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By: Jeff Caruso

Parental choice in education is a fundamental right which the Catholic Church has long recognized, and for which the Virginia Catholic Conference has consistently advocated in the Virginia General Assembly.
This issue will be a hotly debated topic in the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session, which begins in mid-January. At that time, the Conference will renew its advocacy for the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit bill, which would provide tax credits to businesses that make donations toward scholarships that enable economically disadvantaged children to attend nonpublic K-12 schools.
The Conference has unveiled a new video in an effort to win passage of the bill, which will provide greater educational opportunities for more Virginia students. For the last two years this legislation has fallen just two votes short of passage. Grassroots support is essential if it is to pass in 2012.


The Conference collaborated with the Catholic Schools Offices in Richmond and Arlington, the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium and the Diocese of Arlington’s Office of Communications on the short video to generate greater interest in advocacy for the scholarship tax credit bill. “The Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit: Taking Action for a Brighter Tomorrow” (produced by Triune Production Studios LLC) is designed to increase understanding and involvement in legislative advocacy among parents, Catholic school educators, parishioners, and the public.
The bill’s benefits for local communities and Catholic schools are three-fold. The bill would:

  • Provide critical support for low-income students desiring a Catholic education.
  • Support long-term viability of Catholic schools through sustained enrollment.
  • Save all Virginia taxpayers money.

Please watch the video and send it on to your friends, and urge them to join the Conference’s email advocacy network. We are working to build momentum so that, with your help this upcoming session, the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit will become a reality!

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Conscience Rights in Danger

By: Jeff Caruso
In implementing the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issued guidelines requiring almost all private health plans to cover FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization as “preventive services” for women. On August 3, HHS published an interim final rule that references these guidelines, and allows HRSA to implement a very narrow and inadequate religious exemption. This action poses an unprecedented threat to the religious freedom of individuals and institutions. Until now, no federal law has required private health plans to cover these services.
  • HRSA’s statement that these services “do not include abortifacient drugs” is misleading. The FDA-approved “emergency contraception” (EC) drugs covered by this mandate can work by interfering with implantation. Also, the drug the FDA most recently approved for EC, “Ella,” a close analogue to the abortion drug RU-486, has been shown in animal tests to cause abortion. Thus, the mandate includes drugs that may cause an abortion both before and after implantation.
  • The religious exemption allowed by the interim final rule is not only extremely narrow but unprecedented in federal law. It covers only a “religious employer” that has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, primarily employs and serves persons who share its religious tenets, and is a church organization under two narrow provisions of the tax code. Plans offered by a great many religious organizations, including Catholic colleges and universities as well as hospitals and charitable institutions that serve the general public, would be ineligible under these terms. Individuals and health insurance companies do not qualify at all for this exemption.

Please click here to send a comment to HHS. Personal comments can be added to the suggested message.

The public comment period on this interim final rule ends September 30.

As is the practice, all comments and information submitted to HHS are made available online. Only your name (first and last) and your message will be forwarded to HHS.

Thanks for everything you do in support of life!

After you send your comments to HHS, you will also have an opportunity to send a message to your elected representatives in Congress, urging them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179/S. 1467) to ensure that such federal mandates do not violate Americans’ moral and religious convictions.

 

 

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Regulations concerning adoption in Virginia have been under much debate. Below is a joint statement from the Virginia Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington concerning their participation in comments given to the State Board of Social Services.

On April 20, the State Board of Social Services voted 7-2 in favor of adoption regulations supported by the Virginia Catholic Conference – regulations that had been amended by the Virginia Department of Social Services after a public comment period (ending April 1) that featured written submissions by the Conference, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, other faith-based organizations, and individuals.  Representatives of six faith-based organizations, including the Conference and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, also appeared personally at the April 20 board meeting to offer public remarks in support of the amended regulations. The groups also reiterated their objections to the prior version.  At the conclusion of the meeting, the board approved the amended regulations.

Commenting on the outcome shortly after the vote occurred, Conference director Jeff Caruso observed, “Today, religious freedom was affirmed; freedom of conscience was affirmed; the freedom of all agencies, including faith-based agencies, to continue doing the great work they are doing was affirmed.”

Art Bennett, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, agreed:

“Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington has been providing adoption services consistent with the principles and moral teaching of the Catholic Faith for the citizens of the Commonwealth for nearly 65 years. We are relieved that the Board for the Department of Social Services will uphold religious freedom and thus allow Catholic Charities to continue providing adoption services that integrate our Catholic Faith.”

The full text of the Conference’s April 20 testimony to the board follows.

