ALBANY — Kathy Peters was expressing her anguish over the plight of Catholic schools to New York state Assemblyman Brian M. Kolb of the 129th District, which includes Seneca County, as well as parts of Cayuga and Ontario counties.
In Kolb’s office, Peters told the assemblyman that Catholic schools are closing more and more frequently due to rising expenses that drive up tuition rates and drive parents away. Government could help Catholic schools through such measures as the extension of tax credits to parents who pay Catholic-school tuition, she said.
“There are ways to save Catholic schools without using tax dollars to save them,” said Peters, former principal of St. Michael’s School in Newark.
Kolb expressed sympathy to Peters and her colleagues, residents of the Diocese of Rochester’s Finger Lakes region. However, he noted that the state’s politically powerful public-school teachers’ unions oppose such school-choice measures as tuition tax credits and publicly funded tuition vouchers that might help parents finance nonpublic education.
Peters and her colleagues lobbied Kolb as part of the New York State Catholic Conference’s Public Policy Day March 8. The annual event is presented by the conference, the state bishops’ public-policy arm, to bring representatives from all of the state’s dioceses together to buttonhole legislators on issues of concern.
Later that day, Peters and the Finger Lakes representatives spoke to Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, whose 54th District covers all of Wayne County, as well as parts of Monroe, Ontario, Cayuga, Seneca and Tompkins counties. Nozzolio noted that he especially agreed with their opposition to proposed legislation that would allow human cloning and legalize embryonic stem-cell research.
Church leaders oppose such legislation because the research destroys embryonic life. Nozzolio seemed particularly interested when told that the Catholic Conference did support the use of adult stem cells in the treatment of various diseases. Such stem cells can be harvested from adults and umbilical-cord blood, and do not involve destroying human life.
Stem-cell research and tuition tax credits were among the many concerns addressed by Catholic delegates — including Bishop Matthew H. Clark and 100 representatives of the Diocese of Rochester — during Public Policy Day. Among other concerns they raised were abolition of the death penalty; state funding for affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families and individuals; funding for mental-health and chemical-dependency services; reform of the state’s drug laws and increased use of addiction-treatment programs; and adequate Medicaid reimbursement and enactment of reforms necessary to ensure health-care access and coverage for low- and moderate-income individuals.
Eileen Collins, a legislative aide to Assemblyman Joseph A. Errigo, who represents portions of Monroe, Livingston and Ontario counties, noted the importance of hearing from Catholic delegates during Public Policy Day. Such delegates represent grassroots constituencies, including the poor whom the church serves, as opposed to powerful interests.
“(Catholic delegates’ visits) stand out as very different from our day-to-day visits of polished lobbyists with packaged statements,” Collins said.
On the other hand, it’s also clear that the New York state government sometimes turns a deaf ear to the church’s concerns. The Legislature and Gov. George Pataki put this reality in stark relief by enacting legislation in 2002 that would force Catholic Charities agencies, Catholic schools and hospitals to provide contraception and abortifacient coverage in their health plans. The state Catholic conference, in collaboration with Protestant plaintiffs, has challenged the mandates in state courts, and an Appellate Division decision on the matter is expected in the next several weeks.
If the church loses the battle over mandated contraception, its leaders fear pro-abortion legislators and lobbying groups will next seek a state mandate for abortion coverage in the health plans of Catholic institutions, noted Dennis Poust, spokesman for the Catholic conference.
Such attacks show that legislators sometimes take for granted the fact that the church is the state’s largest nongovernmental provider of health care, human services and education, he said, acknowledging that “generally our elected officials in Albany do appreciate the church’s social role.” The Catholic conference enjoys good relations with a number of state legislators, Poust added.
“The religion of the legislator, we find, is not critical,” Poust said. “Some are Catholic, some are Jewish, some are Protestant. What unites them is a respect for the role of religion in society and the importance of the religious voice.”
Poust added that the Catholic conference has experienced success on some significant issues recently. For example, he said, the conference has supported winning efforts to reform the state’s drug laws; to amend a bill that would have forced hospitals to provide emergency contraception “virtually on demand” to enable Catholic facilities to do so within the church’s ethical guidelines; and to keep state funding steady for mandated and remedial services in Catholic schools.
The New York conference isn’t the only Catholic conference in the nation to battle state government over the past few years. Like New York, such states as California and Massachusetts also have seen church-state skirmishes over contraception mandates and similar issues. In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asserts that pro-choice activists have allied themselves with politicians across the country to attack church institutions.
“Abortion activists have also enlisted the support of state and local governments in discriminating against pro-life health care providers,” according to “The Assault on Catholic Health Care,” published by the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “They have intervened in ‘certificate of need’ proceedings to defeat health care facilities that object to abortion. They have engaged state attorneys general to apply novel theories of law to prevent mergers involving hospitals with pro-life policies. And they have sought to end public financing of Catholic hospitals.”
Two things talk in Albany, Poust noted: Money and votes. The church, by law, cannot use the former to influence legislation, but it can mobilize the latter. He noted that the 13,000-member Catholic Advocacy Network is one tool the conference has used to mobilize Catholic voters. Most members are notified via e-mail of pending legislation that concerns the conference, Poust noted. The conference urges network members to act on important bills by linking them to draft messages about bills on the conference’s Web site that the network members can then forward to their own legislators with the click of a mouse.
In February, Bishop Clark sent a letter to 1,600 diocesan social-justice advocates, asking them to register with the Catholic Advocacy Network, according to Jann K. Armantrout, the diocese’s life-issues coordinator. About 800 diocesan people have signed up for the network, she said, adding that all diocesan Catholics are invited to join.
The network is important because it informs people about current issues; helps them understand the church’s teaching on issues; and gives Catholics a means to participate in public debate, Armantrout added.
“We’ve had some success in terms of applying pressure to members of the Legislature to back off sponsorship of bills that we oppose,” Poust said. “An e-mail campaign to the governor a while back was instrumental in gaining the release of funds for mandated services in our schools that had been appropriated but not released. We expect the successes to multiply with the numbers.”
“We are living in a day when many of our principles of justice, peace and the protection of life are challenged or rejected by the greater society,” Armantrout said. “The Catholic Advocacy Network helps to clear a way for government leaders to hear the truth that all human life is sacred, that relationships and allocation of resources are to be used with justice, and peace is how we are called to live. “
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about diocesan and statewide efforts to influence New York state policy, visit the diocese’s Web site on the topic at www.dor.org/charities/dioprograms/publicpolicy.htm. You may also visit www.nyscatholic.org. and click “Join The Network.” You can also join the network bycalling the conference at 518/434-6195, or by writing to Catholic Advocacy Network, 465 State Street, Albany, NY 12203. Include your name, address, phone number, parish and diocese.