In This Week’s Lansing Update:
- Federal Government Will Force Religious Employers to Purchase Contraceptive Coverage
- MCC Testifies in Support of Shared Time/Dual Enrollment Legislation
- Catholic Conference Urges Reform of Statewide Indigent Defense System
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has vowed to fight a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that will force all faith-based employers to offer contraception in their health benefit plans. The HHS mandate is being observed as a blatant violation of the first amendment right to religious freedom and a radical incursion by the Administration into the conscience rights of Americans.
HHS announced in August 2011 that all employers that offer their employees health benefit coverage would have to include contraceptives, including those that act as abortifacients, in their benefit plans. This “preventive service” mandate attempted to include an exemption for religious organizations that are opposed to contraceptives and sterilizations. The exemption, however, only applies to those that employ and serve people of the same faith, which has led some to comment that even Jesus himself would not qualify. On Friday, January 20, HHS announced it would not expand that exemption.
It is important to note that this mandate can only be overturned by congressional legislation or the courts finding the mandate unconstitutional. In the meantime, faith-based groups have already begun discussing civil disobedience from the law rather than violate their conscience by providing their employees with Church-paid contraceptives.
Michigan Catholic Conference staff this week testified before the House Education Committee in support of legislation that streamlines policies that benefit non-public school students.
The legislation before the committee is embedded in Senate Bills 621, 622, 623, 709 and 710. The bills are part of a wider package of education reform measures that seek to provide parents with greater educational options for their children.
Senate Bill 621 expands current shared time options for non-public school students who are looking for non-core class instruction from a local public school if the student’s school does not provide the class. Currently, students and non-public schools may request the instruction from their local or contiguous public school district, or charter school within those boundaries. SB 621 would expand shared time opportunities for non-public schools and students out to the Intermediate School District (ISD) as well as the contiguous ISD. Public schools are able to capture a portion of the state’s foundation allowance for each student that participates in the program.
Senate Bills 622, 623, 709 and 710 address the state’s dual enrollment policy, which allows high school students to enroll in a post-secondary institution class while still enrolled in high school. Current policy mandates non-public school students to first enroll in a non-core class in the local public school district before dual enrolling at the post-secondary school. The legislation would eliminate that barrier and lower the grade for participation for all students to the ninth grade.
Additional bills in the package include an expansion of the number of charter schools that may open in the state. Governor Snyder signed the bill into law in late 2011, which allows for additional schools over the next two years, then an elimination of the number that are allowed. An expanded number of cyber schools, allowing for a public school to transform into a charter school, and a statewide school of choice bill are also included in the package.
Michigan Catholic Conference believes this package of bills will help create a more robust public school system in Michigan while acting as a “community builder” for both public and non-public schools. A vote on the shared time and dual enrollment bills, which have already passed the State Senate, is expected soon.
MCC provided testimony this week to the Michigan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, a body established by Governor Snyder and charged with producing recommendations to the governor and the Legislature for improvements to the system of providing legal representation for indigent criminal defendants.
According to testimony from MCC: “The image of 'lady justice' which adorns many courtrooms is most often depicted with a set of scales which measure the strengths of a case's support and opposition. For our most poor and vulnerable citizens, those scales are tipped against them. The Constitution says that those scales must start out equally balanced. It is time that our deeds as a society match the words of our law. It is not a matter of how many individuals are impacted by an ill equipped public defender, but a matter of justice.”
The Commission has been asked to provide policy recommendations by July 15, 2012. Michigan Catholic Conference is a member of the Campaign for Justice, a coalition of statewide groups advocating reform of the state’s broken, underfunded and outdated method of providing legal counsel for the indigent.