Legislative session delivers victories on abortion and other issues

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PROVIDENCE — The recently ended state legislative session was mostly a positive outcome for issues of concern to Catholics, averting a vote on bills that would expand abortion and delivering victories in other areas like immigration and gun control.

“The Rhode Island Catholic Conference supported much legislation this session especially bills that protect human life, respect human dignity, and advance the common good of our state. We are grateful to the leadership of both the Rhode Island House and Senate for their support of legislation that put into practice the principles of Catholic Social Teaching,” said Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, which advocates for the Catholic Church at the Statehouse.

Father Healey noted that Pope Francis has said elected officials who are Catholic should heed the Church’s moral and social teachings when drafting legislation. The pope has also emphasized that the Church has something to contribute to the “great questions of society in our time.”

In Rhode Island lawmakers applied Catholic social thought in a number of areas. On a number of important issues they succeeded. But not all the bills supported by the diocese passed this session. A total of 2,381 bills were submitted during the session — with 1,366 at the House level and 1,015 in the Senate, according to Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life. The following is a brief breakdown of the most noteworthy legislation.

Abortion

The top priority for pro-lifers was stopping the Reproductive Health Care Act, which Bracy called “the most extreme abortion bill we have seen in Rhode Island.” The bill would not only have expanded legal abortion, but also would have permitted partial-birth and late-term abortions, according to testimony Bracy provided earlier this year.

“This extreme bill would expand abortion on demand in Rhode Island, allow abortionists to go unregulated and ensure taxpayer dollars fund abortions. The turnout at the hearing in the House by the pro-life community was a great witness and support to the many pro-life members of the General Assembly,” Father Healey said.

The bills never made it past the committee level in both the House and the Senate.

But the issue might not be going away in the state anytime soon. Amid news that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was retiring and President Trump has named Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to replace Kennedy, abortion rights advocates are stoking fears that Roe v. Wade could be overturned and are calling for a special session to deal with the issue.

“[I]t is clear that the agents of the culture of death and their elected allies are now using the retirement of Justice Kennedy to instill fear in hopes of advancing their extremist vision of expanding the legal killing of unborn children. It is a ploy by the far-left politicians to garner support in the primary election,” Father Healey said. “It is clear that the abortion lobby and their extremist allies in the General Assembly intend to make the expansion of abortion rights in Rhode Island the main focus of the next legislative session in January 2019.”

Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Pro-lifers also succeeded in stopping another bill that would have legalized assisted suicide in Rhode Island. In a hearing earlier this year, one local doctor testified before a House committee that suicide was not a medically necessary way of dealing with pain experienced by terminal illnesses and that such patients were often struggling with depression, rather than the pain itself. Other critics warned that it made those with disabilities more vulnerable and compromises the oath that physicians take ‘to do no harm.’

Religious Freedom

Rhode Island Right to Life and the RI Catholic Conference also successfully battled against an insurance bill that would have had ramifications for religious freedom and conscience rights. “We defeated one complex insurance bill that, unbeknownst to some of the sponsors, would have the effect of creating here in Rhode Island an ‘HHS Mandate’ similar to the one that the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby had to fight off at the federal level,” Bracy said.

Statute of Limitations

Another bill that the Church was following would have scrapped the statute of limitations on child sex abuse in civil cases, making the change retroactive. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Carol McEntee (D-Narragansett) and Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), did not come up for a full vote.

“The abuse of children, especially sexual abuse, is a stain on our nation’s collective soul. It is heartbreaking and devastating; it is present in every facet of society: families, schools, civic organizations, correctional facilities for juveniles and even churches. Within this reality, and in the midst of an understandably sensitive environment, good public policy must be made as it affects citizens of Rhode Island both now and into the future,” Father Healey said.

He said the RI Catholic Conference backed the expansion of the statute of limitations “prospectively and appropriately.” But he faulted the proposed bill for covering only religious groups and other nonprofits, exempting public schools and other governmental entities.

