Influencing state legislation at Catholic Advocacy Day

First slide

Shuttled from across the state, participants in Catholic Advocacy Day scrambled to the fourth floor of the SunTrust Center in Richmond the morning of Jan. 29, two weeks after the Virginia General Assembly convened for the 2015 session. Organized by the Virginia Catholic Conference - a public policy advocacy group formed by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Richmond Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo a decade ago - CAD unites Virginia Catholics for a day of political activism and prayer.

After breakfast, opening remarks from the bishops and a general orientation by VCC Director Jeff Caruso, advocates met for caucus time before descending on the Capitol grounds for the task at hand: meeting with their legislators and addressing General Assembly bills and budget items with regard to Catholic social teachings.

Anybody can advocate

For Bill Re, administrative assistant in the diocesan Office for Family Life, this was his first time at CAD. His previous political experience included interning for his state senator in his home state of Illinois and "completing the obligatory Capitol Hill internship that everyone at American (University) does."

Still, he was "nervous."

After the caucus meeting, Re joined the rest of the crowd and headed to Capitol Square. He passed the imposing Virginia State Capitol and went straight to the General Assembly building, the site of the day's main action.

Advocates from various groups crowded the lobby, with members of the state's film production community standing at tables full of Hollywood posters and popcorn.

While waiting in line to climb the stairs to his representatives' offices, Re said, "I'm thankful that they take the time to be with us and excited that the bishops make such an effort to promote just issues."

But Re did not speak to his legislators, Sen. Barbara Favola and Del. Patrick A. Hope, who is a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. At both of his scheduled appointments, Re spoke to legislative aides - full-time, year-round staffers assigned to assist legislators with research, drafting bills, meeting with advocates and various other duties.

Since appointments with senators and delegates are limited to 15 minutes, Re chose to focus on measures concerning unborn life. He referred to the VCC handouts to guide his thoughts and reference bill numbers and budget items for the legislative aides to note.

"These life issues are not only Catholic issues," said Re during his meetings. "The truth of the dignity of human life is universal. Humans need to be treated with dignity, regardless of faith."

Re added that the Catholic Church doesn't "force religious beliefs on legislators." Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders throughout the ages were religious men who fought for Christian values without "imposing their beliefs."

This year's issues

The VCC's five-page outline for talking points with legislators touched on the issues of unborn life, the death penalty, religious liberty, human trafficking, immigration, healthcare, veteran homelessness and other matters. It cited specific bills and budget items with explanations for why the VCC supports or opposes them.

Of the talking points, unborn life was considered the first priority. The first item on the list was a call to end Medicaid-funded abortions. A federal policy called the Hyde Amendment mandates that federal taxpayer dollars cannot be used to subsidize abortion costs. Exceptions lie in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life. The VCC's explanation for supporting the related budget items is, "Virginia should not fund abortions that the federal government declines to fund." The handout also called for preventing taxpayer-funded abortions on health exchange, requiring pregnant women to view a transabdominal ultrasound and supporting the Virginia Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would prevent unborn children 20 weeks old from being aborted.

Protecting free speech for Virginia National Guard and Virginia Defense Force chaplains of all faiths was another topic of concern: "The protections against censorship in (SB 690 and SB 1295) are very narrow and reasonable: They apply only to the religious content of sermons in religious services that no one is required to attend."

Creating a stand-alone anti-human trafficking law also was on the list of VCC priorities. Virginia and Hawaii are the only states that lack a law that seeks to control sex trafficking, a crime where approximately half of the victims are children.

During the morning welcome, Caruso informed advocates that "human trafficking is unfortunately quite prevalent in Virginia."

Talking points on immigration advocated for preserving in-state tuition for DACA students (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Since DACA students are ineligible for financial aid to pay for school, "legislators should reward and not penalize students willing to work for a college education."

Talking points emphasized the need to support bills for healthcare and safety nets, as well. This included efforts to close the coverage gap, stating "healthcare reform efforts should cover everyone and protect everyone, born and unborn." Talking points also mentioned supporting rapid re-housing for homeless individuals and families, ending veteran homelessness and providing $8 million for the Housing Trust Fund to make low-interest loans for affordable housing projects.

Though talking points had been drafted for restricting capital punishment, advocates were told that a Senate committee had killed the relevant bill the day before CAD.

All of these items remain on the VCC agenda for the remainder of the 2015 General Assembly session, with the understanding that some bills may resurface next year.

Debriefing, praying, planning

After meetings with legislators, advocates regrouped at St. Peter Church in Richmond for Mass and lunch. Afterward, advocates shared their thoughts about their appointments and closed in prayer before departing for home.

While advocates ate and worshipped, Father Gerry Creedon, pastor of Holy Family Church in Dale City, gave the invocation at the Virginia Senate. After blessing the work of the Senate, Father Creedon said, "May our efforts make it possible for workers to receive the remuneration that will allow their families to live in dignity. May the rewards of employment enable families to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and education."

In 2013, about 275 people participated in CAD. This year an estimated 150 people out of the Commonwealth's 692,140 registered Catholics attended.

Every year, the hope is not only to grow the number of participants but to, as Caruso repeatedly emphasized, preserve the "gains" made in state legislation, even if it means "compromising."

Re was encouraged "to see so many Catholics advocating for just laws" but hopes that "one day all politicians will courageously defend the preborn." He said that the experience made him "think about the example of St. Thomas More, who chose martyrdom over supporting an unjust law.

Erin Healy, the diocesan Young Adult Ministry Coordinator, has participated in CAD since 2012 and believes that her experience has grown more positive each year.

"Of course, it is discouraging when my representatives fail to uphold church teaching by supporting legislation that does not recognize and protect the dignity of the human person," she said. "However, this presents me with the opportunity to better familiarize myself with the issues, practice dialogue and pray for and love those who serve in public office."

According to Thérèse Bermpohl, diocesan director of the Office for Family Life and a 10-time CAD participant, "CAD always serves as a great reminder to me of my responsibility to know my elected representatives, where they stand on the issues and to pray for them. One can never underestimate the impact that prayer and human interaction can have on people of goodwill."

Following CAD, Caruso wrote the following in an email:

"I want to thank everyone who attended … especially those who traveled from considerable distances.  Based on the feedback I received, participants had a lot of productive visits at legislative offices and found the day to be a worthwhile exercise of faithful citizenship. The (VCC) looks forward to providing further opportunities throughout the year for these participants and many others to engage in the political process on behalf of the most voiceless and most vulnerable in our state." 

This year's General Assembly session lasts through Feb. 28, with 1,538 House and 1,021 Senate bills filed. That means more than 2,000 opportunities for Catholic social teaching to influence Virginia legislation, however big or small.

Find out more

To learn about the Virginia Catholic Conference, including this year's legislative agenda, go to vacatholic.org. Follow the Virginia Catholic Conference on Twitter @VaCatholicConf.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015