Comments on 22 VAC 40-131-170B

State Board of Social Services Meeting (April 20, 2011)

“On behalf of the Virginia Catholic Conference, I wish to convey support for the agency’s changes to 22 VAC 40-131-170B, which is part of the proposed Minimum Standards for Licensed Child Placing Agencies.  The Conference is the public-policy agency of Virginia’s Catholic bishops and their two dioceses.   My comments reflect the shared perspective of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington and of Commonwealth Catholic Charities and Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia within the Diocese of Richmond.

The newly proposed 22 VAC 40-131-170B states: “The licensee shall prohibit acts of discrimination based on race, color, or national origin to: (1) Delay or deny a child’s placement; or (2) Deny an individual the opportunity to become a foster or adoptive parent.”

This new version brings the provision squarely into line with federal law and eliminates inconsistencies with state law that were inherent in the prior version.  The new version is also responsive to comments submitted by the Conference on March 31 that objected to the inclusion of items such as sexual orientation, family status, religion, and age.

Including “sexual orientation” and “family status” would have posed conflicts with the missions, beliefs, and practices of organizations, such as ours, that profess certain deeply held convictions and religious beliefs regarding the institution of marriage, the family unit, and human sexuality.  Indeed, including these items could have forced some agencies into a choice of whether to follow their own missions or to adhere to the law.  Forcing this choice would have been an unacceptable violation of the freedom of conscience upon which our pluralistic society is based, and even of the religious freedom upon which our Commonwealth and our country were built.

It is also important to note that some agencies may currently have requirements for prospective adoptive parents regarding age, and may consider religion when making certain placements.  Birthparents may also consider such factors and should, along with agencies, be free to continue doing so.

In conclusion, faith-based agencies play a vital role in the fabric of our Commonwealth, and their right to carry out their mission in the services they provide must be respected and preserved.  The agency is right to affirm the current federal and state law and the paramount principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience as the correct paths to follow. These paths empower all agencies, included those that are faith-based, to continue the great work they are doing.

Thank you for your consideration of the perspective of Virginia’s two Catholic dioceses and their agencies in this matter.”

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Shortly before 10 last night, Virginia joined the growing number of states that have adopted restrictions against abortion coverage within its state health exchange (to be created pursuant to the new federal health-care law).  Via a 61-36 vote in the House and a 20-20 vote in the Senate (with the tie broken favorably by Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling), the Commonwealth joined Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Idaho in making use of a provision in the federal law that provides, “[A] state may elect to prohibit abortion coverage in qualified health plans offered through an Exchange in such State if such State enacts a law to provide for such a prohibition.”

By banning coverage (within Virginia’s exchange) of abortions that have long been ineligible for federal funding in major health programs such as Medicaid and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (that is, all abortions except for cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother), Governor McDonnell’s successfully adopted amendment now ensures that, as discussions on establishing a state exchange proceed, health plans seeking to be part of the exchange will be prohibited from covering abortion on demand.

Prohibiting abortion coverage within health exchanges (through which federal taxpayer money will be routed) has been a top priority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, beginning during the debate on federal health care restructuring over a year ago and continuing after its passage in March of 2010.  The Virginia Catholic Conference is encouraged by the Commonwealth’s important contribution yesterday to the ongoing national effort to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that people will not be forced to pay for other people’s abortions. With the addition of Virginia, at least 10 states now restrict abortion coverage in health insurance policies generally and/or in policies traded on exchanges.

Also last night, the General Assembly added funding to the state budget for abstinence programs.  Governor McDonnell’s proposal to provide this money was the Conference’s other top priority (again in alliance with other groups) during yesterday’s one-day session and was approved by the House, 69-29, and by the Senate, 20-20 (with Bolling again casting the deciding vote to break the tie favorably).

The two 20-20 votes provide another example of how essential constituent input is.  Large numbers of people throughout Virginia contacted their legislators in support of these pro-life, pro-family amendments and made a very considerable difference in the outcomes.

To join the Conference’s email alert network, please visit www.vacatholic.org

 

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By: Jeff Caruso

Between 2004 and 2010, five new state research programs have been created. Each of the five includes a provision making it clear that no company can benefit from the program if it performs research on embryonic stem cells or aborted fetuses within Virginia’s borders.

However, the biotech industry has recently been engaged in an aggressive two-fold push: (1) for more lucrative state financial incentives, and (2) against restrictions supported by pro-life advocates on incentive-seeking companies that conduct life-destroying research. Given this activity, a state policy is needed more than ever to push back on behalf of Virginia taxpayers, so that we are not forced to finance entities that conduct unethical, immoral, and destructive research.

