Legislative session closes on a year of mixed outcomes for faith-based issues

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PROVIDENCE — The 2016 legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly was a source of both hope and frustration for Catholics keeping an eye on issues of special concern to the Church. Several topics of interest received discussion in committee or at public rallies, and while certain protections for vulnerable groups and religious freedom remained in place, other efforts at expanding legislative protections for the unborn, immigrants, juvenile offenders and Catholic education met strong resistance.

“As the legislative year ended we saw what we typically see, some things we hoped for not come to pass and other bills we favored find support and pass,” said Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference.

Among the successes was the continued provision of support for diocesan elder care and immigration and refugee services as part of the 2017 state budget, approved by the General Assembly on June 17. According to Father Healey, funds supporting these vital services once came in the form of community service grants but are now included directly in the budget, an important step to ensure future funding.

Father Healey also applauded the success of legislation that allows Mount St. Charles Academy, operated by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, to maintain its tax-exempt status and continue providing Catholic middle and high school education to the families of Woonsocket and the surrounding regions.

In other areas, however, efforts to expand legislative protections for vulnerable groups met with less success. In March, a bill seeking to reform the criminal sentencing of youth by eliminating life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, supported by both the Rhode Island Catholic Conference and the USA Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus, was voted held for further study.

Legislative efforts to allow undocumented individuals to obtain driver’s licenses were also halted in May after much public debate. Though bills attempting to provide licenses for the state’s undocumented persons has stalled in the past, Governor Gina Raimondo’s vocal support led many to believe the issue might finally come to vote this year. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, echoing the call of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for immigration reform, expressed his support for the measure in a statement in March.

“The Bishops of the United States have supported the passage of comprehensive immigration reform in our nation for many years,” wrote Bishop Tobin. “Until that finally happens, particular, ad-hoc issues such as providing drivers licenses for undocumented individuals will inevitably arise. I wish to express my support for the proposal to provide special, limited licenses for undocumented individuals in Rhode Island.”

Bishop Tobin’s position reflects a long history of support for newly arrived immigrants by the Catholic Church in Rhode Island, a history rooted in Church teaching, papal encyclicals and scripture.

“The Catholic Church in the United States and in Rhode Island is an immigrant Church with a long history of embracing diverse newcomers and providing them the necessary assistance and pastoral care, including refugees fleeing persecution, poverty and instability,” explained Father Healey. “We as a Church must respond to Christ’s call to ‘welcome the stranger among us,’ for in our welcome to the immigrant, the migrant and the refugee in our midst, we welcome Christ.”

Bishop Tobin and the Rhode Island Catholic Conference also expressed this position in November when they joined other faith leaders in speaking out on behalf of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their own country. Despite public debate in the State House rotunda, no legislative action was taken to prevent Syrian immigration and the state moved forward with plans to resettle Syrian refugees who had passed security clearance procedures.

Efforts to promote right-to-life measures at the State House had mixed outcomes, with legislation stalling on both sides of the debate. While an Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would recognize unborn children as victims of violent crimes, was ultimately derailed, bills seeking to legalize assisted suicide and expand the scope of practice of physicians’ assistants to allow them to perform abortions were also prevented from moving to the Assembly floor. Father Healey and Barth Bracy, director of Rhode Island Right to Life, both indicated they would monitor the progress of the assisted suicide bill, which they expect to be reintroduced next legislative session.

“While we do not celebrate the fact that we did not succeed in passing any pro-life legislation this year, as we were able to do last year, we do take solace in the fact that NARAL has dropped Rhode Island from a grade of D to an F with regard to abortion, leaving local abortion advocates in dismay,” noted Bracy.

The dropped abortion rating is a result of legislation that went into effect this year that requires HealthSource RI, the Rhode Island health insurance exchange, to ensure buyers have the option to purchase health insurance plans that do not include coverage for elective abortions. The policy was adopted in response to a 2015 lawsuit in which an anonymous, HIV-positive man sued the exchange and the federal government for requiring him to pay an abortion surcharge in order to purchase insurance on the exchange.

Advocates for non-public school educational options were disappointed with the 2017 state budget, which, as part of an educational initiative of Governor Raimondo, includes funding of SAT and PSAT exams for Rhode Island high schoolers but excludes non-public school students from taking advantage of the free test. The SAT, largely considered a prerequisite for applying to college, has traditionally existed outside the school curriculum and been offered at common testing sites open to all students. The move to include the SAT under an umbrella of educational benefits distributed based on school type rather than financial need was worrying to Edward Bastia, business administrator of the diocesan Catholic Schools Office.

“With my work with the many dedicated parents who sacrifice to send their daughters and sons to our Catholic schools, I am disappointed that state-provided programs are not universally applied,” he said.

Bastia also expressed interest in working with legislators to expand the corporate tax credit program, which allows corporations to support tuition assistance for Catholic school students, during the next legislative session.

“We look to our elected officials and members of the General Assembly to bring awareness to these issues,” he said. “Perhaps with their assistance, programs could be increased and benefits could be extended to all members of every educational community.”