By S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - As the Unicameral continues with its 2017 legislative efforts, the staff of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) is diligently reviewing each bill for issues that will concern Catholics.
During a conversation with the Southern Nebraska Register last week, executive director Tom Venzor and newly hired associate director for pro-life and family Jeff Kanger had only seen about a third of the bills that will be put forth in the state legislature this year. Bills were introduced through Jan. 18.
“Usually there are about 600 bills introduced in a year,” Venzor noted.
Out of the 230 bills they had seen so far, only a handful have caught their eye.
One is LB46, which will allow for the creation of a “Choose Life” license plate, as well as direct proceeds from license plate fees to the Nebraska Child Abuse Prevention Fund.
Introduced by District 1 Senator Dan Watermeier, this is a bill that is expected to pass without a problem.
Another bill, introduced by District 19 Senator Jim Scheer, aims to repeal an older law that is still on the books, affording religious liberty to public school teachers.
“It’s basically an old anti-Catholic provision from early 1900ish,” Venzor explained. “It prohibits a public school teacher from wearing religious garb.”
The law is so old that most people hadn’t even heard of it. The issue was brought to light when a religious sister sought to teach at a Norfolk public school. The principal informed her that if he hired her, she wouldn’t be able to wear her habit while teaching because of this law. The law also applies to people of other faith, such as Muslim women who wear hijabs or Sikh men who wear turbans.
Venzor anticipates that the education committee will review the bill favorably.
“It will have a diversity of support,” he said. “Conservative religious groups will support it; the ACLU is going to support it.”
Some of the other bills that will come up before the Unicameral this year are a bit murkier when it comes to religious freedom.
For example there is a bill that has been introduced for years that would allow each city to prohibit discrimination against people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation in terms of employment, public accommodation and housing.
“It’s problematic because the term ‘public accommodation’ could mean stores, churches, and so on, and there is no religious exemption whatsoever,” Venzor said.
He continued, “On the one hand, the Catechism talks about treatment of all people with love, respect and compassion. At the same time, we have an obligation to uphold the truth of reality and the truth of nature.”
To that end, this bill, if passed into law, could undermine a Catholic person’s ability to do both.
Venzor and Kanger are also concerned that the definitions of the people who would qualify for this legal protection are really vague.
“It’s not even clear what people they are trying to protect,” Kanger said.
“We should be having respect and compassion for people in these situations, but it doesn’t rise to the level of needing legal protection,” Venzor said.
Another concern is how such laws have had an effect in other states. Instead of really protecting people, certain populations use the law as a means of attacking those who disagree with them.
“They are not using it as a shield, but as a sword,” Venzor lamented.
The Nebraska Catholic Conference recommends that all Catholic citizens get involved in the legislative process in order to help bring about favorable results for each of these bills. Calling or emailing one’s state senator is a good start.
For people who are a bit squeamish at the idea of calling their state senator to take a stand on a bill, Kanger offers a simple tip:
“Call at 6 p.m.,” he suggested. “Leave a voice mail.”
He reminded the faithful laity that in a state like Nebraska, it doesn’t take very many voice mails to set the tone for a senator’s day.
“A dozen calls matters,” he declared. “At least in respect to the Nebraska Unicameral, it’s huge.”
Kanger also recommended that people think beyond calling and emailing to personal relationships. Our state senators go to church with fellow citizens. Their kids go to school with our kids.
“Whether you agree or disagree with your senator, that’s your moment to begin and maintain a relationship with that person,” he said.
Another thing Kanger would like to see is more Nebraskans offering themselves to the process as professional experts.
“Catholics are living their faith in a variety of professions and vocations every day. Those professionals testifying before the legislature goes a long way,” he said.
“Ultimately,” he said, “have an open heart to service. Pray and reflect on running for office.”
Everyone can monitor progress of the bills being considered by the Unicameral this year online at nebraskalegislature.gov. The Nebraska Catholic Conference can also keep you appraised when you sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network of Nebraska (CANN) at NECatholic.org.