Please click here, scroll down, and then click “Send Message” to weigh in on this critical issue. Ask the Governor to propose policies to ensure that, across all state programs, Virginia consistently tells companies they are not welcome if they bring research that requires human lives to be destroyed to our Commonwealth.

Please share this with others who may have the same concerns. Also, please consider signing up for the Virginia Catholic Conference’s email network so that you can receive alerts like this directly in the future.

Thank you for advocating for the sanctity of human life.

 

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UPDATE: The Bill was passed and new regulations were put in place. Read more here.

Critical vote expected on Senate floor on Wednesday, February 23!

By: Jeff Caruso

Abortion is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed. Though legislation proposed at the state level cannot put an end to legal abortion, it can considerably reduce the number of abortions and prevent policies that favor the abortion industry.

Such is the case with SB 924, which requires the Board of Health to promulgate regulations containing health and safety standards for certain medical facilities. On Monday, February 21, the House amended this bill to include abortion clinics among those facilities. The bill now heads directly to the Senate floor, and if a majority of Senators approve the House amendment, the amended bill, with the requirement to regulate abortion clinics, will proceed to the Governor’s desk! This historic Senate vote is expected to occur the afternoon of Wednesday, February 23.

It is vitally important that you contact your Senator today by clicking here, scrolling down, and sending him or her the pre-drafted message or one like it.

Please forward or share this post with as many people as possible today, so that they too can insist that the state’s abortion industry not be exempt from commonsense safety standards.

You also are invited to join the Conference’s advocacy network, which would enable you to receive regular alerts and updates from the Conference directly by email on respect-life, social-justice, and education issues. If interested, please click here and complete the very short electronic form that is provided.

 

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By: Jeff Caruso, Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference

Since before the Virginia General Assembly went into session on Jan. 12, the Virginia Catholic Conference has been busy working to ensure that proposed policies benefit the common good as understood in Catholic moral and social teaching, including respect for life from conception to natural death; preferential concern for the poor and “the least among us;’’ economic and social justice; support for the family and marriage; and parental choice in education.

Virginia Capitol, Richmond

Guided by the bishops and in a spirit of prayer, we’ve researched issues and held face-to-face meetings with legislators, government officials and other advocacy organizations.

Our recently developed agenda details the focus of our efforts during this 46-day session. High priority items include:

  • Protecting gains we made last year in restricting state abortion funding,
  • Ensuring that abortion clinics are subject to state regulation,
  • Preventing new biotech programs from funding embryonic stem cell research,
  • Stopping death penalty expansions,
  • Providing tax credits for corporate donations to scholarship programs for low-income K-12 students,
  • Providing immigrants with access to healthcare, and protecting them from harmful policies.

Especially now that the session has begun, the Virginia Catholic Conference is asking Catholics throughout the Commonwealth to join its efforts on behalf of life, dignity and the common good.

There are three key ways to become involved:

1) Act. Become a Conference’s e-mail advocacy network member and respond to its alerts.

  • Throughout the session (and beyond) members receive regular e-mail alerts pertaining to legislation being debated in the Virginia General Assembly (and, periodically, issues being considered in the U.S. Congress.) The Conference highlights the moral and social teaching involved, and urges its members to contact their legislator to advocate the Virginia Bishops’ stance. (This can be done with a few clicks of the mouse.) Also, members are encouraged to forward alerts to interested friends.
  • We know that our members’ legislative involvement has had a significant impact on legislation. During the 2010 session, for instance, legislation that significantly reduced abortion funding for Medicaid was attributed to constituent interest in the issue. We ask members to act on as many alerts as possible.

2) Advocate. Join the Virginia Catholic Conference at Catholic Advocacy Day in Richmond on Thursday, Jan. 27.

  • It’s a great chance to learn the issues, pray and take part in grassroots advocacy. Catholic Advocacy Day begins at St. Peter’s Church with prayer and a word from our bishops. Conference staff give updates on legislative items under consideration in this year’s General Assembly, then participants caucus with other Catholics from their state senatorial district to decide who and how they will discuss the issues with their state senator and delegate.
  • Register online at www.vacatholic.org.

3) Pray.

  • Prayer is the essential tool. We ask for prayers of wisdom and persistence for our state and federal lawmakers, executives and other government officials, and for our Bishops, Conference staff, our e-mail advocacy network members—all of whom are essential to this work on behalf of the Common Good.

We hope you will join us!

