Catholic Bishops: Despite Budget Cuts, Attend to the Poor

logosharpsmallBismarck, North Dakota – North Dakota’s Roman Catholic bishops, David D. Kagan of Bismarck and John T. Folda of Fargo, have released the following statement on Governor Jack Dalrymple’s order that all state agencies cut their budgets by over four percent:

North Dakota must take its time and remember those on the peripheries when cutting the state’s budget.

In response to declining state revenue Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered all state agencies to cut 4.05% from their current budgets. We recognize the need for the governor and lawmakers to be good stewards of the state’s resources and fulfill their obligations to the people of North Dakota.  Difficult decisions will have to be made.

At the same time, we remind all involved that the state’s budget is a moral document and will ultimately be judged on how it affects the least of us.  The poor, the marginalized, the addicted, and the ill will disproportionately feel the pain of budget cuts.

We ask the governor and state agencies to resist quick simplistic solutions such as “across the board” cuts.   A compassionate and thoughtful response requires giving due priority to needs of those who will be most hurt by a reduction of services.  This will require time and serious consideration.  It may also mean that some agencies will need to make greater sacrifices than others so that we can give priority to those most in need.

We are confident that all involved will heed the words of Pope Francis when he said: “put the needs of the poor ahead of our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor . . .”

Mercy: Incarceration Reform

1430832550293This Holy Year of Mercy provides an opportunity for Catholics to advocate for criminal justice reform at both the federal and state levels.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation. As of 2011, close to 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons and jails. Although national incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, the federal incarceration rate has increased 500 percent during the past thirty years, with close to half of those serving sentences for drug offenses.

The situation in North Dakota is even worse. North Dakota’s incarceration rate saw a 175 percent increase from 1994 to 2014, which was the second highest increase in the country. Four years ago, the state inmate population was half what it is today and the inmate population is expected to double again in the next 10 years. The inmate population has gotten so high that the state has to send inmates to a for-profit prison in Colorado. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the state’s prison system has doubled during the last ten years.

Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance. Rigid sentencing policies for non-violent offenses have proven to be costly, ineffective, and often detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to family instability and poverty. Those who finally leave incarceration face significant challenges upon reentering society, such as finding housing and stable employment, high rates of substance abuse, and physical and mental health challenges.

Normally during a presidential election year Congress does not pass major legislation. Observers in both parties, however, have noted that criminal justice reform could be the exception this year. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed a willingness to start addressing the nation’s incarceration problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified three pieces of legislation it supports. They are:

  • The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). This is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms related sentences and make those reductions retroactive. It gives judges more discretion and allows many federal prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs in prison. Contact Senator John Hoeven and Senator Heidi Heitkamp to express your support for this bill.
  • Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some prisoners. It also gives judges more flexibility in sentencing. Contact Representative Kevin Cramer to express your support for this bill.
  • Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513, H.R. 3406). This bill authorizes funding for reentry programs that help people leaving prison reintegrate back into their communities in healthy and productive ways. These programs focus on education, literacy, job-placement, and substance abuse treatment. They are often administered by faith based groups. Contact Senator Hoeven, Senator Heitkamp, and Representative Cramer to express your support for these bills.

In North Dakota, the legislature has created an Incarceration Issues Committee to look at the issue. The committee consists of six legislators and ten representatives from the judiciary and law enforcement. They will eventually make recommendations to the legislature in 2017. In the meantime, the state’s incarceration rate will grow in an unprecedented rate.

Any success in addressing the state’s massive incarceration problem, however, may depend just as much on the recommendations of another interim committee. The Human Services Committee is conducting a comprehensive review of the state’s behavioral services. Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s incarceration boom has corresponded with a falling behind in the state’s provision of mental health and addiction services. A study from the last interim concluded that the state’s behavioral services system was “in crisis.” Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stated that the lack of access to behavioral health services is a problem leading to incarceration and to the inability to reintegrate non-violent offenders back into society.

Investing in mental health care and addiction recovery costs money, but so do prisons. North Dakotans may have to decide whether they want to voluntarily pay for a better system of behavioral health services now or be forced to continue to fund an out-of-control system of incarceration. In this year of mercy, let’s choose the former.

Statement on Supreme Court’s Decision to Not Hear Heartbeat Ban

Today the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to consider North Dakota’s ban on abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat.  The law had been enjoined by a federal district court.  On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, stating that current Supreme Court rulings gave it no other choice.  However, three of the justices questioned the current application of the viability standard and urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings.

Pro-life organizations and legal observers held different opinions on the wisdom of pursuing an review at this time.

Putting aside the question of whether the Supreme Court should have considered this case at this time, the North Dakota Catholic Conference looks forward to, and advocate for, a time when every human life can be protected by law.  In the meantime, the Catholic Church will join with others of good will, of any or no faith, in building a culture of life.gavel1

Surrogacy Law in North Dakota

Getty Images

Getty Images

The case of a California woman who may be sued if she does not abort one of the three children she is carrying has led to questions about whether the same situation could arise in North Dakota.

