Having had some successes in the last legislative session, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky is hoping to do the same this year as it lends support to issues ranging from respect for life, criminal justice reform and gun violence.
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.
Jason Hall, the conference’s executive director, said it’s exciting to head into a new session knowing a few of the bills the CCK supported in 2021 succeeded.
“We’re coming off a session, a year ago, where we had a great amount of success. It’s kind of an unusual situation,” said Hall during a recent interview.
“Normally, we maybe got a couple of bills that we supported through, but are still coming back to work on a lot of the same things and try to move another one or two things. This session feels very different. … It’s a very hopeful feeling.”
Hall said the conference’s priorities for the 2022 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, which convened Jan. 4, include support for a variety
of bills, including:
- House Bill 269 that seeks to add a diagnosis of serious mental illness to the disabilities that prohibit the death penalty for individuals convicted of capital offenses.
- The Whitney Strong Violence Proposal that seeks to allow authorities to intervene in a situation where an individual possesses a firearm and has exhibited warning signs that they may be a danger to themselves and others. The CCK’s success last session has afforded it the opportunity to expand its focus, and the bishops are concerned with the rise in gun violence, said Hall.
The Whitney Strong Violence Proposal is a “productive and concrete thing that might be able to address gun violence,” Hall said.
The bishops have long been concerned about gun violence, he noted. They addressed the issue, said Hall, in their 2000 document entitled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”
“The Bishops have called for all Americans to think deeply and productively about addressing gun violence,” said Hall.
The proposal is called a “crisis aversion and rights retention” bill, Hall said.
The proposal is named for Whitney/Strong, a nonprofit co-founded by Whitney Austin, a woman who survived a mass shooting at a Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati in 2018. The organization advocates for responsible gun ownership.
The conference is also supporting several criminal justice reform bills this session:
- A Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) bill seeks to allow individuals convicted of a felony to use funds from KEES, administered by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.
- An ID bill that seeks to invest in a program to help incarcerated individuals get a state identification card upon release from jail or prison.
- An expungement eligibility bill.
During the 2021 session, the conference saw the passage of the following bills it supported:
- The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act that requires the same standard of medical care for all infants born alive, including those born due to a failed abortion attempt.
- An abortion bill that could see Kentucky’s constitution amended, clarifying there’s no right to an abortion. As a result of the legislation, the issue will be on the ballot of the Kentucky general election in November.
- A bill that increases the felony theft and fraud threshold from $500 to $1000 and creates a class B misdemeanor for these offenses.
- A bill that creates an Education Opportunity Accounts (EOA) program. The EOA is similar to the scholarship tax credit which the conference has supported in years past, but more expansive, said Andrew Vandiver, associate director of the CCK.
The program would provide financial assistance to families with children in kindergarten through grade 12 in private and public schools for educational expenses. Families who live in Kentucky counties with a population larger than 90,000 would also be eligible for tuition assistance.
Though the bill passed, it is being challenged in court. Despite the legal proceedings, Vandiver said the conference will continue supporting it and support efforts to expand the program.
“We think the time’s right. We’re confident we will win the appeal,” said Vandiver, noting that the attorney general has filed an appeal related to the legislation with the Kentucky Supreme Court.
“We’d like to see tuition assistance expanded statewide, so any family who wants to use it for tuition assistance will be able to. We’d also like to see the program made permanent instead of being a five-year program as it is now. There may be some other changes coming as well that we’d like to see, but those are the two that will be our priority this session.”
The CCK urges Catholics to put their faith into action by contacting their lawmakers — and asking them to support and co-sponsor these bills — by calling the legislative message line at 1-800-372-7181. An operator can send a message to the legislators based on the caller’s address.