It was the first evening of a two-day retreat at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for a small group of religious leaders from around the country and beyond. Michael Bruner, professor of religion at Azuza Pacific University, was jotting down some ideas for a proclamation to propose to other faith leaders. His first paragraph raised a cheer from everyone.

“You get the feeling that you’re part of something that’s going to be very big and very wonderful,” said United Methodist Church pastor Jonathan Massey of Chandler, Arizona. “We’re ready to take the next jump into the rights of other living beings. It’s a major step spiritually and ethically.”

Rabbi Robin Nafshi of the Jewish Community Center in West Orange, New Jersey, said kindness to animals is an important part of the Jewish faith. “We are taught that we have an obligation for their well-being and to avoid causing pain whenever possible.”

The group dove deeply into some of the issues that have divided people of faith in their attitude to animals – like the question of whether non-human animals have souls. But the group quickly concluded that theological debates of this kind really don’t address the issue. “They are sentient beings, and that’s what matters most,” said Rabbi Nafshi.

“An animal is a living, breathing being we have a responsibility to care for,” added Imam Qasim Ahmed, founder and director of the Islamic Learning Institute.

Several people noted that even raising the subject of animal protection from the pulpit can be challenging. Reverend Zandra Wagoner, professor of religion at the University of La Verne, pointed out that historically there has always been pressure in many traditions to toe the line and not rock the boat.

“If this initiative takes flight and becomes a real conversation within our faith communities, there will be backlash,” she commented, adding that any initiative will need to include encouragement of faith leaders to be courageous.

“There is so much pressure to be mediocre, middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock-the boat ministers and priests. It will help if there is a critical mass of religious leaders who are advocating on behalf of the animals.”