OLYMPIA – Bills the state’s bishops are actively opposing — including mandatory abortion coverage in health care plans — are moving through the state Legislature, closer to becoming law during the session that ends March 8.
The call to action is urgent, but there is still time for Washington Catholics to be heard, said Joe Sprague, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the state’s bishops. (Catholic Advocacy Day is Feb. 21. See box for more details)
The insurance mandate, which Archbishop J. Peter Sartain testified against in Olympia, passed the Senate 26-22 on Jan. 31. The measure is now in the House, scheduled for an executive session in the Committee on Health & Wellness on Feb. 16.
A related bill would require employers to provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans that include maternity coverage. The bill, which Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg testified against Jan. 22, passed the Senate Feb. 12 on a 26-21 vote and has been sent to the House. Under the bill’s provisions, a business could face a civil suit for not providing coverage.
“In the House, the focus is on lawmakers that could be supportive of conscience-protection language,” Sprague said. “The WSCC is encouraging people to sign up for alerts and to contact those members who might vote in favor.”
In his testimony, Archbishop Sartain emphasized the measure would violate the consciences of those who are pro-life. Ideally, the bill would be defeated, but at the very least, he said, lawmakers should provide protection for people who object to built-in abortion coverage in insurance plans.
Six amendments to the bill that were offered in committee and on the Senate floor failed, however.
Democratic majority changes the picture
Over the years, the insurance mandate bill has had different titles or names, and “it has been percolating in the Legislature for at least the last five years,” Sprague said recently in an interview on Sacred Heart Radio’s Sound Insight.
In previous years, the measure has passed the House but ultimately stalled when the Senate was controlled by Republicans. Now, for the first time in five years, the Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.
“That meant there were certain elements in the Democratic Party’s agenda in the state that they were able to pursue differently than they had in the past,” Sprague said in the interview. Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way, knows first-hand the challenges of that shift.
“There is a lot of pent-up demand for pushing sectarian and anti-Catholic proposals,” Miloscia said. The Democrats, he said, “are going full bore. They are completely united on abortion, gay marriage and are pushing these bills — surrogacy, too. They are so unified on issues that the church is against.”
Yet Miloscia is closer to seeing the death penalty repealed, a bill he has sponsored and a position strongly supported by the state’s bishops. The Senate passed the measure on a 26-22 bipartisan vote Feb. 14; it now goes to the House for consideration.
Bishops make the case in person
During this session, all of Washington’s bishops have been on the ground, meeting with and testifying before lawmakers, advocating for the unborn and the poor.
With the session more than half over, Archbishop Sartain has met with legislative leaders, the lieutenant governor and the governor on WSCC priorities. The state’s other four bishops have been tireless as well:
- On Jan. 22, Bishop Mueggenborg testified at two hearings scheduled simultaneously, one on a bill that puts a burden on employers who do not provide a full range of contraceptive services and another on repealing the death penalty. “He was literally running back and forth,” Sprague said.
- On Feb. 9, Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima did double duty: He spoke against the insurance mandate before a House panel, then went to the Senate to testify in support of changing the legal financial obligations for people convicted of a crime and saddled with insurmountable debt.
- Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane has been meeting with lawmakers representing the east side of state.
- Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo will celebrate Mass at Catholic Advocacy Day, Feb. 21, when Catholics from across the state will show solidarity with the bishops’ legislative priorities and those in need.
These efforts “reflect the balance of the Catholic Church’s political agenda,” Sprague said. “We are against abortion, but in support of things that would bring about social justice. It’s a beautiful balance.”
Here is the status of bills in the areas of poverty, family, restorative justice and education that are supported by the state’s bishops:
- Housing Trust Fund: Funding of $106 million will help finance affordable housing around the state, including seven projects being developed by Catholic Housing Services and Catholic Charities in the state’s three dioceses. Status: Passed the Legislature in January.
- Document recording fee: The bill would make permanent a document recording fee that supports homeless programs, and increase it from $40 to $90. Status: Passed the House 51-47 on Feb. 7; now is in the Senate’s Human Services & Corrections Committee.
- Rental discrimination: The legislation prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants or tenants based on source of income, especially people who rely on some form of public assistance. Status: Passed the Senate 33-15 on Feb. 9; a similar bill passed in the House, and the two must be reconciled.
- Court-imposed repayment: The bill makes changes in court-ordered debt obligations to help those trying to get back on their feet after serving their sentences. Provisions include eliminating interest on most of the debt and limiting sanctions for those who can’t pay. Status: Passed the House 76-12; scheduled for executive session Feb. 15, in the Senate Committee on Law & Justice.
- School safety: Creating a statewide standard for first responders to notify all schools, public or private, whenever an evacuation or lockdown is ordered at a nearby school. Status: Passed the Senate 48-0 on Feb. 14.
Standing with our Neighbors
During the event, in its 26th year, Catholics from across the state will show solidarity with the bishops’ legislative priorities and those in need. This year’s theme is “Standing with our Neighbors.”
Participants can put Catholic social teaching into action by learning about issues identified by the WSCC, then meeting in small groups with their state legislators to advocate for just and equitable policies.
Catholics will gather at 9 a.m. Feb. 21 at St. Michael Parish in Olympia for Mass and issue briefings. They will hear stories from people living in poverty, then will head to the Capitol Campus for brief meetings with legislators or legislative aides to discuss the issues.
Catholic Advocacy Day is sponsored by the WSCC, the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center, the Archdiocese of Seattle, Catholic Community Services/Catholic Housing Services and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Sign up for advocacy bulletins from the Washington State Catholic Conference.
Find out what’s happening in Olympia, with links for contacting your legislators.
Call the state’s legislative hotline, 800-562-6000, to make your opinions known on bills being considered by the Legislature.
This story was last updated on Feb. 15.
Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.