This week at the 2018 Virginia General Assembly-Week 5
Conference staff worked this week to ensure Church and religious organizations can continue to serve within the tenets of their faith, and protect vulnerable people and communities. With the focus beginning to turn to budget discussions, the Conference also testified on the need to improve restrictions against abortion funding, which will be a top priority in the final four weeks of session.
In less than a week – at 5 p.m. on Thursday, February 15 – Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond will host Virginia Vespers: Evening Prayer for the Commonwealth where public officials, fellow Catholics and people of all faiths and political parties will pray with and for legislators and the needs of Virginia. It’s not too late to plan to join them at this annual evening prayer liturgy, held at the mid-point of the legislative session, in Richmond’s historic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. A wine and appetizers reception follows. Register here.
Here’s a look at how our issues fared this week:
Threats to Religious Liberty: This session, six bills were introduced to impose health-plan mandates that would have undermined religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Opposing these measures was the Conference’s highest priority in this first half of session. Four of the bills were defeated earlier and on Tuesday the last two were defeated. HB 1466 (Rodman) which would have mandated coverage of gender-transition services and HB 631 (Kory) which sought to impose unique, unprecedented requirements on employers with religious and moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage were defeated in identical 5-3 votes.
In addition, the Conference stood against three measures that would have restricted the ability of faith-based providers to follow their beliefs about marriage and human sexuality: HB 401 (Levine), HB 1547 (Simon), and SB 423 (Wexton). Taken together, these bills would have prohibited discrimination in categories including housing, employment, public accommodation, apprenticeship programs, banking and insurance on the basis of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” These bills were each defeated in identical 5-2 votes.
Criminal justice reform: Conference-supported proposals to raise the grand larceny threshold from $200 to $500 saw a major breakthrough this week. HB 1550 (L. Adams) passed unanimously in a House Courts of Justice subcommittee. The same proposal (SB 105, Suetterlein) previously passed the Senate, 36–3. This much-needed reform would make punishment for theft more proportional to the crime committed and allow offenders to move on from the mistakes of their youth.
Shielding vulnerable Virginians from usury: The Conference testified on behalf of SB 625 (Surovell), which would extend the 36% APR interest rate cap to consumer loans. It passed the Senate but was subsequently sent back to Senate Commerce and Labor, where it passed again in a 12–3 vote. The full Senate will vote early next week.
Promoting community policing: A measure that would involve local police in the enforcement of federal immigration law (HB 1257, Cline) passed out of a House Courts of Justice subcommittee in a 5–3 vote and passed out of House Courts of Justice in a 9–7 vote. (Link not yet available) The Conference has long opposed bills that would blur the distinction between two fundamentally different types of law enforcement: federal immigration law and local community policing, which relies on community trust to facilitate crime reporting and public safety.
Assistance for pre-K students: In an 11-11 vote earlier this week, the House Finance Committee failed to pass Conference-supported legislation (HB 1165, Landes) to make low-income pre-K students eligible for the Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits program. Fortunately, the Senate passed Conference-supported legislation (SB 172, Stanley) which would achieve the same result, providing the House committee another chance to pass this legislation. This vital program would provide at-risk children who have no public pre-K options the financial assistance they need to attend Catholic and other private pre-K programs. Stay tuned.
Student discipline: The Conference supports efforts to reform public school suspension policies in favor of discipline geared toward restorative justice and rehabilitation. SB 170 (Stanley) would limit out-of-school suspensions of K–3 students to three days. It passed Senate Education and Health in an 11–4 vote and now moves on to the Senate floor. HB 1600 (Bourne) would limit the length of long-term suspensions to 45 days, unless aggravating circumstances exist. The bill passed the House, 85–14.
Restricting Abortion Funding: Tuesday evening, Conference staff testified in support of a budget amendment which would stop Virginia’s funding of abortions for those eligible for Medicaid in cases where the unborn child may have disabilities. Most other states follow the federal Hyde Amendment and provide Medicaid funding for abortions only in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger. Virginia goes beyond this, funding abortions in the three Hyde cases, and also when the unborn child may have disabilities. As budget discussions intensify, the Virginia Catholic Conference will be working tirelessly to stop this lamentable practice.