By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 15, 2007
Twenty-five fourth-grade and eighth-grade students from St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur were among the more than 100 Catholics who proudly stood overlooking the vast House of Representatives at the Georgia State Capitol as the representatives below turned and gave them a standing ovation.
The St. Peter Claver students were among approximately 150 people who participated in Catholic Day at the Capitol, held Feb. 27.
Sponsored by the Catholic Communications Office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Georgia Catholic Conference, the first Catholic Day at the Capitol resolution was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Renee Unterman and in the House by Rep. Tom Knox.
The day began with a legislative briefing held at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, just down the street from the Capitol, as Pat Chivers, director of the archdiocesan communications office, and her staff briefed those in attendance about the day’s events.
Catholics planning to make their way to the Capitol were briefed on three pieces of legislation.
The Ultrasound Bill (HB 147, SB 66) would enhance the informed consent procedure and give a woman considering an abortion the opportunity to view an ultrasound before an abortion is planned. Those speaking to their legislators were asked to encourage them to vote yes on this piece of legislation.
The Death Penalty Bill (HB 185) would provide that the death penalty might be imposed when only nine out of 12 jurors agree to the sentence of death. Catholics were encouraged to ask their legislators to vote no on this bill.
Finally, Catholics were also lobbying for legislators to vote in favor the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act (SB 10), which has already passed the state Senate and would provide scholarships for public school students with disabilities so that they could attend other public or private schools, including sectarian schools.
Chivers encouraged those in the briefing to speak from their hearts.
“We didn’t tell you what to say (to your legislators) because this should come from your heart,” she said. “Make sure you thank them for their public service, thank them for hearing you. Be kind and be the face of Christ. Remember that you may be the only Catholic they ever meet.”
The group then made its way to the Capitol. A second briefing was held a few hours later.
The first stop was the gallery of the Senate, where Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory made a few remarks after Sen. Unterman declared the resolution of Catholic Day at the Capitol. Many then participated in guided tours of the Capitol or found their legislators to speak to them about the pieces of legislation.
Nancy Sage, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, brought her two home-schooled children, Katy, 12, and Craig, 14, to experience Catholic Day at the Capitol.
“What an experience to be Catholic and to join everyone here,” she said, adding that she was most concerned with the education bill. “If it passed, maybe everyone will have the same opportunity for a good education.”
Later in the day, Archbishop Gregory was one of several religious leaders to speak at a press conference sponsored by the Georgia Moratorium Campaign.
In the Capitol rotunda, supporters holding a large black banner behind him that read “Time-out on Executions,” Archbishop Gregory implored Georgia legislators to support a moratorium on the death penalty—a temporary halt on executions while concerns about fairness can be studied and addressed. In the past 30 years, Georgia has released six people from death row who had been wrongly convicted.
“We are at a moment in time that demands serious reflection on and a review of the many legal and scholarly studies on the topic of sentencing and the use of the death penalty,” the archbishop said. “The numerous recent discoveries of mistakes in our criminal justice system make this both timely and fitting.”
He made the appeal, he said, in order to “promote the safety and well-being of all the citizens of Georgia and to preserve good order.”
“The application of capital punishment has already been shown to be deeply flawed in certain instances, and when it is mistakenly applied, it is irreversibly wrong. It has been biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation and the location where the crime was committed.”
He cited the efforts of Amnesty International, which sponsors the moratorium campaign.
All murders are “violent and shocking,” and many stir a desire for revenge. Though everyone must have “deep sympathy for the victims of murder, for their brutalization and loss of life and for their loved ones who must endure unquenchable sorrow,” the archbishop said the death penalty is not the answer.
“The roots of crime are in human sinfulness, in poverty, lack of education and moral formation, lack of nurturing environment, broken and/or abusive family life, as well as alcohol and drug abuse,” he said. “Our society must address more earnestly the root causes of crime as well as react to the events that are a consequence of these factors.”
Archbishop Gregory also reminded those in attendance that Christ himself suffered the death penalty but frequently forgave sinners and “showed that he valued them.”
“As faithful citizens, let us respect human life in every situation. We are called to reflect on what the biblical command, ‘you shall not kill,’ means for us today,” he said. “It is time to examine an inordinately flawed system of state-sponsored executions and consider ways of protecting society and holding accountable the guilty in a way that reflects our society’s best values.”
During the press conference, Kelie White, a senior at Georgia State University, Atlanta, and a member of the school’s Catholic student organization, took pictures of the archbishop and her fellow students who participated.
“(I wanted to come today) because it’s intriguing. I’m supportive of these issues, and I wanted to hear what’s going on,” she said. “It makes you feel important and empowered to walk through (the Capitol) today and see all these people who are supportive of the same issues.”
Later, more than 100 Catholics sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives as Rep. Knox asked his colleagues to stand and greet the “special guests,” Catholics who were accompanying Archbishop Gregory to the Capitol. The representatives then stood, turned toward the gallery and applauded the standing Catholics, many of whom wore pins emblazoned with the archbishop’s photo, set against a backdrop of the Capitol and the American flag.
Rep. Knox then called forward Archbishop Gregory, who offered the opening invocation, comparing the days of session to Lent.
“As you gather today for your legislative session, most Christians are beginning the season of Lent—40 days of prayer and sacrifice in preparation for Easter. It is a time for renewal, a time to acknowledge our weaknesses and to embrace new habits that bring us ever closer to the ideals of Scripture,” he said. “As you proceed through the remainder of your 40 legislative days—days which become even more hectic as the time grows short—I ask that you reflect on the work you are doing as a time for renewal for our State and an opportunity for seeking justice for all.”
He reminded the legislators of their important responsibility to society.
“As members of the legislative branch you have a unique privilege and responsibility of molding and crafting laws which can address the differences and needs of all the people of Georgia,” he said. “As legislators, you write the laws with wisdom, justice and moderation that the executive branch must enforce and the judicial branch must interpret. In enacting law, you have opportunity to enshrine in law those important principles on which a just society is based—most particularly the value and dignity of each person.”
“As we join in prayer this morning, I ask you to reflect with me upon the ways in which the rule of love can flow more and more through the laws you enact,” he continued. “Let us ask almighty God for those virtues emblazoned on the Great Seal of the State of Georgia—the justice, wisdom and moderation that recognize the inherent dignity of each individual, whether citizen or alien, whether law abiding or incarcerated, whether condemned or saved, whether young or old, whether born or unborn.”
Many who participated in Catholic Day at the Capitol found it inspiring and empowering.
Linda Turner-Dash, the middle school coordinator at St. Peter Claver, said her students were fascinated by the day’s events.
“They really enjoyed it. It was a great honor for us to support Archbishop Gregory and for us to show the students that religion really does play a part in government,” she said.
Deacon Chester Griffin, who serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta, said the event was a “wonderful idea.”
“It’s very important to know what’s going on and to get to know the people who represent us. We should be involved and take an active role in government,” he said. “Hopefully those who attend today will go back to their parish and talk about what they have learned. It’s a great opportunity to open up lines of communication.”
Chivers said her staff was pleased with the turnout at this first-time event. She hopes future events at the Capitol will attract even more Catholics.
“The feedback we have received by participants was overwhelmingly positive. Requests to make this an annual event were heard throughout the day,” she said. “In our Catholic tradition, we were speaking for the voiceless, like the baby in her mother’s womb, and defending the defenseless, like the child with special needs.”
“Next year’s Catholic Day at the Capitol is being planned with the intention to set the date as soon as possible so that the invitation to participate will be spread to even more Catholics.”