January 18, 2013

As new legislative session begins, Catholics called to engage in political action beyond voting booth

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

“A new year, a new governor and a Republican super majority in the Indiana General Assembly bring another opportunity for Catholics to engage in the political process,” says Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), who serves as the official spokesman on state and federal issues for the Church in Indiana.

While the 150-member legislature, known as the Indiana General Assembly, reconvened on Jan. 7 for a four-month lawmaking session, the ICC geared up for another year of bringing Catholic principles to the public square by sharing a consistent life ethic that every human being, created in the image and likeness of God, has an inherent dignity that must be respected in the state’s laws and policies.

What will Gov. Mike Pence and newly elected state lawmakers contribute to the common good and the consistent life ethic?

“Time will tell,” says Tebbe, but the Indiana General Assembly does have one requirement—to produce a two-year state operating budget by its April 29 adjournment deadline.

During Tebbe’s two decades of following state legislation, he notes one characteristic unique to this session’s House of Representatives is that nearly half of its members have two years or less experience in the job. That, combined with a walk-out proof Republican super majority and a diminished Democrat minority influence, will make for a unique situation in the lawmaking process.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have stressed their focus this year will be on passing a budget and moving legislation that creates jobs.

Pence promised in his campaign to fight poverty by creating jobs and strengthening marriage and families.

In early December, Pence also expressed an interest in using some of the state’s surplus to give a 10 percent tax cut to Indiana residents.

“Governor Pence will reiterate these promises and unveil his agenda during the upcoming State of the State address to be televised [on] Tuesday night, Jan. 22,” Tebbe said.

While budget and economic issues will be the major focus, there will be many other topics that will require scrutiny as well. Tebbe expects the ICC to track other important moral issues this year, such as medical coverage for low-income families, education programs, criminal sentencing reforms, chemical abortion and end-of-life regulations, mass transit and early childhood education initiatives.

The ICC will also watch for any progress in the passage of a possible amendment to Indiana’s constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. If passed, it would become a ballot measure to be voted upon by state voters in the 2014 election.

Tebbe expects, however, that the General Assembly will not take action on the possible amendment because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on cases involving the redefinition of marriage.

Even though the 2012 election is behind us, Catholics in the pew also have a role and responsibility in the public square as citizens, says Tebbe. These responsibilities are outlined in a November 2011 statement called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.”

It says, in part, “This obligation to participate in political life is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.” The entire document is available online at www.faithfulcitizenship.org.

“Our role at the ICC is not only to inform and educate our elected officials, but to serve as a conduit to facilitate or make political engagement easier for the Catholic in the pew,” Tebbe said. “I invite interested Catholics to stay connected to what’s going on through the ICC’s electronic Legislative Action Center available on the ICC’s Web page.

“When the Indiana General Assembly is in session, getting input from constituents in a timely manner on legislation is vital to the process,” Tebbe added. “When Catholics contact their representatives in unison with the work of the Catholic Conference, it allows the Church to be more effective in shaping morally sound public policy. The use of this service by Catholics has the potential to significantly impact the Church’s role in the public policy arena. It is my hope that our faith community will seize the opportunity to take advantage of this online tool.

“Catholics that have a particular interest in pro-life, social justice, education, immigration reform, health care or family life issues will be able to stay connected, and be counted when important legislative decisions are made on priority issues the Church is following.”

The Indiana General Assembly is made up of 50 state senators and 100 state representatives, and is expected to consider more than 2,000 bills this year.

Since 1967, the ICC has worked to bring to light moral dimensions of state public policy making. While the role of the ICC is to serve as the official voice of the Catholic Church in the public policy arena primarily in Indiana, those who visit the ICC website can opt to be notified about important federal legislation that the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops is concerned about. The site also offers the means to contact members of Congress.

To explore the ICC’s electronic public policy tool and join the ICC legislative network, log on to the ICC web page at www.indianacc.org, and click “Legislative Action Center.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org. )

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