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For Italian Job, Mormons Ask a D.C. Insider for Help
The National Law Journal
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken the rare step of hiring a Washington, D.C., lobbyist -- to help it through a bureaucratic quagmire in Italy.
For 20 years, the Mormon church has been fighting for legal status in Italy that will make it easier for members to marry and receive tax benefits.
Now, with its application stalled awaiting parliamentary approval, the church has hired A. Elizabeth Jones, a former high-level State Department employee and ambassador to Kazakhstan who is now an executive vice president at APCO Worldwide. Jones is lobbying the U.S. embassy in Italy to support the church's application.
The push marks the first time a lobbyist has registered with the federal government on behalf of the church. It comes almost a year after church officials announced construction of a temple in Rome, its first in the Mediterranean region. APCO's office in Rome has been working with the church -- and other religions seeking similar legal recognition that have formed a coalition with the Mormon church -- to push the applications through.
John Zackrison, a lawyer who has worked on the matter for the church since 2005, said officials hope vocal American support for their application will move the agreement, known as an "intesa," forward. "The advice we've received is, if the U.S. government were to weigh in favor of the [agreements] in some way, that -- with the current Italian government -- could be helpful in the process of getting the ... issue off the dime," he said.
The church has spent years negotiating the intesa, an Italian term that means "understanding." Seven other religions, including the Apostolic Church of Italy and the Union of Italian Buddhists, also required either approval of an intesa or an amendment to an existing one and last year formed a coalition with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to advocate for parliamentary action.
An intesa carries certain privileges, as well as granting the highest status given to religions in Italy. Each agreement must be individually negotiated. The Mormon agreement, for example, would streamline the process of authorizing ministers to perform civilly recognized marriages and make it easier to renew visas for missionaries, Zackrison said.
There are roughly 23,000 Mormons in Italy, a tiny fraction of the church's worldwide membership of 13.5 million. The provisions in the intesa could make it easier for the church to grow there, as much by conferring status as through any specific provision.
"Outside of the United States, being part of a minority religion can be very difficult in your daily life, and having your religion have a greater stature is worth a lot," Zackrison said. "The church would invest in achieving this if there were no other reason."
Italy is far from the only country to confer official status upon religions. England has the Anglican Church, for instance, and other countries, including Spain and Germany, have their own ways of creating agreements between the state and different religions. For a growing religion such as Mormonism, the highest possible status is valuable; the church is working through the process in other countries as well as Italy. Such recognition can also bring access to preferred tax treatment and public money.
An Italian intesa, for instance, qualifies churches to receive some taxpayer funds, though Zackrison said the Mormon church's draft agreement promises that the church will not accept the money. The church will benefit from a property tax exemption. Zackrison said the church is theoretically eligible for the exemption now, but has had to argue for it in some Italian jurisdictions. If the agreement is approved, donors will qualify for a small exemption as well, he said.
Winning approval for the agreement has not been easy.
Massimo Introvigne, managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, said he has been involved in discussions about the pending agreements. The holdup, he said in an e-mail, is political. Muslim groups have inquired about negotiating the agreements, he said, and parliament fears approving one for them would be "electoral suicide." But not doing so could offend Muslim nations, leading parliament to simply postpone votes on other pacts to avoid singling out one religion, he said.
The Italian embassy did not respond to several requests for comment regarding the agreements.
Zackrison, a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis, began working on the issue in 2005 after joining the church as in-house counsel in Europe. He joined the Salt Lake City firm Kirton & McConkie on July 1, but continues to work for the church in Utah as outside counsel. Zackrison points out that Muslim groups are not as advanced in the process as the religions that are members of the coalition. But he said some political parties in Italy favor tradition "and minority religions are not part of tradition, and therefore what we have been told is that they have exerted their political power."
To deal with the roadblock, the church hired APCO Worldwide's Italy office in 2007 to "provide political advice," Zackrison said. The company helped set up a Web site for the coalition in Italian, for instance.
APCO referred questions about the company's representation to the church. Zackrison confirmed that the church's relationship with APCO goes beyond the Italy work, but said he wasn't able to discuss the relationship further. "It's one of many projects that APCO Worldwide is doing for the church," Zackrison said. A church spokeswoman, Kim Farah, said that "the church has a history of using a public relations agency, such as APCO, to assist in its work." Farah said the church began working with APCO in 2006.
The past few years have been active on the public relations front for the church. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that APCO helped set up editorial board meetings for church officials after Republican Mitt Romney's bid for the presidential nomination brought new attention to the church, including some attacks. Church officials also granted rare interviews after the church was criticized for its role in the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage there.
Zackrison said that, when church officials heard that U.S. government support could help their intesa application, APCO's office in Rome referred them to Jones.
APCO lobbyist Jones certainly knows her way around an embassy.
The former ambassador was a career State Department employee before joining APCO and served as assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia, a position that called for supervising ambassadors and embassies. Her client list -- she filed three reports in the second quarter -- is made up of those with complex international interests. Lobbying disclosure reports show that Inna Gudavadze, the owner of media assets in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, hired her to lobby for press freedoms in Georgia, among other things. Another client, Corbiere Trust Co., hired her to promote bilateral relations between the United States and Russia, while supporting human rights and political prisoners in Russia.
Jones, via APCO, referred questions to the church. Other former State Department officials said someone such as Jones would likely have contacts at the embassy that could make it worthwhile to lobby there instead of at the State Department in Washington. "She is a senior well-known official, so she'll probably get access to people," said Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to NATO and deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs who now directs the Center on Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "She'll have friends and contacts who are in senior positions in Italy."
Darby Holliday, a spokesman for the State Department, said the United States has not contacted the Italian government regarding the intesa. "The embassy does speak regularly with the LDS, as they do other religious communities or organizations," he said.
Zackrison said the church has met with the embassy about the issue in the past, but now is hoping for more vocal support. "We're based in the United States," he said, referring to the church. "If there's something the [embassy] could bring to bear on this issue, we have sought to do that."