Catholics from across New York State gathered in Albany March 19 for “Catholics at the Capitol,” a day of public policy advocacy sponsored annually by the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents New York’s bishops in matters of public policy.
The Diocese of Syracuse was represented by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and some 120 additional participants, including high school students, diocesan staff and laypeople from throughout the regions. Participants met with their elected officials to advocate on behalf of five priorities set by the state’s bishops:
• Including Education Investment Tax Credits in the state budget;
• Supporting equitable labor standards for farmworkers;
• Supporting pregnant women and opposing abortion expansion;
• Ensuring sufficient funding for programs for vulnerable populations; and
• Ensuring humane treatment for incarcerated individuals.
The day before Catholics at the Capitol, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, Bishop Cunningham and their fellow New York State bishops met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Bishop Cunningham said all of the items on the bishops’ legislative agenda were addressed during the meetings, but that the primary focus was Education Investment Tax Credit legislation.
“Our desire [is] to see enacted a tax credit which would benefit all students — private, Catholic, public, charter. Our goal is to preserve education and to enhance educational opportunities for all students,” Bishop Cunningham said.
The legislation would provide tax credits to those who make charitable donations for educational purposes. According to the Conference, the legislation would enable increased charitable giving to both public schools and scholarship-making organizations that provide tuition assistance. Such donations would help students, especially low- and middle-income students, access educations in religious and independent schools. The proposal would also give all teachers tax credits for out-of-pocket purchases of classroom supplies.
On March 19, Bill Crist, who began as diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools March 10, planned to accompany a group of students from Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School as they visited Assemblyman William Magnarelli. Echoing a phrase from Cardinal Dolan and calling the issue a “no-brainer,” Crist said the proposal would benefit families of students in public as well as Catholic schools. “It’s really time that we recognize and acknowledge that helping to fund education in any way, creatively, allows for parents to be able to send their children to schools of choice — in this case, our Catholic schools here in [the Diocese of] Syracuse,” he added.
Deacon David Sweenie, who is the pastoral coordinator of the diocesan Spanish Apostolate in the Northern Region and who helps direct migrant ministry, was on hand the same day to help advocate for the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.
“Quite frankly, the situation with farmworkers in this state, I really believe, is a shame,” he said, because “farmworkers are either minimally included in farm labor legislation or specifically excluded from all the benefits and rights that other workers in this state enjoy and that most people think that everybody has.”
According to the Conference, farmworkers in New York are excluded from many laws that establish worker protections, such as overtime pay, a day of rest, collective bargaining, employer contributions to unemployment and workers’ compensation funds, and some public health protections.
Deacon Sweenie was to meet with Assemblyman William Barclay that day. “What I’m hoping to accomplish today is that a blatantly unjust and discriminatory difference for one select group of workers be abolished, and that they be put on par to enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other worker in our state,” he said.
Paul Welch, diocesan director of social action ministry, offered his thoughts on the importance of humane treatment for incarcerated individuals as he prepared to meet with Assemblyman Gary Finch.
“The Catholic Conference has pointed to two groups within the prison for special attention, one being the elderly and the terminally ill,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to keep these people incarcerated at a tremendous cost if in fact they can be released to their families and die with some sense of normalcy.” The Conference supports the compassionate release of such individuals after screening to ensure they pose no threat to public safety.
The second group, Welch said, is incarcerated individuals suffering from mental illness. According to the Conference, the “closure of mental health facilities and lack of appropriate treatment resources in community settings has resulted in mentally ill individuals ending up in state and local correctional facilities.” Conference materials also question the extent and duration of the use of Special Housing Units, wherein incarcerated individuals spend 23 hours a day in their cells, especially in the cases of individuals with mental illness.
Welch said it comes down to Matthew 25. “‘When I was in jail, you visited me.’ The clear implication is that Christ is with every prisoner that’s in jail and if [as]Christians we don’t care about that, then I guess we don’t care about religion,” he said. “And then there’s a whole host of sociological reasons. If we want to have a healthier society, we have to treat people healthier.”
Following a morning of meetings, participants filled the nearby Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for an afternoon Mass celebrated by Cardinal Dolan and his brother bishops. In his homily, Cardinal Dolan drew on the example of St. Joseph, whose feast was celebrated that day, saying that as a father, a worker, an immigrant, St. Joseph embraced causes and issues at the core of Catholic values. Cardinal Dolan also commended those assembled for offering their witness and testimony that day and bringing the “light of our Catholic consciences” to the state capital.
For more information on these public policy issues, visit www.nyscatholic.org.