NASHVILLE - Faith leaders from across Tennessee gathered at the Capitol on Monday to speak out for the poor, while the governor and lawmakers consider initiatives affecting health insurance and welfare benefits.
About 15 clergy delivered 133 baskets of loaves and paper fish to the offices of each legislator and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, urging them to accept $1.4 billion in Medicaid money if the federal government doesn't approve an alternate plan for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee.
The clergy said the loaves and fish symbolized the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, and that the money could provide thousands with health insurance.
"We're here today ... to send a message to Gov. Haslam that if the government does not accept his alternate plan for health care here in Tennessee, then we really want him to accept the Medicaid expansion dollars," said Kathy Chambers, one of the organizers of Clergy for Justice, a grassroots advocacy group for equality.
"We want him to take the resources and be able to multiply it like in the miracle of the loaves and fish, and be able to help Tennesseans who need health insurance desperately."
Haslam later told reporters that he understands the group's concern for "the least of these," but that he also must be financially responsible.
"We want to make certain that there is a sustainable system in place that the states and the federal government can afford 10 years from now and 20 years from now and 30 years from now," he said.
The governor said last week that his ongoing pursuit of a special deal for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee is no "fool's errand" and that an arrangement could still be struck at any time.
He said he remained in negotiations with the federal government over his proposal to use the Medicaid money available under the federal health care overhaul to pay for private coverage for uninsured Tennesseans.
"Perhaps when we are willing to take the risk to share, there is more than enough to go around, whether that is food or medical care or education," said Rev. Michael Williams of West United Methodist Church in Nashville.
Chambers said the group also opposed legislation that seeks to link a family's welfare benefits to student performance.
The measure would cut monthly benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if a child fails to "maintain satisfactory academic progress." Haslam has said he would "very strongly" consider a veto if it passes both chambers.
"My concern has been whenever we want to have a cause and effect, we want to make certain that there really is a direct link there and a relationship," Haslam said Monday. "I think there's too many other reasons that could cause a child to struggle in school, beyond just a parent's lack of involvement. To have that direct link there ... is worrisome to me."
Chambers said such legislation could cause repercussions for a child.
"If you make the welfare of that family dependent upon a particular child's grades, then the family could hold that kid accountable for not making the grades and not getting that TANF funding," she said. "You could have a bad situation turn worse."
Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Roy Herron, who held a news conference later in the day to speak out against the bill, agreed.
"There will be some child who will catch unmitigated hell because some struggling parent or some demented parent takes it out on the child when their food is not there and the benefits are not paid," he said.
"We should be protecting and providing for our children, not starving them if they struggle in school."