Take action at www.vacatholic.org:

  • Join the Virginia Catholic Conference network and receive alerts
  • Spread that link to friends
  • Join us for Catholic Advocacy Day

“In the Catholic moral tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in the political process is a moral obligation.  This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and bear Christian witness in all we do.” (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 2007)

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By Jeff Caruso, Executive Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference

These quiet days following Election Day 2010 stand in sharp contrast to the noisy chaotic days and months leading up to it. Voters, who carefully weighed the candidates’ positions, and did their part to earn red, white and blue “I Voted’’ stickers may think it’s time to turn their attention elsewhere, having completed their civic duty until next November. At least that’s the temptation.

Our responsibility as Catholic citizens goes well beyond Election Day. We are called to ongoing participation in civic life, and faithful citizenship means participating in that process 365 days a year, prayerfully and with well-formed consciences.

Virginia Capitol Building, Richmond

We love one another when we work to uphold the sanctity of life, achieve justice, care for the poor and the forgotten and highlight the importance of the family. In the public square — as Virginians and Americans — we seek to support public policy that serves the common good, especially our brothers and sisters in the human family who are voiceless or vulnerable.

It sounds simple enough: we should strive to ensure that the dignity of the human person is the measuring stick when governments consider legislation, policies and actions. But it’s not always easy to be involved in important issues in our own neighborhoods, much less in Richmond and Washington, D.C. The task of keeping up with issues competes with what’s happening at work, around the dinner table, in our parishes, or in our kids’ schools or playing fields.

That’s one of the reasons that Bishop Loverde and Bishop DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond established the Virginia Catholic Conference: to help Catholics take part in important policy decisions. They recently designated Nov. 13-14 as “Advocacy Sunday” for parishes throughout the Commonwealth to actively recruit new members to our E-mail Advocacy Network. Our e-mail alerts inform our growing membership about policies being debated in areas such as respect for life, religious freedom, poverty reduction, education, family and marriage, and immigration. We provide background on Catholic social teaching pertaining to the issue, and give members who choose to act on that alert the means of immediately contacting their legislators to tell them how they, as constituents, want their representatives to respond to that issue.  These pre-drafted e-mails messages can be forwarded “as is” to legislators, or edited to add additional thoughts.

State legislators tell us when they’ve heard from large numbers of constituents.  Last spring, our email network members played a critical role in winning a 20-19 state Senate vote to approve new restrictions against state abortion funding.  These emails literally saved lives!

More than 100 parishes in the Dioceses of Arlington and Richmond are participating in the Virginia bishops’ Advocacy Sunday campaign, either on Nov. 13-14 or on another weekend close to that time. But you don’t have to wait to sign up for the network. Sign up on our website at any time at www.vacatholic.org and use the convenient “Join the Network!” feature. If you are already enrolled, are there three, four, or even five other people you could invite to join?

There are 650,000 Catholics registered in parishes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Imagine what could happen if all 650,000 joined their bishops in this collective effort to fight for life, justice, family and the common good.

That is why we’re asking parishioners across Virginia to become a member of the VCC Email Advocacy Network. Join today!

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By: Jeff Caruso, Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference

Friday, Jeff Caruso described to us the behind the scenes advocacy work of the Virginia Catholic Conference that occurred in the attempts to pass a Virginia state budget amendment that would cut the majority of state funding for abortion. For Part I in this series, click here.

On the 4th of July, Jeff shares with us the outcome of advocacy in the political process:

The Evening of April 21 – Victory in the Senate

Catholic advocacy impacted the Va Senate decision

Finally, around 9:00 p.m., the Senate took up the matter. Senator Mark Obenshain (R – Harrisonburg) explained the amendment and effectively countered the arguments of the five senators who spoke against the bill. 

 As pro-life advocates watched from the Senate gallery, the contentious floor debate concluded, and senators were asked to record their votes. As the green and red dots were registered next to each senator’s name on the electronic voting board, the green thankfully outnumbered the red … by one. The Senate’s 20-19 vote handed the pro-life cause in Virginia a historic victory!

Looking Ahead at the Impact of this Policy
With the governor’s amendment now part of the budget, many unborn lives can be saved, and state taxpayers who oppose financing life-ending practices have a greater measure of conscience protection. 

Data gathered from the Conference’s network showed an unprecedented level of responses to alerts on this proposal, and Conference staff repeatedly heard that legislators were receiving e-mails from their pro-life constituents. People who responded to the alert, and parishes that promoted it, made the critical difference. 