For those unfamiliar with the case, a man in Georgia entered into a surrogacy agreement with a woman in California.  She was implanted with three embryos fertilized in vitro using the man’s sperm and another woman’s eggs.  The surrogacy contract contained a provision allowing the man to demand a “reduction” in the number of fetuses.  The man is now attempting to exercise that provision. The woman is refusing, saying that no matter what the contract says, she will not abort one of the children.  She has filed a lawsuit contending that the surrogacy contract violates her rights of due process.  The man is expected to counter-sue and argue that the contact provision is enforceable.  Under California law, if the child is not aborted, the man will be the legal parent of all three children and can place any of them for adoption.  The woman has stated that she would be willing to adopt the third child.

There is a similar case, also in California, in which a woman was implanted with two embryos, but one of them split, creating a set of identical twins in a set of triplets.  As in the other case, the woman has been asked to abort one of the children.

In both cases, the women are getting support from pro-life advocates, who oppose any right to abort, and some pro-abortion advocates, who oppose any attempt by a third party to direct what happens to “a woman’s body.”  I will write more on the irony of that scenario, but first, could this happen in North Dakota?

The short answer is: no. North Dakota law has only three statutes on the subject, but they are very confusing.  Thankfully, the legislative history is clear and provides guidance on interpreting the legislation.  The bottom-line is that surrogacy agreements are void in North Dakota.  Although they are not illegal, such agreements have no force of law.  If the situation happening in California had happened here, the man would have no legal right to insist on anything from the surrogate.  Conversely, the surrogate would have no legal right to sue for renumeration from the man.  The surrogate would be the legal mother of the child when he or she is born.

There is an exception to this rule.  If the child was conceived in vitro from the sperm and egg of a married husband and wife and that child was implanted in another woman, that woman is considered a “gestational carrier” and would not have legal rights as a parent.  This law was passed so that the biological parents would not have to adopt the child from the carrier.

Whether these gestational carrier agreements are enforceable is not clear.  The law only expressly addresses the legal parentage of the children of gestational carrier agreements, not the enforceability of any other aspects of the agreement.  The way I read the law, except when regarding parental determination, these agreements should be considered unenforceable,.  I have, however, heard others claim that the law makes gestational carrier agreements legally enforceable.

All this may sound confusing, but it could get worse.  Surrogacy advocates are pushing nationwide for commercial surrogacy laws like that in California.  Much of the push for commercial surrogacy comes from the unregulated fertility industry and the homosexual community.  Women’s groups have been split.  Some support surrogacy as a logical extension of the reproductive rights ideology. Other groups express concern about the exploitation of women’s wombs and eggs.  Still others contend that even if surrogacy is legal, it should stop short of permitting a party to demand an abortion because the “right” to abort should include the right not to abort.

This last group can’t see the irony of its position.  If they insist on holding to the fiction that no other human life is involved, they have no reason to oppose a contractual demand to abort.  After all, to them it is only “tissue.”  Some holding this position assert that the principle of autonomy means that only the woman can decide what to do with “her body.”  If that was true, however, then nothing about a surrogacy contract should be enforceable.  The only consistent position of the abortion-rights crowd would be the position of North Dakota law — all surrogacy contracts are void.

Bishops Elizondo and Vann Call for an End to Deportation Raids and Detention of Immigrant Mothers with Children

nmw-2016-posterIn light of recent enforcement actions conducted by the Department of Homeland Security for the purpose of deporting 121 individuals, primarily mothers with children, the bishops who chair the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network called for an end to such practices.

In a letter sent to Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, January 11, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration and Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange, California, chairman of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., (CLINIC), urged the administration to end such practices that began in early January and have targeted individuals in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.

“We find such targeting of immigrant women and children – most of whom fled violence and persecution in their home countries – to be inhumane and a grave misuse of limited enforcement resources,” the bishops wrote. “DHS’s action contrasts sharply with the statements articulated by President Obama himself in November 2014, namely, that his administration would pursue the deportation of ‘felons, not families; criminals, not children; gang members, not a Mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.’”

Bishop Elizondo and Bishop Vann also addressed serious due process concerns. “Some of these cases, and likely many others, illustrate the serious due process issues facing these mothers and children.  We object to the removal of any migrants who were apprehended without first confirming that they received actual meaningful opportunities to present their asylum claims at hearings in immigration court,” the bishops wrote.

Bishop Elizondo and Bishop Vann also urged the administration and Congress to adopt long-term solutions such as supporting humanitarian efforts in Central America and addressing the root causes of forced migration.

The full letter is available at: www.usccb.org/about/migration-policy/bishops-statements/upload/Letter-to-Jeh-Johnson-on-Deportations.pdf

Prepare a Political Home

Four Freedoms (Norman Rockwell)(Source: Wikimedia)

Four Freedoms (Norman Rockwell)(Source: Wikimedia)

Do you feel like you do not have a political home?  Have  you chosen a political party but wish it was a little more in sync with your Catholic faith?  You can make a difference.  Discussions about party resolutions and platform statements can help shape not only your party, but also the larger society.  

