PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly recently completed its 2023 legislative session.
Over the course of the 2023 legislative session, several bills of importance were proposed, and some passed that are of interest to Rhode Island’s Catholics.
“This year’s legislative session, as always, had its winners and losers but, in my opinion, the entire session was overshadowed by a black cloud with the passage of the so-called Equality in Abortion Coverage Act,” said Father Bernard A. Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. “Sadly now, Rhode Island taxpayers, including Catholics and others, opposed to the killing of the innocent unborn must fund abortions. It is a clear violation of conscience and an attack on the sanctity of human life. This was a major defeat in our state for the respect of human life and the common good.”
While grateful for the many representatives and senators who “maintain the courage of their convictions and continue to support and promote pro-life legislation,” Father Healey found it unfortunate that some legislators, including those who are Catholics and who had supported pro-life legislation in the past, have now abandoned all principles in support of the pro-abortion agenda.
“They did so only for the sake of political power and expediency,” he said. “It is a sad commentary on the state of politics today and not a hopeful sign for the future of our state.”
Regardless, he said, we must continue to vigorously advocate for the protection of all human life and the respect of the human dignity of every human person.
James Jahnz, secretary for Catholic Charities and Social Ministry, said it is important for the faithful to support bills that protect those on the margins of society.
“As Catholics, we must continue to strive and push for legislation that promotes life and protects the young, the elderly, and those that are ‘in the shadows’ of society” he said.
An education-related bill, proposed
by Sen. Frank Lombardi (District 26), sought to expand upon access to special educational resources for children who attend private school. The bill mandated that the school district where a student resides cover the cost of such programs. This bill was tabled for further study.
A series of bills were also passed during the 2023 legislative session that would increase the amount of the state budget aimed at education. More specifically, the Scholarship Tuition Tax Credit was increased in the state budget by $100,000 and is now capped at $1.6 million.
“It is a small increase but a hopeful sign that the General Assembly understands the importance of the program for economically poor students and families who benefit from it,” said Father Healey.
The textbook loan program and school busing, which benefit Catholic school families, were fully funded in the state budget.
Several bills were also passed aimed at alleviating the housing crisis in the state. A 14-bill package, introduced by House president Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (District 23), was passed by the General Assembly in May.
One bill in the package, proposed by Rep. Shekarchi, sought to amend the Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Act by simplifying the process of gaining permits to build low-income housing. Rep. Karen Alzate (District 60) sponsored a bill (HB6090), that permits the repurposing of former commercial structures for housing.
“We always seek to support the full funding of the many safety nets in the state’s social services in the budget, and the funding of a new housing package will certainly help address the increasing problem of homelessness and the crisis facing many low-income renters in Rhode Island,” Father Healey commented.
The House passed a bill to repeal the law that allows payday lenders to charge up to 260% interest. However, it did not pass in the Senate. The RI Catholic Conference has supported efforts to curb payday lending.
“Our social service agencies hear from many people who feel trapped in a cycle of payday loan debts,” said Father Healey.
Father Healey explained that “Catholic teaching has many warnings about usury and exploitation of people. Lending practices that, intentionally or unintentionally, take unfair advantage of one’s desperate circumstances are unjust. Catholic Social Teaching demands respect for the dignity of persons, preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable, and the pursuit of the common good. These principles, together with our teaching on economic justice, animate our support of this legislative effort.”
The Solitary Confinement Reform Act, proposed by Sen. Jonathan Acosta (District 16), seeks to limit the circumstances and length of time under which solitary confinement can be used.
The Catholic Church has long opposed the overuse of segregated confinement. The bishops of the United States spoke out against the increasing use of isolation units more than two decades ago. Recently, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, wrote an op-ed supporting ending solitary confinement.
The RI Catholic Conference testified in favor of the bill.
“We had great hope the bill to stop the cruel punishment of solitary confinement of prisoners might pass, but it was held for further study,” Father Healey said.
“Pope Francis has spoken boldly against this practice, and several states have now outlawed it. We hope the General Assembly might begin to understand what Pope Francis teaches so clearly and soon outlaw it in our state as well.”
