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March 15, 2009

Catholics take their agenda to Springfield

By Michelle Martin

Assistant Editor

Springfield — They came on trains and buses and in cars, filling first the Hall of Flags in the Howlett Building in Springfield, then the Illinois State Capitol itself.

They didn’t look much like the image of lobbyists, these girls in plaid skirts, boys in polo shirts and men and women sporting winter coats and sensible shoes. But the more than 4,000 participants in the first-ever “Catholics at the Capitol” political action day —including about 3,500 Catholic school students, parents and staff members — came to learn how to make their voices heard, then put their newfound skills into practice, popping into the offices of state representatives and senators sharing their perspective on several issues of interest to Catholics, or even just leave a card to let their legislators know they were there.

“This is Faithful Citizenship,” said Robert Gilligan, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, referring to the U.S. bishops’ document on faith in the public square. “For a lot of people, it was a real eye-opener, in terms of Springfield and how the process works.”

Gilligan greeted more than 500 people who made the trip — including a contingent of about 50 who took a bus sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Respect Life Office in the Hall of Flags, along with Cardinal George and the bishops who lead the five other dioceses in Illinois.

Participants were greeted with a list of eight issues that are priorities this year for the Catholic conference: working against a bill that would remove all current restrictions on abortions in Illinois; supporting a measure to require providers to offer women an opportunity to view a sonogram before performing an abortion; opposing a proposal that would equate same-sex unions to marriage; making sure federal and state reimbursements are provided to Catholic health care providers and nursing homes on a timely basis; providing a cost-of-doing-business increase to Catholic Charities and other non-profit agencies providing social services under contract to the state; providing funding to community organizations, including parishes, to offer English classes to immigrants; supporting a bill to abolish the death penalty; and supporting a proposal to increase the Education Expense Tax Credit from $500 to $1,000.

The education tax credit – which allows families who spend at least $2,500 a year on kindergarten-12th grade educational expenses to take a $500 state income tax credit – is widely used by families who send their children to Catholic schools, and it was the main issue for the students, parents and school staff who attended the Catholic schools rally, filling the floor of the rotunda and ringing the railings four floors up.

Zach Wichmann, the associate director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, organized the Catholic schools rally and told the students that increasing the tax credit would be a good economic move for the state, if it would allow more families to choose Catholic or other non-public education for their children.

Wichmann told the children to ask their representatives not only to vote for Senate Bill 183 and House Bill 643, but to co-sponsor the measures.

“They’re going to tell you the state has no money,” Wichmann said. “And that’s true.”

But even with a $1,000 tax credit, the state and its public school districts save an estimated $5,000 for every child that attends a Catholic school instead of a public school. Last year, the state saved more than $1.6 billion on education because families chose to pay for Catholic schools, he said.

Cardinal George also greeted the students, explaining to them that the time they spent in Springfield was “an educational day,” not only for the children, but also for the legislators.

“You are the voice of the faithful,” he said.

Among the schools from the Archdiocese of Chicago that participated included Marist, Maria, Brother Rice and St. Rita high schools and St. Paul of the Cross, St. Eugene, St. Cornelius, Immaculate Conception (Talcott Ave.) and St. Beatrice elementary schools. Our Lady of Tepeyac School, from the Little Village neighborhood, sent the largest contingent of any school from the archdiocese: 66 students, who made their way to Springfield on Amtrak the morning of the rally.

Our Lady of Tepeyac Principal Marylouise Young said the trip is worth it for her students, even though the school had to adjust its standardized testing schedule to fit it in.

“For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve been out of the city,” she said, as the group waited in a long line to pass through security into the capitol. “We want them to see how things work.”

Earlier, meeting with adults who came to visit their legislators, Gilligan said not to be discouraged if the lawmakers were not available. They had a full schedule of committee hearings and floor debate and votes, he said.

“Think of this as the beginning of a relationship,” he said. “Leave your name and your issues and make sure they know you were here. Then call them.”

Getting access was not as difficult for Cardinal George and Bishops J. Peter Sartain of Joliet, Edward Braxton of Belleville, Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Thomas Doran of Rockford and George Lucas of Springfield. The ordinaries met with Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Tom Cross. House Speaker Michael Madigan was away from Springfield.

All the Catholic faithful should work on developing relationships with their own legislators, Gilligan said, to help the lawmakers understand where Catholics are coming from and to learn more about where the lawmakers are standing.

“Here, not everybody is likeminded,” he said. “We approach a lot of issues with a different viewpoint and a different vision. We look at things from the viewpoint of the common good, and for many people here (in the legislature), individual benefit is paramount. I think sometimes Catholics talking to other Catholics say, ‘Why wouldn’t somebody support that?’”