The North Dakota Catholic Conference has prepared a list of positions on political issues that reflect Catholic teaching.  Take the positions to your local party district meetings.  Try to get them incorporated into the party’s position statements.  Remember, even the discussion can plant important seeds.  

sampleresolutions2016

Find out more, including how to contact your political party, at: yourfaithyourvote.org

 

National Migration Week 2016 to be Celebrated January 3-9

National Migration Week 2016 will take place January 3-9 with the theme, “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me.” The celebration provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the hardships faced by migrants, including children, refugees, and victims of human trafficking.

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and has a particularly central place in the Year of Mercy. “People often forget that the Holy Family themselves were refugees fleeing into Egypt,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration. “Likewise, refugees around the world, all of whom are extremely vulnerable, are fleeing for their lives. As Catholics, we are called to welcome and support these families who also need our help.”nmw-2016-poster

As part of the 2016 National Migration Week celebration, the USCCB established a small grant program that will provide Catholic parishes, schools and other organizations funding to help them better integrate the Church’s teaching on migration into new or existing programs, materials, events and other activities. Grant recipients will be announced during National Migration Week.

The observance of National Migration Week began over 25 years ago by the U.S. bishops to give Catholics an opportunity to take stock of the wide diversity of peoples in the Church and the ministries serving them. The week serves as both a time for prayer and action to try and ease the struggles of immigrants, migrants and vulnerable populations coming to the United States.

Dioceses across the country including Chicago, Illinois; Portland, Oregon; Jackson, Mississippi; and Metuchen, New Jersey; have planned special events and Masses throughout the week.

Educational materials and other resources for National Migration Week are Educational materials and other resources for National Migration Week are available for download at www.usccb.org/nationalmigrationweek. Posters, prayer cards, and booklets are available through the USCCB publishing service at www.usccbpublishing.org

Christmas Blessings from the North Dakota Catholic Conference

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Washington Misses Opportunity to Protect the Freedom to Serve

A statement by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
The bishops of the United States are gravely disappointed that the 2016 omnibus funding bill did not include the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA).  While the omnibus bill certainly addresses other critical issues, the modest reform that ANDA represents — to make federal conscience laws on abortion workable and enforceable — was an urgent legislative priority in these final months of the year.
Many Catholic and other institutions, including those that provide health care and other human services to the poor and vulnerable, have joined in our support of ANDA.  Without ANDA, these caring organizations face legal threats to their very existence, as they lack clear and enforceable protection for their freedom to serve the needy in accord with their deepest moral convictions on respect for human life.  Such threats to conscience also pose a threat to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society–the poor and the sick, as well as the unborn.
 I am deeply concerned that a foundational principle that has received long-standing, bipartisan support in the past has suddenly become partisan.  No one should be forced by the government to actively participate in what they believe to be the taking of an innocent life. This is not about “access” to abortion. The principle at stake is whether people of faith and others who oppose abortion and abortion coverage should be compelled to participate in them. Federal law has long supported the rights of conscientious objection, and even in recent years, President Obama and many members of Congress have publicly declared their support for these existing laws. ANDA merely sought to give them a more consistent means of enforcement.
Despite this, ANDA was caught in the partisan polarization gripping Washington. To those who supported ANDA, we offer our gratitude and applaud your commitment to maintaining our national consensus in support of conscience protection.  To those who opposed ANDA, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider your position, which stands in opposition to even the modest enforcement of a venerable principle that is rooted in the constitution and has long enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.
We join Pope Francis in “call[ing] for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” a cooperation that must be undertaken “with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”  [Address to Congress, Sept. 24, 2015]  We call upon our elected officials to rise above partisan divisions and to renew their support for this most basic right. ANDA should be enacted as soon as possible. Without it, current federal conscience laws are, now for the first time, being enforced erratically or not at all in places such as California.
The mission of the Church in the public square is to witness to the dignity of every human life and advocate for the freedom to act in accord with one’s moral and religious convictions in defense of those lives, no matter how young or vulnerable. We will continue to reach out to the White House and Congressional leaders untiringly until proper protections are guaranteed.

Get the Facts: The U.S. has a Rigorous Refugee Screening Process

(photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)

(photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)

Refugee situations are traditionally resolved through three durable solutions: voluntary repatriation whereby refugees flee to nearby countries and when peace comes they voluntarily return home in safety and dignity, local integration whereby the neighboring host country allows refugees to permanently settle as full-fledged members of the host country, and, resettlement whereby refugees are rigorously screened in neighboring host countries and referred to distant resettlement countries. Resettlement is a life-saving solution for a small percentage of refugees worldwide (less than one half of one percent). They are often the most vulnerable refugees. The U.S. has a proud tradition of taking over half of the world’s resettled refugees. These are the stages of the rigorous U.S. resettlement screening process:RIGOROUS SECURITY SCREENING OF REFUGEES RESETTLED TO THE UNITED STATES …