Statute of Limitations
A bill, proposed by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (District 33), seeks to totally eliminate the statute of limitations for cases related to sex abuse. It was held for further study.
The RI Catholic Conference testified that “the bill proposes to eviscerate all statutes of limitation – both prospectively and retroactively.”
Opponents of the bill suggested that eliminating any statute of limitations may undermine the right to due process.
“Rhode Island has never taken such an extraordinary approach for any type of civil claim. This approach is fundamentally unsound and appears to plainly violate the Rhode Island Constitution,” testified Christopher E. Appel on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association.
“As we have long maintained, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, American Tort Reform Association and others, it is unconstitutional,” Father Healey said.
Abortion and Contraception
Passed into law were two controversial bills of particular interest to Rhode Island’s Catholic community.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act sought to expand upon state employee insurance plans and Medicaid to include coverage of abortion. The bill allows the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion, even in instances where it is elective.
The bill passed in both houses of the General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Dan McKee on May 18.
The passage came only after a period of intense debate, with supporters of the bill claiming that it represents the only economically just way to increase access to abortion for those who otherwise could not afford it. Opponents argued it is unjust to force taxpayers to financially support medical procedures that they have a fundamental or moral disagreement with.
Some claim that the bill represents a series of misplaced priorities among Rhode Island legislators.
“You have to ask why do we only fund abortion and not put forth funding for life affirming agencies to help women and families who choose to have their babies,” said Lisa Cooley, coordinator of the Office of Life and Family Ministry for the Diocese of Providence.
A bill with similar implications, The Individual Health Insurance Coverage Act, mandated that regulations connected with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be codified into state law should this law be repealed on a federal level.
Many opponents of the bill feared that if this bill passed, the contraceptive mandate would go into effect, which forces all employers, including religious institutions, to offer coverage for contraception in their employee health insurance plans.
Supporters point to how the bill specifies that codified into state law will also be all exemptions to the ACA.
Rep. June Speakman (District 68), the sponsor of the bill in the House, noted during discussions that this includes religious institutions being exempt from the contraceptive mandate.
It is on the basis of this exemption that many legislators, even those with a strong pro-life record, said they voted in favor of the bill.
This includes Rep. Barbara Fenton-Fung (District 15), who noted that several parts of the bill, including its extending of insurance coverage to include those with pre-existing coverage, are of immense importance for Rhode Islanders.
“With concerns to the language in the legislation that references the contraceptive mandate exemptions…I will agree that there was an opportunity to make that distinction stronger, but after showing the compromise language to four different lawyers, two thought the language was sufficient, and two didn't,” Fenton-Fung went on to explain.
Still, many doubted the effectiveness of the language surrounding these exemptions.
Barth E. Bracy, the executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, called the assurances the religious employers won’t be forced to cover contraception a “smokescreen.”
The bill was passed in a landslide victory in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. McKee on June 21.
Another significant piece of legislation concerned physician assisted suicide.
The Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act sought to loosen regulations on assisted suicide by allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending substances to a terminally ill patient.
Father Healey, in a statement to The Rhode Island Catholic, described this bill as “a direct attack on the sanctity of life and dignity of the dying.”
The bill, which was proposed by Rep. Edith Allejo (District 1), was held for further study.
A “green burial” bill, proposed by Rep. Michelle McGraw (District 71), was introduced for the first time in the RI General Assembly and followed upon its passage in other states.
The bill seeks to allow human composting, a relatively new type of bodily disposal in which the body is placed in soil and broken down by biological processes.
The bill contradicts the Catholic belief in the dignity of the human body and the norms concerning burial, and implicitly the Catholic view on eternal life.
“One does not have to be Catholic to understand that how we treat our dead is evidence of what we believe human beings to be,” Father Healey said.
“Making it legal to flush most of a person’s body down the sewer contributes to a coarsened attitude toward the dead. Our respect for the dignity of the dead is an extension of our respect for the dignity of the living. People with and without faith have always understood this, and it is evident in the burial practices of civilized people throughout time and across the world.”
The bill was held for further study.
The General Assembly recessed early in the morning on June 15. The legislative session will begin again on January 2, 2024.