Catholic Conference of Kentucky hopeful as Kentucky General Assembly nears end of legislative session

With only a handful of days left in the 2021 legislative session of the Kentucky General Assembly and legislators working against time, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky is still hopeful for a positive outcome on bills that affect education choices, as well as human life and dignity.

The CCK represents the commonwealth’s four bishops in matters of public policy. The conference also educates Catholics about issues of concern to the church and encourages civic participation.

Legislation is moving quickly in Frankfort. Following is an update as of The Record’s deadline:

Among the bills the CCK hopes will become law are House Bill 148. The bill would add a diagnosis of serious mental illness to the disabilities that prohibit the death penalty for individuals convicted of capital offenses. The House approved the measure in a bipartisan 76-15 vote March 1 and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Dr. Sheila Schuster, a licensed psychologist, serves as executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition. Schuster testified in the House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill Feb. 24.

The bill is an “important” one she noted, because individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and delusional disorder — “are not able to see the consequences of their action or exercise reasonable judgement.”

Schuster said based on reports from mental health professionals who work with people on death row, there are individuals sentenced to death in Kentucky who probably have a serious mental disability.

“We’re not talking about everybody who has a mental health problem or anybody who goes to see a psychologist, therapist or a psychiatrist,” said Schuster. “We’re talking about probably four percent of the population at most who are diagnosed with one of these serious mental disorders.”

The bill is not retroactive, she noted. It will go into effect the day it passes.

Schuster, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said House Bill 148 is in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings about the sanctity of life.

“I think the Catholic faith and certainly Christ taught us to value all life and to respect everyone, to respect their life. I think this is the ultimate pro-life act for us to take,” said Schuster. “This ‘eye for an eye’ kind of thinking is not the teaching of the church.”

Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, said the House passage of HB 148 is a “major advance in the effort to enact it into law.” Efforts to pass such legislation have been made for about a decade, said Father Delahanty, who serves as director of advocacy for the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“From the Catholic point of view, this is a major pro-life bill and it deals so much with human dignity. How we treat mentally ill individuals when they get caught up in the criminal justice system is a sign of whether we recognize their human dignity or not,” said Father Delahanty.

Other bills the CCK hopes will see action before the 2021 session ends are:

House Bill 149 and Senate Bill 25, which aim to create an Education Opportunity Accounts (EOA) program. The program is similar to the scholarship tax credit program, which the CCK has supported in years past, but more expansive, said Andrew Vandiver, associate director of the CCK. Individuals and businesses would receive a tax credit for donating to certain nonprofits, such as the Catholic Education Foundation. These non-profits would then use the funds to help families with education services, including tuition and tutoring for children with special needs. House Bill 149 is currently in the house appropriations and revenue committee.

House Bill 91 aims to amend Kentucky’s constitution, clarifying there’s no right to an abortion. This bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

House Bill 126 seeks to increase the felony theft and fraud threshold from $500 to $1000 and create a class B misdemeanor level for these offenses. This bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

“The relevance of this to Catholic social teaching is that there is tremendous social cost to having so many felony convictions for non-violent crimes,” said Jason Hall, executive director of the CCK. “The long-term loss of civil rights and employment opportunities that comes with a felony conviction has tremendous social cost. … House Bill 126 still allows a misdemeanor conviction, including jail time, for thefts under $500, but without the additional consequences of a felony conviction.”

Senate Bill 84 seeks to ensure that pregnant women who are incarcerated receive access to critical resources and have safe and healthy pregnancies. This bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

House Bill 155 seeks to provide an opportunity for an individual to safely and anonymously leave a newborn at a participating hospital, fire station or hospital. This bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

The CCK urges Catholics to contact their lawmakers in support of these measures at the legislative message line: 1-800-372-7181. An operator can send a message to the legislators based on the caller’s address. To learn more about the bills, visit https://legislature.ky.gov/Pages/index.aspx.

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