Conscience protections, payday lending reforms among session priorities for Minnesota Catholic Conference
(by Joe Towalski)
February 12, 2014
Protecting the religious liberty of all Minnesotans.
Reforming payday lending practices that take advantage of the poor and vulnerable.
Restoring voting rights to former felons who have paid their debt to society and are trying to start a new life.
These are among the issues the Minnesota Catholic Conference will advocate for during the 2014 state legislative session, which begins Feb. 25.
The MCC, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, also will continue to ramp up its education efforts and mobilization of Minnesota Catholics to help convince legislators of the need for laws that uphold the dignity of human life, protect the poor and advance the common good.
“It’s not sufficient for MCC to have lobbyists who communicate with legislators,” said Jason Adkins, the organization’s executive director. “We need to be supported by the voice of the people in the pews.”
The following are among the MCC’s priorities at the state Capitol this year:
• Religious liberty/conscience protections
With last year’s passage of a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, the MCC will advocate for strengthening religious liberty and conscience protection laws for those who object to the solemnization or celebration of such unions.
Without the protections, it’s possible that business owners — including bakers who decline to create wedding cakes for same-sex couples and florists who choose not to provide flowers for same-sex ceremonies — could face significant penalties.
These business owners do not intend to deny basic services to people with same-sex attraction, Adkins said. They object, however, to being forced to contribute specifically toward a same-sex ceremony that violates their deeply held moral beliefs about marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
“The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has plainly said they will punish individuals, businesses and other organizations that refuse to provide goods or services for a same-sex wedding,” Adkins said. “This is something that should be corrected immediately by our state Legislature. This is a terrible injustice.”
• Payday lending reforms
Payday loans are typically more expensive than other methods of borrowing and, if unpaid, can put borrowers in serious debt trouble. The lenders, however, often make large profits.
“There’s nothing wrong, of course, with profits, per se, but if it’s profits based on taking advantage of people in difficult financial situations and lending money at high rates of interest — what we call in the Catholic tradition ‘usury’ — then there is definitely a problem with that, and we’re concerned about people falling deeper into a debt trap,” Adkins said.
“That has consequences for individuals and families, but also for the broader society,” he said. “Increases in consumer debt, poverty, and bankruptcy filings affect the common good.”
The MCC supports legislation that would, among other things, cap the number of payday loans that a person could take from a payday lending institution, Adkins said.
“Currently, the average payday loan customer takes out about nine loans a year, which is strong evidence that people aren’t simply bridging a financial gap, meeting a temporary financial crisis, or using it to buy something they want to purchase,” he said. “They’re using it to pay off basic utilities and other necessities, such as grocery bills — again, deepening that debt trap.”
• Felon disenfranchisement reform
In Minnesota, approximately 63,000 people are denied the right to vote under state law due to a past felony conviction, Adkins said. Seventy-five percent of these people have served their prison terms and are now living in the community, whether on parole or probation.
They often have difficulty securing housing and employment, which is one of the reasons the MCC supported “ban the box” legislation last year, forbidding employers from asking a prospective employee about his or her criminal history until the applicant is selected for a job interview.
“People who are no longer incarcerated should be able to vote,” Adkins said. “We have already decided that they should be living in the community. From our perspective, it’s a justice issue and in a spirit similar to other issues like ‘ban the box,’ where we really take seriously the desire to restore and rehabilitate people, reintegrate them into society, and give them a second chance. It may even reduce crime. This is an important topic on which the Church needs to be speaking.”
• Non-public school pupil aid
A bill introduced in the House last month during the interim — H.F. 1923 — seeks to repeal non-public pupil aid for transportation, textbooks, counseling and health services, and telecommunications and Internet access services.
The MCC is watching the bill, Adkins said, although chances are low that it will move through the Legislature this year.
“It’s been a long tradition in Minnesota to provide certain types of aid to each individual student whether or not he or she attends public schools, so we are concerned that such a bill revoking this important public benefit was even introduced,” he said.
“It should be a reminder to all those invested in Catholic schools to be vigilant and attentive to legislative developments affecting non-public education,” he added. “We’re always monitoring legislation that could impose government mandates on Catholic schools, working to ensure that the right of parents as ‘first educators of their children’ is preserved in the public schools, and continuing to work to raise awareness about the importance of school choice.”
• Economic security, housing
The MCC will continue to support measures to improve family economic security, create affordable housing, reduce homelessness and increase the minimum wage, as well as funding for child care assistance, Adkins said.
On issues related to poverty, the MCC often collaborates with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a Minneapolis-based interfaith public interest group that seeks to influence legislation supported by all four of its sponsoring bodies. The MCC is one of four JRLC sponsors, along with the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, and the Islamic Center of Minnesota.
The MCC supports the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless in its efforts to secure bonding funds for affordable housing, Adkins said. The coalition is seeking $100 million for housing, while Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $50 million for housing in his bonding bill announcement last month.
Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis is seeking part of the funding for its Dorothy Day Center ReVision initiative, which includes three new buildings to provide a longer-term solution to homelessness in the Twin Cities.
• Surrogacy contracts
Last year, the MCC opposed attempts to legitimize surrogate birth contracts in state law, and it will continue to monitor the issue this year, Adkins said.
“We’re concerned about surrogacy for the same reasons that we’re concerned about human trafficking,” he said. “It represents the commodification of women and children. Some have said that commercial surrogacy falls somewhere between indentured servitude and slavery, and I think that’s exactly right.”
Surrogacy contracts often take advantage of women in financial need, he said. Current Minnesota law is unclear about whether such contracts are legally valid.
The MCC will continue to advocate on behalf of several issues on the federal level, including the need for comprehensive immigration reform, Adkins said. It opposes the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate and encourages passage of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.
The MCC also offers several resources for Catholics who want to stay updated on state and federal public policy issues and influence specific legislation.
Resources include the Catholic Advocacy Network, a Facebook page and Twitter account (@MNCatholicConf), and two blogs: “The Lighthouse” (lighthouse.mncc.org), which offers commentary on a wide range of public policy issues of interest to Catholics, and “The First Freedom Project,” devoted to issues related to religious liberty.
The MCC recently hired an outreach coordinator, Kathryn Mollen, who will visit Minnesota parishes and work to build a “human advocacy network” to complement what the MCC offers electronically, Adkins said.