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Reprinted from the Des Moines Register May 9.

It would be encouraging to see Iowa organizations like The Family Leader and Interfaith Alliance of Iowa both talking about the need for civil discourse in the presidential race — but a recent exchange between these groups was a letdown.

We weren’t impressed by Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, trying to shame Democratic presidential candidates into appearing at his organization’s forum. But it was even more disappointing to see Interfaith’s Connie Ryan twist the definition of civility to the point of ruling out dialogue with someone who believes as Vander Plaats does about LGBTQ issues.

There was nothing wrong with Vander Plaats extending an invitation to Democratic presidential candidates to join the evangelical Christian organization’s annual summit in July. He offered a platform for civil discourse, despite his organization’s staunch opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage and other social positions the Democratic Party embraces.

But when the campaigns, spurred by the Interfaith Alliance, turned Vander Plaats down, he wrote in a guest column that he’d made the invitation to honor LGBT activist Donna Red Wing’s legacy and lamented that the Democratic campaigns were unwilling to have a civil conversation. Red Wing and Vander Plaats had enjoyed an unusual friendship after she asked him out for coffee one day.

“I never envisioned one day we would become dear friends, challenging and inspiring many to have civil conversation over deep disagreements,” Vander Plaats wrote.

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We don’t question Vander Plaats’ sincerity. Even so, there was nothing wrong with Democratic candidates passing on the opportunity. It’s understandable if they would prefer to focus their precious time in Iowa on audiences with a higher likelihood to yield caucus supporters. It’s also understandable if they would not want to help raise the profile and fundraising ability of an organization that works against their values.

As Drake University’s Carol Spaulding-Kruse writes in a separate guest column, public dialogue requires a neutral framework and facilitation. “That’s why I find it disingenuous to invite political leaders to an annual summit hosted by those leaders’ political opponents and then claim that they are refusing to engage in civil discourse when they decline to attend,” she wrote.

But Vander Plaats didn’t deserve the over-the-top response from Ryan. She wrote in a guest column that Vander Plaats’ positions and actions against gay marriage and other issues show a lack of respect to other people.

“Vander Plaats and much of the work of The Family Leader is antithetical to civility. He has shown time and again that, based on his actions and his rhetoric, he is not committed to civility or civil dialogue,” Ryan wrote.

By defining Vander Plaats’ values and public-policy efforts to promote those values as inherently uncivil, Ryan seems to suggest there can never be civil discourse between people on opposite sides of issues like abortion, gay marriage and Medicaid funding for gender reassignment.

That is a shame. The Interfaith Alliance and The Family Leader, despite being on opposite sides of many issues, have some things in common. They are both faith-based coalitions of religious organizations. Both have an interest in public policy and civil discourse. Maybe Bob and Connie should have coffee and talk. We at the Register would be happy to offer neutral ground.

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