“Unfortunately, the proposed legislation was unjust and discriminatory as it only targeted private institutions. The proposed bill also undercuts sound judicial practices by changing the law retroactively. Statutes of limitations ensure due process and fairness, and prevent old claims from coming forward that are literally impossible to defend,” Father Healey said.

“The Catholic Church has reached out to survivors and remains committed to protecting children by creating safe environments. Our vigilance includes required background checks of both volunteers and employees, and requires ongoing awareness and education about abuse and protecting children,” Father Healey added. “Our unwavering support for healing assistance and counseling will continue regardless of when a survivor’s claim is confirmed. We remain committed to continuing these efforts in order to ensure strong protections and safe environments for the children in our schools and parishes.”

Immigration

Nationally, immigration has been a major issue since last fall. In early fall of 2017, the Trump administration suspended the Obama era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected so-called Dreamers — children of undocumented immigrants — from deportation. A number of federal court rulings have restored the program, at least temporarily. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Rhode Island passed a bill allowing Dreamers who live in the state to get driver’s licenses.

“Rhode Islanders who have current or past Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status can now apply for a Rhode Island driver’s license regardless of what happens to the program. We are grateful to Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Warwick) and Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls). Bishop Tobin and the RICC have been fully supportive of this legislation for our many RI Dreamers,” Father Healey said.

Gun Regulation

Guns were another national issue that reached down to the state level this session.

“The debate surrounding guns was heated and very volatile at times in the statehouse this session. The Rhode Island Catholic Conference was pleased that two bills to prevent gun violence and mass shootings … were passed and signed into law,” Father Healey said.

One, known as ‘red flag’ legislation empowers courts to bar individuals who law enforcement believe are a “violent threat to themselves or others” from having guns, Father Healey said. The second bill was a ban on bump stocks and other similar “rapid-fire gun modifications.”

“They were reasonable and common sense gun legislation and supported by law enforcement agencies across the state,” Father Healey said.

Earlier this year, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin explicitly voiced his support for such legislation in a statement publicized by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence.

“I am writing at this time to offer my personal support for the efforts of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence to enact reasonable and common sense gun control legislation here in Rhode Island. I have publicly supported these legislative efforts on a number of occasions in the past. For example, a few years ago I wrote, “The right to own guns in not an absolute right. As a personal right it always has to be balanced with the legitimate rights of other people and with protecting the common good,” Bishop Tobin said.

Payday Lending

Payday lending was one issue on which the Church did not see success this year. The state Catholic Conference supported a bill by Senator Harold Metts, D-Providence, that would have addressed some of the injustices of payday lending. The bill would have outlawed some of the extremely high interest rates — in some instances, as high as 260 percent — that these lenders charge. Instead they would have to lend at a maximum of 36 percent, a limit which applies to most lenders.

Church teaching has long been against unjust lending practices, dating back to the condemnation of usury by the Church Fathers and the formal statement by the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

“The RI Catholic Conference supports lending that is fair and helpful for persons in need. In the teachings of our faith, we have many warnings about usury and exploitation of people. Lending practices that, intentionally or unintentionally, take unfair advantage of low-income and poor people’s often desperate circumstances are unjust. Catholic Social Teaching demands respect for the dignity of persons, preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable, and the pursuit of the common good. These principles coupled with our teaching on economic justice animate our questioning of current payday lending practices and support Sen. Metts’ bill,” Father Healey said.

Overall Budget

The session ended with the passage of a $9.6 billion budget. The bill had both its pluses and minuses for the Church in Rhode Island, according to Father Healey. On the upside, he believes it provided funding for many important social safety net programs for the poor and other vulnerable populations in the state. It also set aside money for the textbook loan program and busing that will help Catholic school families.

But the budget had one major drawback: “Unfortunately there was no increase in the cap of the Tuition Scholarship Tax Credit that benefits many of our low-income Catholic School students,” Father Healey said. The diocese had been seeking an increase from the current cap of $1.5 million to $5 million. The change would have benefitted Catholic and other religious schools as well as some private schools.