUS worked on similar ballot measures in Florida and Arizona.

In a testament to the strong concern California’s citizens have for animals, the ballot initiative garnered 63.5 percent of the statewide vote and won in 47 of 58 counties, including many rural and agricultural counties. The measure received more “Yes” votes than any citizen initiative in California’s electoral history. This victory was followed by similar successes in the statehouses in Maine and Michigan.

As a result of these and other ballot measures and state laws, in 2011 the United Egg Producers, which represents 90 percent of the U.S. egg industry, agreed to work with HSUS to jointly advocate for federal legislation to improve the treatment of laying hens and provide a stable future for egg farmers. If passed, the bill will essentially double the amount of living space for each bird and will implement a labeling program to aid consumers in making informed decisions.  Many religious leaders have already endorsed this bill. A timeline of major farm animal protection advancements illustrates how much can be accomplished by the actions of dedicated, concerned citizens—working in their own cities, counties, and states.

From St. Basil in the 4th century who said, “God, may we realize that the animals live not for us alone but for themselves and for thee,” to the hundreds of religious leaders who endorsed the ballot measures and state policies to create better standards for farm animals in the U.S., faithful people have a rich history of acting on their concern about the welfare of God’s creatures. Christians can continue this tradition by advocating for animal welfare at the local and state levels, which can often to lead to impact on a national scale.   

—Christine Gutleben is the senior director of faith outreach for The Humane Society of the United States. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.