PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2021 legislative year will occur in unusual circumstances because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, the next several months could still bring movement on several vital issues for Catholics in Rhode Island.
“As a Church, we are called to engage in the world, to work towards a society where all can experience the love of God and live out that love. Over the next six months, Rhode Island Catholics will have the opportunity to engage the world by making their voice heard at the Rhode Island General Assembly,” said Father Bernard Healey, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference director.
In the coming weeks, Rhode Island state lawmakers are expected to file legislation to provide economic relief for struggling families during the pandemic, create a pathway to a higher minimum wage, and increase access to quality healthcare and affordable prescription drugs.
While those measures would likely benefit the common good, there are indications that some lawmakers may seek to push problematic bills. These include providing taxpayer funding for abortions, legalizing recreational marijuana, and “codifying” the Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive mandate in state healthcare law.
“The codification of Obamacare in our state law includes the nefarious contraceptive mandate. This action would be a serious attack upon the religious liberty of many institutions, organizations, and people of conscience,” Father Healey said.
“I hope that Catholics would stand united against this proposal and stand with groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor in protecting religious freedom,” Father Healey added.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a Democrat from North Providence, presented an ambitious Senate agenda during his speech to open the legislative session on Jan. 5. He called for reforming the state’s income tax structure to make it more equitable, creating a “dedicated funding stream for affordable housing” and “a strong Equal Pay Act,” among other measures.
Ruggerio also touched on widespread job losses related to COVID-19, which he said had wrought havoc on the local and national economy, causing numerous businesses to close while taking a heavy toll on public health and education.
“The Assembly will be dealing with all the issues surrounding the COVID Pandemic,” Father Healey said. “The economic fallout and the mounting pressure on healthcare facilities and nursing homes as a result of the pandemic is severe in our state. High unemployment rates and the closing of small businesses have led to difficult financial times for many Rhode Islanders. We hope to work with the Assembly to ensure the social safety nets for the poor and vulnerable are protected and even enhanced in this time of social and economic crisis.”
State Sen. Louis DiPalma, a Portsmouth Democrat, told the Rhode Island Catholic that addressing the pandemic, especially getting more Rhode Islanders vaccinated, is the critical piece in the General Assembly’s 2021 legislative agenda.
“Everything else is secondary. There is nothing more high priority than that,” said DiPalma, who added that the sooner that public health authorities can get Rhode Islanders vaccinated, the sooner the economy can fully reopen.
Father Healey added that the Rhode Island Catholic Conference would also “work zealously” to ensure that Catholic school families receive full funding for programs that aid them. This assistance includes fully funding the R.I. Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit, the textbook loan program and school busing for Catholic School families.
“Catholic Schools have heroically remained open and provided outstanding in-person education at a time when many school districts have chosen not to do so,” Father Healey said. “This is done at great expense for our schools and they too face great financial stress. We will remind the Assembly of the value Catholic schools have to our state culturally, educationally, and most certainly economically.”
State Sen. Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a Republican from Burrillville, told the Rhode Island Catholic that she believes in school choice.
“I think that if you’re in a failing school district, you don’t have ten years to wait for the government to come up with a great plan so that your child can succeed,” de la Cruz said. “I believe you should have the ability to take those taxpayer dollars and give your child a real chance at a great education by letting them go somewhere else.”
In his Senate speech, Ruggerio also included “a framework to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana” as a means to fund state coffers.
“While it might raise revenue for the state and is certain to enrich a small group of investors, it truly fails to serve the common good. It poses a host of social problems for our state, especially for those who suffer from addiction as well as our vulnerable youth,” Father Healey said.
“We continue to see the sad rise of addiction and drug abuse in our society, especially in the pandemic, and championing a proposal that only increases such societal problems simply to gain economic profits is an attack upon human dignity,” Father Healey added. “We want all our brothers and sisters to lead healthy and productive lives that serve the common good of our state. But legalizing recreational marijuana use hinders this pursuit by intentionally altering one’s reality for non-medical purposes and limiting their decision-making ability. It truly devalues human dignity.”
State Rep. Raymond Hull, a Providence Democrat, told the Rhode Island Catholic that a task force is being formed in the state House of Representatives to look at legalizing recreational marijuana.
“That means they’re looking at it seriously,” said Hull, who described marijuana as a gateway drug for harder illicit substances.
“We’ve been fighting (marijuana) for years, and now all of a sudden it’s a cash cow,” Hull said.
Only a year ago, the legislature passed a law that expanded abortion access in the state. Father Healey said the Rhode Island Catholic Conference is concerned that the pro-abortion lobby and “their many allies in the Assembly” seek to publicly finance abortion with taxpayer funds.
“We will vehemently oppose such a proposal,” said Father Healey, who added that there are also indications that the “well-financed pro-death lobby is seeking to legalize assisted suicide” in Rhode Island.
“This macabre social experiment must be rejected by all people of goodwill. I am confident that a coalition of faith-based groups, end-of-life care providers, and the disabled community will work passionately to oppose this legislation,” Father Healey said. “As Catholics, we must accompany the elderly, the sick, the infirm, the disabled and the dying with compassion and care, not by labeling them a burden and putting them to death.”