Deacon Don Weigel led a faithful army to the state capitol on Public Policy Day to advocate for those in need. They spoke to state senators and assembly representatives, imploring them to pass legislation that would offer fair benefits to workers, restore dignity to inmates and decrease abortions.
Deacon Weigel, associate public policy coordinator for Catholic Charities of Western New York, traveled to Albany last week with 50 people, including students from St. Francis High School, Notre Dame High School, Niagara University and Christ the King Seminary, as well as a wide cross section of adults. The goal was to speak to legislators about five issues, hoping to sway their position towards social justice, a respect for life and the common good.
For a few years now, the Education Investment tax credit bill has been on the docket. It encourages individual and corporate donations to individual public schools, school districts, and non-profit organizations that operate pre-kindergarten programs, provide visual arts, music, tutoring and other educational instruction during or after school. Bishop Richard J. Malone, who also traveled to Albany to speak to lawmakers, has been a major advocate for implementing the tax credit. He believes such a bill would help stem the tide of Catholic school closings in recent years.
"The possible infusion of new students into our schools will allow us to keep open all Catholic elementary schools in Buffalo, providing even more children the chance to take advantage of the unparalleled education that is offered in our schools," the bishop said in January.
Deacon Weigel said the request received wide bipartisan support from the Assembly and the Senate.
"It's sort of a triple win because the people who make the donations benefit by getting a tax credit, the private schools benefit because they have more funds at their disposal, and public schools benefit because they're able to use those monies that are donated to reimburse teachers who spend money out of their own pockets," he said.
They asked for just treatment of farmworkers. Farmworkers, unlike other workers in the state, are not entitled to a day of rest and their employers do not have to contribute to workers' comp or to unemployment insurance. Workers typically don't have health benefits, and employers are not obligated to pay for overtime.
"All those rights that ordinary workers get are not given to farmworkers. This goes all the way back to when most farmworkers were slaves," said Deacon Weigel. "It's kind of a holdover from Jim Crow days."
The advocates also asked to defeat the 10th point of Governor Cuomo's proposed Women's Equality Act. The final point of the plan calls for an expansion of abortion. The advocates strongly agree with the other nine points which call for equal pay, maternity benefits and domestic violence protection. They also asked for support of the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation Inc., an organization that provides training and support to mothers in need. State funding has been reduced over the past couple of years.
A fourth issues involves the care for the vulnerable, which extends to inmates who have become sick or elderly. The Albany visitors advocated for a change in the law that would allow certain inmates an early release into a different form of protective custody, allowing them to receive better care and die with some dignity.
"Many of them need better medical care than they can receive in prison. (They) could be released under supervision into a much more humane place. In most cases they're not going to be a threat to society or to themselves," Deacon Weigel said.
He would also like to see a reduction of the use and abuse of Special Housing Units, commonly known as Solitary Confinement. The Church understands the need for penal communities but there is evidence that solitary confinement is overused. Inmates stay in SHUs 23 hours a day and receive no visitors or opportunities for worship.
"It really impinges on the dignity of the people inside and, frankly, in many cases, worsens the case of who they are when they are released."
Lastly, they want to make sure workers who care for the developmentally disabled receive raises. Caregivers who receive money from the state have not received a cost of living raise in six years.
"Every year something goes into the budget which is going to give them a cost of living increase, then every year it is taken out as a 'cost-saving measure.' These are the people who are dealing with folks with some severe disabilities," Deacon Weigel said.
They also want to see funding for kinship care programs, where children are cared for by a family member like a grandparent or aunt and uncle, rather than foster parents.
"The cost to taxpayers for having that sort of care is much lower than the cost of putting these kids into foster care programs," Deacon Weigel said, adding that children often develop better being with family.
Deacon Weigel feels positive about this year's trip to Albany. With the large number of participants, they were able to see all 17 legislators who serve the diocese, and met with most face to face, rather than speaking to an aide.
"In most cases, where we didn't exactly see eye to eye on some of the issues, we were able to have a very constructive dialogue about why the legislator happened to be opposed to that particular issue," he said.
Anyone wanting to be involved in the political process should visit the New York State Catholic Conference website. It provides an opportunity to join the Action Network, receive email and advocate for the laws that reflect Gospel values and the social justice teaching of the Church. One of the ways that people can do that very easily is to be informed. People can also call the Catholic Charities public policy office. The staff organizes meetings with legislators when they are in their home district during the summer and fall. People should also keep abreast of the issues and be willing to advocate for those issues as the next step.
"Our bishops tell us that participation in the political process is not just a privilege but it's a requirement of our faith," Deacon Weigel said. "Part of being a good Catholic means that you pay attention to the issues that are going on in our state and our world, and have the courage and take the time to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves - the poor and the incarcerated and the unborn. People who do not have a voice need us to be their voice."