Local Catholics try to be heard in tumultuous Albany - Catholic Courier

Local Catholics try to be heard in tumultuous Albany

ALBANY — On a day when Albany was crawling with news crews and buzzing about a prostitution scandal allegedly involving Gov. Eliot Spitzer, more than 60 diocesan representatives headed to the state capital March 11 to talk about issues affecting their lives and the lives of those they help.

On the agenda during the New York State Catholic Conference’s annual Public Policy Day were discussions about proposed changes to the state abortion law, support for the working poor, support for immigrants and migrants, expansion of access to health insurance, opposition to same-sex marriage, enactment of education tax credits and reduction of greenhouse gases.

Representatives of the Diocese of Rochester also brought lawmakers copies of petitions that called for reduced emissions and funding for energy efficiency, renewable-energy initiatives and help paying utility costs for low-income New Yorkers. The petitions were signed Feb. 2 and 3 by more than 8,000 people from throughout the diocese, including more than 4,000 from Monroe County.

“We hope that a lot of what we said was not overshadowed by what was going on in Albany,” said Deacon Jim Nail, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Lake in Ontario. Deacon Nail’s group spoke with state Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, who represents Wayne, Seneca and portions of Cayuga, Monroe and Ontario counties.

Participants asked lawmakers throughout the day what might happen to the Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act, an abortion-law expansion proposed by Spitzer last year.

If made law, the proposal could make abortion immune from any proposed state regulation or restriction and could be used to force all health-care institutions — including Catholic hospitals — to perform abortions, as well as allow non-doctors and non-hospitals to perform post-viability surgical abortions.

“I see it as a very insidious and completely dangerous bill,” said Peggy Ruscio, social-ministry coordinator for Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in the Finger Lakes.

Though it appears the bill may die with Spitzer’s resignation — which was announced March 12 and is effective March 17 — several lawmakers said it was unclear whether Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who will replace Spitzer, would reintroduce the controversial bill.

Paterson, a Democrat who was formerly the state Senate minority leader, has supported keeping abortion legal. He received Planned Parenthood Advocates of NY’s endorsement for lieutenant governor in 2006; in the endorsement, the organization cited his support as a state senator of sex education, reproductive-health services and the morning-after pill. As lieutenant governor, Paterson also spearheaded a controversial $600 million stem-cell research initiative that has helped fund research on embryonic stem cells.

In a statement, Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the state Catholic conference, called Paterson highly intelligent, well-versed on the issues and extremely affable, but noted that the conference had areas of strong agreement and disagreement with Paterson.

“But in all cases, he has been respectful of the Conference in our role as advocates for the most vulnerable members of society,” Barnes said. “He has an appreciation for the role of the Catholic Church, which is the largest nongovernmental provider of health care, human services and education in New York State, and for the perspective we bring to the public policy arena.”

If Paterson were to reintroduce the abortion bill, it most likely would face a lengthy debate, some lawmakers said.

“I certainly could not support any measure that would force faith-based health-care facilities to perform the procedure,” said state Sen. George H. Winner Jr., R-Elmira, who represents Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Yates counties and portions of Tompkins County. “I don’t think that legislation has a chance without substantial revisions that protect Catholic hospitals.”

In addition to opposition to Spitzer’s proposed abortion bill and support for environmental protections, Catholics also spoke to lawmakers about several other initiatives:

* Opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriages or civil unions.

Diocese of Rochester representatives spoke of wanting to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, but noted they do not support unjust discrimination of homosexuals.

“Research has shown that children do better when there is a father and a mother,” said Kathleen Consler, a parishioner of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece who also is involved in Retrovaille, a program that helps participants repair troubled marriages.

“Clearly, the state can review whatever benefits or privileges that it has through the years conferred on married couples and, in cases where true discrimination may be at play, fashion legislative remedies,” according to background information the Catholic conference provided to participants. “However, this must be done outside of the context of redefining the fundamental building block of our culture.”

* Support for educational tax credits to help families offset education costs and enable them to choose the best schools for their children.

Based on an average cost of more than $15,000 annually to send a child to a public school, the parents of 500,000 children in independent and religious schools save taxpayers more than $7.5 billion a year, the Catholic conference has said. Yet, rising tuition and falling enrollment have led to the announcement of closings of many Catholic schools, including 14 this year in the diocese of Rochester.

“Just this past year, my sister had to leave a private, parochial — Catholic — school because my parents couldn’t afford it,” said Fred Teumer, 17, a junior at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton. “With this tax credit, she would still have a choice.”

“My mom struggles to pay for (my education), and my grandparents help,” said Carrick Palmer, 14, an eighth-grader at Holy Family Junior High School in Elmira.

“We’d like to keep Catholic schools affordable to low- and middle-class folks,” said Brian Brown, 14, a Holy Family eighth-grader.

* Support of initiatives to make health insurance more available to more people.

Brigit Hurley, parish social-ministry coordinator at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, spoke from personal experience of the complexity of applying for Child Health Plus, the state’s health-insurance plan for children. She advocated for streamlined re-enrollment procedures.

“Our concern is making enrollment easier,” Hurley said.

Attendees also expressed their support for the state’s proposal to add $37 million to the state budget to fund expanded health insurance for 400,000 uninsured children.

* Support for immigrants and migrants to access essential services and protections, including health care, education and protections from such exploitation as human trafficking.

While speaking with a staff member for state Assemblywoman Susan John, D-Rochester, McQuaid junior Lucas Hernandez of Fairport, 16, said his mother, a Cuban immigrant, benefitted greatly from English as a second language classes.

“Now she teaches ESL, and I want (John) to know that it actually works,” Lucas said.

Edie Reagan, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga, said she is concerned about legislative proposals that would require health-care workers to report migrants and immigrants who are in the country illegally. The proposals would violate a person’s dignity as a human being and would be unfair to health-care workers, she said.

“It is not just to require health-care and human-service providers to make that kind of determination to sort out complex issues,” Reagan said.

Last year the Catholic conference successfully lobbied in support of anti-human-trafficking legislation, but funding is now needed to help victims, the conference said.

* Support for working families, including helping them move from public assistance to employment.

The conference is advocating for such measures as increases in the earned income tax credit and the public-assistance grant. Reagan also advocated for additional funding for affordable housing in places such as Ithaca, which has such a high cost of living that many people commute more than 15 miles to get to their workplace in the city.

“Rural people should be able to live in the community where they work,” she said.

Residents of Catholic Family Center’s Freedom House, a six-month residential addiction-treatment program operated, also spoke of the long waiting list for their facility. They said more support is needed for residential-treatment facilities to help people kick addictions and become productive members of society.

“We need a little more money for this type of treatment,” said Carey Gainey, a resident and president of Freedom House.

The day also featured a youth workshop that encouraged teens to get involved in advocacy. The workshop featured a spirited discussion of the church’s positions on social issues, such as its support of environmental protections and opposition to same-sex marriages.

“I thought it was interesting to hear their opinions,” said Fred Teumer, the McQuaid Jesuit student. “You are within a Catholic setting, and people are still expressing their thoughts and different opinions about things.”

The day also included a workshop on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Faithful Citizenship initiative and a standing-room-only Mass presided by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and the state’s other bishops, including Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

Cardinal Egan led the opening prayer in the Senate chambers, praying for healing for Spitzer, his family and his staff. The state Senate also passed a resolution celebrating Pope Benedict XVI’s forthcoming visit to New York City in April.

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