By Joe Towalski
For The Northern Cross
With the state House of Representatives switching to Republican control after last fall’s elections and the Senate and governor’s office still in DFL hands, one might expect a fair amount of gridlock during the 2015 legislative session.
But the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, sees possibilities where others may see only potential polarization.
“It’s an opportunity to be a bridge-builder,” Jason Adkins said. “I think that’s one of the church’s vital responsibilities in the public arena: to help legislators and the public to transcend that partisan divide and look for opportunities where we can work together to advance the common good.”
The MCC started the session, which began Jan. 6, with a focus on several issues that aren’t receiving much media attention, he said, but they are issues on which the church can provide leadership as well as demonstrate the wide range of its social teaching.
The following are among the MCC’s legislative priorities this year:
“A lot of our schools are failing. A lot of kids are trapped in failing schools, and they need an opportunity to find a school that best serves their needs,” said Adkins. “We also need to help close the achievement gap.”
The MCC will advocate in favor of two education initiatives:
— A tax credit bill: This would allow individuals, organizations and corporations to contribute to a scholarship-granting organization and receive a tax credit for the contribution. The SGO would then award scholarships to students that would offset tuition expenses at the schools of their choice. To qualify for a scholarship, the income of the student’s family would need to be at or below 300 percent of what qualifies for participation in the federal school lunch program. Eighty percent of the donation would qualify for the tax credit. The entire program is capped at $80 million.
— Educational savings accounts for children with disabilities: “Children with special needs especially need opportunities to find the resources and institutions that best serve them,” Adkins said. This proposal would essentially give parents a “debit card” to use state dollars designated for their child for educational opportunities that best serve him or her. “Some might think that both of these educational programs would cost the state money, but they’re actually going to save the state money,” Adkins said. “So this is a win-win for everybody.”
In the last few years, the MCC has opposed attempts to legalize surrogate birth contracts in the state. Commercial surrogacy is an arrangement in which a woman carries to term a child, who is not hers biologically, for the intended parents. Such contracts often take advantage of women in financial need, Adkins said.
Efforts to legalize commercial surrogacy continue. As a result, the MCC is supporting the creation of a legislative commission that would take more time than the normal committee process to study the issue of surrogacy and its impact on children, women and society.
“We need to get beyond a People magazine approach to this issue that is dominated by feel-good propaganda and instead really explore the issue in sufficient detail before we make Minnesota an epicenter of the surrogacy business,” Adkins said. “We think there are significant challenges and problems with surrogacy arrangements, particularly when they are done for money.”
Places that have convened such commissions, including New York and Canada, have ended up banning commercial surrogacy and the sale of reproductive material, he said.
The MCC is working with major disability advocacy groups in favor of a bill requiring doctors to provide pregnant women whose babies are diagnosed with certain chromosomal conditions with accurate information from a state Department of Health website, including resources such as support networks.
The bill would cover diagnoses for Trisomy 13 (Patau syndrome), Trisomy 18 (Edwards syndrome) and Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome).
“Oftentimes, people are told information, even by doctors, about short life expectancies and low quality of life in these cases,” Adkins said. “But, in fact, these lives can be beautiful lives that are a great gift to families and others. We want to make sure that people who receive these diagnoses aren’t overly discouraged, that they have the accurate information they need to deal with these difficult situations.
“It also combats what Pope Francis calls a ‘throwaway culture,’ in which people are deemed ‘inconvenient’ if they have high health-care costs or disabilities, whether it’s at the beginning of life or end of life,” he said. “We really want to push back on that. We believe it’s important to uphold the sanctity of life at all stages, even in difficult situations, and to protect people with disabilities.”
The MCC supported efforts during last year’s legislative session to restore voting rights to Minnesotans with past felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated. Those efforts will continue during this year’s session.
This effort “is about restoring people to the community and giving them opportunities for responsible citizenship,” Adkins said. “You and I might take voting for granted. But for people who have committed crimes and who have been denied the opportunity to vote because of that, having that opportunity to vote again is a powerful way in which they feel restored to the community.”
The MCC also is concerned about related issues such as education, housing and employment opportunities for ex-offenders, which is why it supported “ban-the-box” legislation a few years ago, prohibiting employers from asking a prospective employee about his or her criminal history until the applicant is selected for a job interview.
“Those who have been disenfranchised have told us that if we don’t give people opportunities to become stakeholders and participate in society as responsible citizens, we shouldn’t be surprised if they offend again,” Adkins said.
The MCC supports efforts to provide provisional driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria as a way to strengthen families and communities and create a safer driving environment for everyone in the state. Similar legislation has been passed in other states.
“This is a challenging conversation right now, but we need to give immigrants, including working families, the opportunity to attend church, take their kids to school and go to their jobs without the fear of being stopped and deported,” Adkins said. “It makes sense from a public safety standpoint but also from an insurance and justice standpoint. It’s about giving people the transportation access they need to do the basic things in life.”
In addition to the work it does at the State Capitol, the Minnesota Catholic Conference also is involved in educational efforts to help Catholics and others gain a better understanding of important issues with public policy ramifications.
Jason Adkins, MCC executive director, identified three topics that need further attention from Catholics around the state:
“We have to have a proper understanding of the human person,” Adkins said. “There is a gender ideology that is getting more and more aggressive in trying to assert in public policy that gender is essentially malleable, an identity a person can choose to put on and take off at will. . . . It adds an incredible amount of confusion to who we are as persons.”
Adkins said, “The rational defense of our positions on the human person is vitally important for preserving religious liberty.”
Adkins points to what he calls the “inevitable push” in Minnesota to allow for assisted suicide legislation. “We really need to talk about the dignity of life, even in difficult circumstances,” he said. The MCC is currently developing an end-of-life care guide as a practical resource for Catholics.
Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on ecology, due out sometime in the spring, will give Catholics an opportunity to talk about a wide range of environmental issues, including how they impact the world’s poor. The MCC is organizing a Catholic event on climate change and environmental stewardship this fall in light of the encyclical.
“Being pro-life means we also need to be concerned about the air children breathe, the food they eat and the world they play in,” he said. “This is part of developing a consistent ethic of life.”
— Joe Towalski