By ANDREW NELSON, Staff writer | Published February 19, 2015
ATLANTA—The Georgia Catholic Conference successfully lobbied for a proposal to direct aid to sexually trafficked boys and girls, one of its key 2015 legislative priorities.
Frank Mulcahy, the conference executive director, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, to back the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, dedicated to help trafficking victims. The church sees child sex trafficking as child abuse. The Georgia Senate passed the proposal.
His testimony is one of the ways the voices of Catholics are heard by state lawmakers.
Another is the annual trip for Catholics to the Gold Dome of the state Capitol.
Interest groups crowded the Georgia Statehouse on Feb. 3, where an oversized eagle mascot from Georgia Southern University, a troupe of bagpipers and other advocates for domestic violence protection all vied to get the attention of state lawmakers.
“Catholics coming together”
Among the crowd were nearly 70 students, men and women attending the annual Catholic Day at the Capitol, an effort organized by the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Diocese of Savannah to educate parishioners on how to advocate with their elected officials.
Lawmakers meet for 40 days in a session. Catholic Day took place on day 10. The morning started with a briefing in the basement of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Newcomers and repeat visitors later walked the marbled hall with oversized buttons on their jackets.
Patricia Luster belongs to Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta. Attending for the first time, Luster said she was “intrigued by the collectiveness of Catholics coming together.”
Sister Joan Serda works with justice issues with her religious community, the Sisters of Mercy. She was concerned about legislation preventing unauthorized immigrants from getting a driver’s license. To her, that puts other drivers at risk. It’d be better to ensure everyone on the road is properly trained and passes a test, said Sister Joan, who lives in Macon.
Michael Gaines, who attends St. Paul of Cross Church, took time off from his retail job. He is a leader in the Knights of Columbus. It’s his third appearance at the Catholic Day. Gaines said it’s important to be attentive to current events.
“Catholic Day is a good way to introduce people to advocacy,” he said.
Priorities for 2015
The Georgia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Georgia, identified three issues it’s advocating for during the 2015 legislative session.
- Victims of human trafficking. Senate Bill 8 establishes a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, which would get money through new $2,500 fines on convicted traffickers and an annual $5,000 fee on adult entertainment establishments. The money would support victims by paying for physical and mental health care, housing, education and other services for victims. It has been passed by the Senate.
- Education funding. Grace Scholars, the student scholarship organization of the Atlanta and Savannah dioceses, provides scholarships to eligible students attending Catholic schools. It is one of 30 eligible organizations in Georgia. The money comes from donors who receive state tax credits in return. For 2015, the applications for tax credits exceeded $90 million on Jan. 1. The annual maximum is currently $58 million. Mulcahy said a goal would be to raise the limit to closer to $70 million.
- Autism funding. A proposal requires insurance providers to cover autism expenses for children 6 and younger. The maximum payment is $35,000 per child. Early treatment helps the child, the family and the common good of society, said an issue briefing provided from the Catholic conference. Senate Bill 1 passed the Senate.
Lawmakers want input
While Catholics were elbow to elbow among the other advocates crowding the ornate building, only Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory opened the legislative session in the General Assembly.
Standing at the elevated dais, Archbishop Gregory prayed the elected officials have “an understanding heart, and not a dominating spirit, for a desire to do God’s will.”
Afterward, several lawmakers lined up to shake his hand with a photo.
Rep. Mandi Ballinger, a Republican who represents District 23, introduced the archbishop. She is a member of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell.
Ballinger said she appreciates people who contact her on legislative issues.
“If you don’t hear from constituents, I feel I’m making a decision in a vacuum,” she said. “You have no voice if you never use it.”