The focus of the dioceses of the Catholic Church shifted to the state capitol on March 11, as the New York State Catholic Conference convened for its annual Public Policy Forum. The day offers Catholics the opportunity to lobby state legislators while becoming more deeply involved in the issues important to the church’s teachings.
The Syracuse Diocese sent a large contingent of Catholics, many with ties to Catholic Charities, attempting to sway legislators toward the perspective on issues high on the state bishops’ agenda.
Paul Welch, parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse and director of the Basic Needs office at Onondaga County Catholic Charities, said the Public Policy Day provides a voice for Catholics in the confusing world of politics. “It’s extremely important that the Catholic agenda be presented, at least once a year, to give body to the seamless garment. We are all working together to support issues of our Catholic faith,” Welch said.
“We need to tell people what constitutes our faith and to get that across to the legislators.” Early in the day, Brian Walton, director of Onondaga County Catholic Charities, visited Assemblywoman Joan Christensen (D-119th District) with Chris Curry, AmeriCorps coordinator for Catholic Charities, and Tom Cunningham, diocesan director for the Office of Ministry of Persons with Disabilities.
Cunningham focused on the issue of protecting health care providers from attacks on religious freedom. The Women’s Health and Wellness Bill, passed in 2002, forces religious health insurance groups to cover prescription contraception. Cunningham contended that the law is a threat to a Catholic’s religious freedom.
“The Catholic Church will not change its view on contraception,” Cunningham said to Christensen. “This bill is being challenged in court right now. For religious entities, this bill is a threat to all of us and we want you to stand up for faith-based communities.” Christensen said she is in the middle on many issues, including this one. “I think you can come to a middle ground. When you say ‘faith-based,’ that’s a scary term to some people. Some people think it’s a direct attack on their philosophies and beliefs,” she said. Cunningham responded, “This strikes to the root of who we are. I hope this is overturned.”
Walton spoke about the strong support Christensen has given Catholic Charities’ neighborhood centers. “She has been very helpful on that. She sponsored legislation in the assembly to clarify the roles of an afterschool center and a drop-in center,” he said. “Assemblywoman Christensen has been very supportive of us on all but the conscience clause issue. People have a right to their differing perspectives and we are here to make them see our side.”
Sam Donnelly, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in Dewitt and a member of the church’s Peace and Justice Committee, talked to State Senator John DeFrancisco (R-49th District) about the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “This issue is high on the priority list of the New York State Catholic Conference’s list and we thank you for supporting reform,” Donnelly said toDeFrancisco.
“I’ve stated publicly that it make no sense. We have outgrown the current laws, but there has to be balance,” DeFrancisco said. “Sentencing should be at the discretion of the judges. But the district attorneys have a lot of support in this state. There has been no serious movement on this issue.”
Donnelly pointed out DeFrancisco’s record on Catholic issues, talking about the state senator’s position on the Women’s Health and Wellness Bill. “Senator DeFrancisco was one of the few who voted against that bill. He was bold enough to stand up for his convictions,” stated Donnelly. “He has been a supporter of us right across the board.” Cuts in funding to mental health programs could force Catholic agencies to look elsewhere for money. Jack Callahan, Liz Hadlock and Fred Madison of Oneida-Madison Catholic Charities lobbied the aide of Assemblyman William Magee (D-111th District) for continued support of their programs. Callahan works with a runaway and homeless youth program, providing 24/7 emergency support to teens. “We might not get the funding we need,” he said. “We are going into remote areas of Madison County and we are finding a need for this.” Madison and Hadlock shared their concerns about how decreased funding for welfare and mental health programs would adversely affect their clients. Callahan said using a surplus in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money to help these programs would be a good investment.
Father Tim Taugher, diocesan director of Social Action Ministry, and Joseph Slavik, director of Broome County Catholic Charities, visited with Assemblyman Robert Warner (R-124th District) before lunch. Slavik discussed health care with Warner, telling the assemblyman from the Southern Tier that March 10-16 was “Cover the Uninsured Week” and encouraging him to support ways to insure more individuals.
“There are working families that can’t afford to have health insurance,” explained Slavik. “We are asking you to keep the Medicaid program for the low income poor.” Warner responded with some ideas of how the state legislature could fix the problem. “We need to go back to the grassroots. Why can’t every employer offer health insurance? We need to make it mandatory for business to offer insurance,” Warner said. “I understand health insurance is expensive. But I pay 100 percent of my employees’ health insurance. It gives them the peace of mind and there is no money out of their pocket.”
Problems with worker morale and effectiveness could be related to the lack of health benefits, Warner noted. “If everyone reaches out and helps their employees, they will be a more dedicated workforce. There appears to be no loyalty anymore.” Father Taugher spoke about the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and asked Warner for his continued support. “Of course, Father. I’m more than happy to,” Warner said. “If we get this budget done on or around April 1, then we will have three months to do some real work. This will be one of the priorities, I hope.”
After lunch, the Broome County group visited State Senator Thomas Libous (R-51st District) in his office. Libous said that the revenue side of the state budget had been decided and there was optimism a real budget would be passed this year. Father Taugher talked about how proposed cuts to education and health and human services programs in the state would hurt the Southern Tier. He said companies are not paying taxes on profits they earn in New York State. “By raising taxes on the highest earners in the state and forcing companies to pay taxes, we would offset the education and health care cuts,” Father Taugher explained. “This is a strong grassroots effort that has broad support across the state.”
Senator Libous told the group about innovative ways the state legislature plans to get money into the budget. “We are losing $1.4 billon each year on state tax from the Internet. Three quarters of all purchases on the Internet are from companies,” Libous said. “We are drafting legislation to tax Internet purchases and also video gambling. We’re not just going to get that money and put it into the general fund. It’s going to help those human services programs.”
This year, the New York State Catholic Conference has created a new Catholic Advocacy Network. The goal of the Catholic Advocacy Network is to provide Catholics with up-to-the-minute information on votes by their representatives along with educational materials on specific issues on the Catholic agenda. To register, go online to www.nyscatholic.org and click on the “Join the Network” link. Kevin Maloney, a diocesan seminarian serving his pastoral year at Holy Cross Church in Dewitt, said his first time to lobbying in Albany was a positive one. “It’s nice that the legislators take the time to meet with us. We are providing public witness to the beliefs of the church,” Maloney said. “It’s a unique opportunity for me, on my pastoral year, to provide that witness.”