By Emily Benson
Officials at the New York State Catholic Conference and Catholics statewide are looking at “a new reality in New York State government” in 2019 now that a Democrat majority rules the State Senate, following last November’s elections, giving the party control of both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office.
With the projected passing of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) in January, “fast changes” are expected to take place for the Church, said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, which works on public policy issues on behalf of the bishops of the state. Senate Republicans had blocked this abortion expansion proposal for more than a decade.
Also expected to be taken up is some version of the Child Victims Act, which reforms the state’s civil and criminal statutes of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse. The Catholic Conference and other organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, have concerns with a portion of the bill that would allow for new lawsuits for decades-old cases of abuse.
On the bright side for the bishops’ conference, a Democratic majority also gives hope to stalled legislation supported by the Church, such as the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act and the New York State DREAM Act.
“The Catholic Church is politically homeless; we’re not Democrat or Republican,” said Poust. “We’ve always had a good relationship with both sides of the aisle, but now we’re in a new area” with single-party control.
Outside of a brief two-year period from 2008 to 2010, Republicans have consistently controlled the State Senate since 1960, which allowed for a more divided state government. Now, Democrat control in both houses and the governor’s office almost guarantees certain changes, some supported, some opposed by the Church, in the year ahead, Poust explained.
Reproductive Health Act
One of the most challenging issues for the Church and the pro-life movement is the RHA, which is projected to pass on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.
“A single-party government is going to present problems for the Church in terms of the agenda for life issues,” said Poust. While the RHA has been proposed as simply codifying Roe vs. Wade, the bill “goes much further than Roe,” he said.
Some of the changes laid out in the RHA include:
• repealing the state requirement that only a licensed physician can perform an abortion
• repealing the crimes of coerced or unwanted abortions, and decriminalizing charges in cases where a perpetrator seeks to abort their partner’s child through drugs or physical violence
• repealing the state requirement to have a second physician present during an abortion performed after 20-weeks gestation to administer medical care should a live birth occur
• repealing any legal protections for an infant accidentally born alive during an abortion
• repealing the current requirement that third-trimester abortions are allowed only in cases where a mother’s life is in danger. Instead, the bill states late-term abortions are allowed for reasons of “health,” which can include a broad range of conditions.
“You have to know at a certain point when you’ve lost ,and at this point we’re not going to win it,” said Poust. “Forty of the 63 state senators will be Democrats, of those 40 there is maybe one no vote on the Reproductive Health Act…so there’s no mathematical chance” of stopping the bill.
With the certainty of the legislation passing, the Catholic Conference has started moving from advocacy to education with regard to the bill: “We have to make people aware of what’s out there in terms of pro-life resources and strengthen those pro-life resources,” said Poust.
The Catholic Conference is planning a statewide bulletin announcement after turnover in the legislature begins Jan. 1, discussing the next steps to take in the midst of the RHA’s passage and urging Catholics to register their protest of the bill’s impending passage with their elected officials.
Click the link below for the Bulletin Announcement:
Physician-assisted suicide is another legislative life issue facing the Catholic Conference. The organization has made successful strides against assisted suicide, said Poust, and has been working in coordination with disabilities rights groups, patients’ rights group and advocacy for the aging.
These groups “fear that insurance won’t cover experimental drug treatments [and] that people with disabilities or those who are aging will be encouraged or coerced to end it all because they will be perceived as a burden on society [or] on their family,” said Poust.
Because assisted suicide has often been viewed as a more bi-partisan issue, Poust said the Catholic Conference is “confident that we’ll have a chance to keep assisted suicide at bay” at least for the short term. How the issue plays out in the long term depends on how the national conversation goes, he said.
“What we’re calling for is more palliative care, more end-of-life care and hospice care to relieve their pain.”
Child Victims Act
While the Child Victims Act does not carry the same certainty of passing in the State Senate as the RHA, it is extremely likely that some version of the bill will pass, which will have a lasting impact on the Church.
“Historically, we’ve opposed the bill as its been written, but we do feel that whatever’s done needs to put victims first and that all victims, no matter where their abuse occurred, deserve to be heard and compensated,” said Poust, noting that the current version of the CVA does not include victims of abuse in public schools and other public institutions in the retroactive window.
New York State’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, both criminal and civil, are among the most restrictive in the nation, with survivors generally having to come forward by the age of 23 in order to bring charges against an abuser or to file a civil lawsuit.
The Catholic Conference supports complete elimination of the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, as is the case for murder and rape. This position actually goes further than the CVA, which raises, but does not eliminate the criminal statute.
The Conference also supports extending the civil statute of limitations to give survivors more time to sue. However, the bishops have long opposed a key element in the bill, namely an unlimited retroactive window that would allow new lawsuits for decades-old cases of abuse in private — but not public – institutions.
In several states where a retroactive window has passed, Catholic dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy, including in California and Delaware. More recently, in Minnesota, four of the state’s six Catholic dioceses’ have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to lawsuits against the Church when that state temporarily lifted its statute of limitations, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Despite the potential catastrophic financial impact for New York State dioceses, Poust said the Church believes the legislation must put all victims first, regardless of where the abuse occurred.
“Whatever financial pain we feel from this, it pales in comparison to the pain of those who have been harmed,” said Poust. “So we always have to keep that in mind and keep our focus on the victims and their healing because that’s what’s most important.”
However, Poust stressed that any bill that passes must help all victims. Currently, the “window” in the Child Victims act does not include victims abused in public schools or other public institutions: “There’s a big swath of victims who are left out,” he said.
“We’d like to see something that benefits everyone, and what that looks like is really up to the governor and legislators to discuss. You can’t call something a Child Victims Act if it doesn’t help all child victims, and right now it doesn’t.”
The Catholic Conference is pushing for legislators to enact “some sort of state policy of school choice” to ensure the long-term strength of Catholic schools.
Assistance could come in many forms, said Poust, such as tax credits for paying tuition or tax credits for donating to scholarship-making organizations. Thirty states have already enacted some measure of tax credits or tax incentives to help offset tuition payment for parents.
“If Catholic schools are going to remain strong, parents are going to need more help,” he said.
In recent years, public school teachers unions have strongly opposed any alternative to public schooling. Poust said that school choice is an opportunity that could benefit everyone.
“It’s not in the state’s interest for our schools to close,” said Poust. “The more schools that close, the more students go to an overcrowded public school system.”
DREAM Act and Farmworkers
Other bills on deck, which have long been supported by the Catholic Conference, now have more of a fighting chance of passing.
“One place we always worked well with Democrats on is criminal justice reform, immigration reform, [and] health care issues,” said Poust.
The DREAM Act would provide many undocumented immigrant children and teenagers with tuition assistance for their college education. Otherwise, undocumented students, many of whom have known no other home but the United States, are often shut out from attending a university due to its financial burden: “We think that has a real chance this year,” said Poust.
Additionally, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is a bill the Catholic Conference has “been advocating on for many years,” and would guarantee farmworkers in the state the same worker protections as other professions offered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, such as receiving minimum wage, paid overtime, or disability. Farmworkers are exempt from these protections in law currently.
Today, a majority of farmworkers across the state hail from either Central America or Mexico.
“It’s a policy that really was rooted in racism,” Poust said. “The argument is, ‘it costs more money,’ but you could make that argument to deny anyone in any area of just treatment, but we don’t. So there’s no reason to deny this group.”
This story was originally published in the Jan. 3 edition of The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.