Legislature adjourns with successes for Catholic interests

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On Tuesday, April 18, Voices for a Safer Tennessee organized a three-mile long human chain ending outside the State Capitol. The goal of the event, which drew more than 8,000 people, was to urge the Tennessee Legislature to take steps to address gun violence. Father Mark Beckman, pastor of St. Henry Church in Nashville, was one of several faith leaders who led a prayer during the event. Photo by Rick Musacchio

For the last four months, the 113th Tennessee General Assembly, which began Jan. 10 and adjourned on Friday, April 21, has been discussing a wide range of topics, including abortions, education, and gender issues.

Both chambers of the Legislature are dominated by Republican supermajorities, which set the agenda for topics addressed.

As for issues that would fall in line with Catholic social teaching, there were several good successes, said Rick Musacchio, executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference, as he completes the first year representing the three bishops of Tennessee – Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis, and Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville – on a full time basis in order that the voice of the Catholic Church is presented in the public square.

Musacchio moved into this new full-time role after nearly 25 years as editor-in-chief of the Tennessee Register, director of communications for the Diocese of Nashville, and a member of the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

“Catholics make up a very small percentage of the state population, so we’re not a huge voting bloc. The bishops and the voice of the Church, however, have been well-respected by a succession of governors, the legislature, and state officials,” Musacchio said. “Our role, as we take the Catholic voice, rooted in Catholic social teaching, to the public square is to look for opportunities to influence issues and encourage legislation that reflect our values.

“So much of the work of state Catholic conferences across the country is rooted in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’” he explained. “The document doesn’t seek to tell people how to vote or even present a hierarchy of issues, but rather encourages the use of a fully formed conscience to make prudential choices guided by the fullness of our teaching as we select and work with our government officials. Faithful Citizenship particularly points out that neither of the two major parties fully embrace or support the depth and breadth of Catholic social teaching.

“So, it falls to us as Catholics to work with our civic leaders to support the common good and to respect life at all of its stages from conception to natural death, including every stage in between,” Musacchio added.

“We work for the end to abortion, but we also speak out against the death penalty, and we support care of the needy. We have concerns about providing health care for people. We have concern for welcoming strangers, and we do all those things as the national, state, and local governments perform their proper roles of providing for the safety, security, and sovereignty of our nation, state, and local areas,” he said. “But we encourage them to do that in a way that respects the dignity of everyone and fosters the common good.”

With that in mind, Musacchio said major successes, particularly on the issues of abortion and education, resulted from action at the General Assembly.

New laws concerning abortion

Musacchio said when the legislative session opened there was a concern that access to abortions in Tennessee would expand, but rather a better law emerged than the initial trigger law that took effect following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs Case that overturned the precedent set in Roe v. Wade.

“We encouraged those working on the language that ultimately became the new law to consider the guidance of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, which prohibit abortion but also set forth protocols that allow doctors to treat complications to pregnancy that threaten the life of mothers,” Musacchio explained. 

The new law will protect healthcare workers, particularly those acting under the ERDs, from facing criminal prosecution as was possible under the affirmative defense component of the trigger law. 

Another law that passed prohibits the city government from paying for out-of-state travel solely for the purpose of an abortion.

ESA expansion

The Education Savings Account program has officially been expanded to Hamilton County, including Chattanooga, in the Diocese of Knoxville.

“With that expansion, all three dioceses of Tennessee now have access to the ESA program, which has already seen great success in Nashville and Memphis,” Musacchio said.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, the effort to expand to Knox County faltered, a disappointment considering some of the discussions that happened regarding schools, Musacchio said.

The legislature spent quite a bit of time discussing a new law that requires third grade students to be reading on grade level to be advanced to the next grade. According to state data, only one third of public school third graders have met that standard. 

In comparison, “Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville, testing data shows that more than 75 percent of our third grade students are reading at grade level, and data shows that the number of students reading at grade level go up dramatically in succeeding grades.”

“Clearly, Catholic schools are doing a great job of educating kids, and that points to the value and importance of parent choice in being able to lead their kids to the best educational environments,” he said, “particularly where the public schools are not educating kids like they should.”

At the request of diocesan and school officials in Memphis, the Tennessee Catholic Conference joined their effort to access a pool of about $74 million of federal COVID relief funding to address learning loss in non-public schools. They had been working with a group of non-public schools but had not resolved an issue with the Tennessee Department of Education, which was structuring the funding in such a way that it would be difficult for the non-public schools to access the money.

After the Tennessee Catholic Conference joined those efforts and reached out to contacts in the Tennessee Department of Education and, with the help of Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group of Tennessee, established by Governor Bill Lee in 2022, adjustments were made to the Department of Education recommendations so that non-public schools were able to participate in the funding. Catholic schools across the state now have $17.9 million of COVID funding to support learning loss.

“That was a major win and very exciting that the Tennessee Department of Education under the direction of the Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group expedited this funding that would address a wide range of learning loss related issues in our schools,” Musacchio said.

Other discussions throughout the session included prohibiting transgender treatments for minors, an issue legislators spent a large amount of time on. Although the Tennessee Catholic Conference did not take a public position, “I did answer questions for a number of legislators about Church teaching on the topic of transgender treatments,” Musacchio explained. “Basically, the Church teaching would not support the kinds of treatments that have become popular. Given the lack of significant study on the long-term effects and impact of the treatments, it seems prudent to prohibit the treatment for minors.”

More Work to Be Done

While Musacchio said he is pleased with the successes that came from the general assembly, there were some challenges, particularly in the lack of action toward basic gun safety measures, especially in light of the recent tragedy at The Covenant School in Nashville, when an assailant opened fire and killed three adults and three 9-year-old children.

“Following the Covenant shooting, the Legislature stopped all consideration of gun laws,” Musacchio said. “However, we do express support for Gov. Lee’s extreme orders of protection.”

A letter recently drafted by the Voices for a Safer Tennessee coalition and signed by the bishops of Nashville as well as the Tennessee Catholic Conference, expressed support for Governor Lee’s “investment in school safety and funding.” The letter also encouraged legislators to take the following steps:

• Allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others by implementing Extreme Risk Laws.

• Keep guns away from dangerous people by requiring background checks on all purchases and closing the background check loophole.

• Stop firearms from falling into the wrong hands by requiring gun owners to provide safe storage and report lost and stolen guns.

Unfortunately, Musacchio said, Gov. Lee’s efforts did not include private schools in the effort to put a police officer in every school, but every school in the state, public and private, will receive funding to “enhance overall security in schools across the state.”

Musacchio said Gov. Lee has expressed his intent to call a special session to address gun legislation, but the dates for that special session have not been scheduled.

Overall, there is still work to be done.

“We know going forward that many parts of Catholic social teaching that call us to protect the common good and respect life would be addressed by these basic, reasonable efforts while at the same time protecting the rights of people to own guns,” Musacchio said.

For more information on the Tennessee Catholic Conference, visit tncatholic.org

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