As the General Assembly opens in Annapolis this week for its 2016 legislative session, the Maryland Catholic Conference will be advocating on key issues related to end-of-life care, educational opportunities for children, and sick leave benefits for workers.
In a Jan. 8 briefing with Catholic journalists, Mary Ellen Russell – the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference – said the conference is again part of a broad-based coalition opposing expected legislation that would allow physician-assisted suicide in the state.
Russell said other key legislative priorities for the Maryland Catholic Conference include supporting a proposed Maryland Education Credit, a tax credit to businesses that donate to student assistance organizations that provide financial assistance to K-12 students for educational expenses, including tuition, transportation, special education services, tutoring and educational technology. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Marylanders support the proposed education credit, which advocates say would increase educational opportunities for students from low-income families.
The Maryland Catholic Conference will also be supporting legislation that would help more workers in the state earn paid sick leave to care for themselves or a family member during an illness.
The conference’s annual Lobby Night, which in recent years has been held on Presidents’ Day, will be held this year on Tuesday Feb. 9 from 3-8 p.m. in Annapolis. In a letter to pastors of Catholic parishes in the state, Russell said the new date and format will provide a better opportunity for participants to meet with their legislators and will include a reception in the Miller Senate Office Building. People are asked to register at www.mdcatholic.org/LobbyNight .
After proposed assisted suicide legislation in Maryland failed to get out of committee last year, advocates have been meeting in working groups and are expected to offer a renewed effort to pass the bill this year. Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide, the broad-based coalition formed to fight the bill, includes medical professionals, advocates for senior citizens and people with disabilities, and representatives of numerous faith groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“This is not just a Catholic issue… The coalition is broad-based, there are a lot of communities concerned about this, and not just from a religious perspective,” said Anya Naegele, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director for respect life issues. “If it passes, we’re going to see a lot of vulnerable populations put at risk for coercion and from negative consequences of the law.”
People can learn more about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide and receive alerts at www.StopAssistedSuicideMD.org. Opponents of assisted suicide warn that the proposed legislation in Maryland would not require family notification or for a doctor or nurse to be present; and the lethal drugs can be picked up at a local pharmacy. Also, the legislation wouldn’t require patients to receive a screening for depression, and medical experts say it’s impossible to accurately predict the duration of a terminal illness.
Naegele noted that if physician-assisted suicide legislation is passed in Maryland, families might face pressures to choose life ending rather than life sustaining care, because lethal drugs are often cheaper than life-prolonging treatment. The Catholic Church approaches the issue from the belief that all human life has God-given dignity from conception to natural death and should be respected and protected in all its stages.
Garrett O’Day, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director for issues related to education, children and families, said he is optimistic about the Maryland Education Credit moving forward in the state’s legislature this year. “This issue has re-emerged into the forefront of big issues that our legislature is considering,” he said.
The education credit would expand educational opportunities for families in the state, O’Day said, adding that affordability “is a huge concern for our Catholic school families.”
The poll of 600 randomly selected Maryland registered voters taken this past August found bipartisan support for the Maryland Education Credit, with 63 percent of the state’s voters supporting it. Steve Raabe, the founder and president of OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll, said, “Voters appreciate the assistance it will provide for lower- and middle-income students, they believe businesses have a positive role to play, and they see a benefit to families being able to choose the school they feel is best for them.”
Nonpublic Schools Advocacy Day, which last year drew more than 700 students, teachers and parents to Annapolis to support the Maryland Education Credit, will be held on March 2, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. For information, go to www.educationmaryland.org.
Legislation for paid sick leave is an urgent issue for Maryland workers and their families, said Dana Davenport, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director for social and economic justice issues. She noted that currently, 40 percent of private-sector workers in the state are unable to earn paid sick days.
“This is one of our key issues, because it comes down to our Catholic social teaching on the dignity of work,” she said. Davenport said that paid sick leave is beneficial for employees and employers alike – enabling workers to care for themselves and their family members without risking the loss of their job or the loss of crucial income for their home and family expenses, and helping reduce turnover in businesses.
“Everybody gets sick at some point in life,” she said, expressing optimism that the issue will resonate with legislators and pass this session.