How can you help?
Those kinds of efforts will surely be needed again as the issue resurfaces in future years, so more network members are needed. Catholics across Virginia are urged to visit the Conference’s website and use the online sign-up feature to enroll.  Together, we can thank God for the hard-fought outcome in 2010, but we must also defend it vigorously and build for even greater gains.

Celebrating Independence Day is an opportunity to remember the perseverance of our nation’s founders. Together, they secured the freedom that we have today to be faithful citizens – freedom which enables us to participate in political decisions like the one I have described. May we exercise this freedom often to promote the common good of our Commonwealth. Happy Fourth of July!

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By Jeff Caruso, Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference     

On July 1, a new Virginia budget policy took effect that dramatically curtails state funding of abortion. Although this landmark provision is but a few lines buried within hundreds of pages of state spending policies, it is the product of many voices and countless hours of “behind the scenes” advocacy over many years.     

A Timeline:     

Since 2005 – The Call for Change
Since its inception in 2005, the Virginia Catholic Conference has pushed for these restrictions, armed with figures showing that Virginia residents have been paying for well over 100 abortions per year with their state tax dollars. Promotion of laws that uphold the sanctity of life are an important part of the pro-life work of Catholic Virginians, which also includes outreach to women in crisis pregnancies and post-abortion healing ministries. Members of the Conference’s e-mail advocacy network consistently weighed in on the budget issue, sending hundreds of e-mails to their delegates and state senators expressing their opposition to paying for abortions.       

The VCC is the Public Policy Arm of the Virginia Dioceses

 

However, in each Virginia General Assembly session, an all-too-familiar sequence of events unfolded: The legislature’s House of Delegates would approve the abortion-funding restrictions, only to see the language rejected by a few Senate leaders during final budget negotiations between the House and Senate (without a recorded vote).     

After enduring the same tired outcome as the legislature adjourned this year on March 14, it seemed to most observers that pro-life advocates would remain stuck in the mud yet again. As spring began, though, a much different outcome was about to blossom.     

April  2010 – Amendment Garners Gubernatorial Backing
Recognizing the governor’s ability to propose line-item amendments to the budget (which the General Assembly would vote on upon returning to Richmond in April for a one-day session), the Conference and its network made their case to newly inaugurated Governor Bob McDonnell. The governor agreed that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for abortions, and decided it was time for a long-overdue up-or-down vote on the matter.      

On April 13, McDonnell proposed an amendment to ban state funding of all abortions except as required by federal law or state statute. The effect of the amendment, if approved, would be to eliminate the vast majority of Virginia’s publicly subsidized abortions (that is, those done under a general health rationale which has never received General Assembly approval).       

Advocacy helps protect the lives of the unborn!

 

Mid-April 2010 – Persuading the Senate
With the General Assembly set to reconvene on April 21, the Conference, its allies, and its grassroots network sprinted toward the finish line with a clear goal — to capture a majority of votes in the Senate, where both supporters and opponents of the amendment expected a razor-thin margin.     

In the days that followed, the Conference sent multiple alerts to its network, communicated with key senators, coordinated with allied pro-life organizations, provided urgent bulletin and pulpit announcements to parishes, and followed up with parish leaders in key districts.     

Two days before the vote, it appeared that a 20-20 tie was attainable in the Senate.      

April 19, 2010 – An Unexpected Twist
Ordinarily, that would be good news — the lieutenant governor breaks ties in the Senate, and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling opposes state abortion funding. Due to a completely bizarre turn of events, however, a tie would not be good enough. Bolling was stranded in Italy (attending an economic development conference) when flights were cancelled across Europe because of volcanic activity in Iceland.      

As news reports confirmed that he would not be able to fly back to Virginia in time for the vote, the Conference and its pro-life partners intensified their efforts.     

As citizens, we are able to be part of the political process.

 

 April 21, 2010 – Canvassing for Votes
When the day of the vote arrived, supporters and opponents of the governor’s proposed restrictions on abortion funding flocked to the Capitol and began visiting Senate offices one-by-one in search of crucial commitments.      

The day was long and full of ups and downs. The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on the amendment in the morning (including expressions of concern by a University of Virginia hospital representative that were rebutted during the Senate floor debate).    

 In the afternoon, the House approved the amendment by an overwhelming 64-30 margin, as expected. However, the Conference also learned shortly afterward that one of the Senate’s pro-life legislators had to catch a flight before the Senate vote would occur.  Nevertheless, pro-life advocates continually followed up with senators throughout the day in an effort to secure precious votes.      

UPDATE: Read the end of the cliffhanger in Part II.

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