By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 26, 2009
Embryo adoption, lobbying for school vouchers and fighting a measure to require English-only tests for a driver’s license top the list of legislation the Georgia Catholic Conference is watching in the statehouse.
These issues, along with others, will be discussed at the upcoming Catholic Day at the Capitol, when Catholics watch the legislative process up close and lobby their lawmakers.
Patricia Chivers, communications director for the Atlanta Archdiocese, said people from around the state are invited to learn about the legislative process and “respond to their baptismal call to take action.”
The Georgia Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the church. It represents the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Savannah Diocese.
The third annual Catholic Day at the Capitol is on Thursday, March 12. The program begins with a legislative briefing at 8:30 a.m. at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, adjacent to the statehouse. Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland are attending.
The event is free, but registration is required.
On pro-life issues, the conference is carefully watching as lawmakers weigh groundbreaking laws to regulate fertility clinics and frozen embryos.
“The ultimate decision on proceeding will be based on church teaching,” said Mary Boyert, the director of the Pro-Life Ministry office.
The issue is so new that the conference is waiting for experts to weigh in on proposals being considered by lawmakers, said Boyert.
One proposal called the “Option of Adoption Act” would allow people to adopt frozen embryos just as people adopt children, said Boyert.
These new bioethics concerns have grabbed the attention of church leaders at the highest levels. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December released “Dignitas Personae” (The Dignity of a Person) that gave instruction on these new issues.
The church document does not reject embryo adoption outright, but raises concerns and highlights the “moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place.”
It states, “Cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos.”
Education reform has seen success in recent years, according to the conference.
Two years ago, a voucher program for students with special needs was implemented. And last year, a new law allowed Georgia residents and businesses to receive tax credits for donations to student scholarship programs.
Contrary to the fears of reform opponents, the state education system has not fallen apart because parents are now empowered to make decisions about their child’s education, Chivers said.
“We have not rocked the school system,” she said.
The statewide Catholic scholarship program—G.R.A.C.E.—received $85,000 in 2008 to be awarded in the fall. Organizers hope to increase the scholarship money this year.
Chivers said a revision to the scholarship program watched with concern is House Bill 394 that would put limits on scholarship winners. It proposes to restrict the program only to families who receive free or reduced school lunches. That would limit the program to a family of four that earns less than $40,000 annually, Chivers said.
She said the state shouldn’t get involved because the scholarship organizations can better adapt to a family’s financial needs than a one-size-fits-all mandate.
The Georgia Catholic Conference backs a revision that would increase the maximum donation, currently set at $1,000 and $2,500 for an individual and couple, respectively. The change would allow 75 percent of an individual’s state taxes to be given to the scholarship organizations.
Another bill that Chivers said the conference is enthusiastic about is Senate Bill 90 by Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) to make Georgia the first state to offer vouchers to all public school students.
The vouchers—worth nearly $6,000—could be used to pay tuition at private or public schools. The student would have to be accepted at the school. Parents would be responsible for transportation costs.
Chivers said the church supports the bill because it empowers parents, who can make the best decisions about their child’s education.
“We are committed to this for the long term,” she said about the support for vouchers.
The conference is working with a coalition of supporters, including the Georgia Family Council, to lobby for this idea, Chivers said.
Frank Mulcahy, the executive director for the conference, said anti-immigrant proposals don’t have the same support from state lawmakers they once did.
“There is still an anti-immigrant trend, but I think it is cooler,” he said.
The latest bill targeting immigrants is one that would restrict driver’s license tests to English only, he said.
In 1996, English became the official language of Georgia. But the law includes provisions to offer services in other languages for public safety. Driver’s tests are given in as many as 80 languages, he said.
Mulcahy said the measure could damage the state’s image on the international stage by bruising its reputation as a place to live and do business. Also, the law would hurt the archdiocese’s program to resettle international refugees, who get driver’s licenses as an early step on the way to making their home here.
For additional information and to register for Catholic Day at the Capitol, contact Veronica Diaz at (404) 978-2766 or visit www.archatl.com. The Shrine is located at 48 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, SW, Atlanta.