Conflicts with religious liberty have dominated the news this year. The coercive Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring private health plans including religious institutions to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs received the most attention, but a church-state conflict over religious childcare ministries here in Pennsylvania is also important.
Under the current law, the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) has blank-check authority to regulate all aspects of a church’s pre-school teaching ministry, including curriculum. Senate Bill 1134 and House Bill 2504 would correct this overreach.
“Church-affiliated childcare facilities do not object to regulations relating to the health and safety of the children enrolled,” said Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Jr., executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC), “but we do object to direct or indirect regulation of our program content, lesson plans, and staff qualifications. Simply put, we want to pursue our religious mission without unwarranted government intrusion.”
Unfortunately, with just a few days left in the 2011-2012 legislative session, religious liberty advocates will have to continue their fight into the New Year.
“Protections for religious educational ministries are one of my top priorities as a Senator. With the limited amount of time remaining in the 2011-12 session, we were not able to vote on Senate Bill 1134,” said Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Union), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and sponsor of the bill. “I believe Senate Bill 1134 was poised to run out of both the Appropriations Committee and the full Senate, but with little time remaining, garnering complete support was not possible. As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will continue to champion the cause in the next legislative session. I will reintroduce it and push for a vote in early 2013. This is an important religious liberty issue that must be addressed.”
That sentiment was shared by the sponsor of the similar House Bill 2504, Representative Stan Saylor (R-York). “I share the disappointment of the thousands of Pennsylvanians who contacted their legislators urging the support of equal treatment for faith-based educational ministries that this legislation didn’t reach the House floor for consideration in this legislative session,” he said while promising to re-introduce the legislation in the 2013-2014 legislative session. “I will strongly advocate that it be brought to the full House in a timely manner. The bottom line is the basic right of parents and families to educate children in their faith is protected by our constitutional right of freedom of religion and it must be preserved. Religious freedom is part of the bedrock on which America was founded, and it enjoys an even more special place in the heritage of Pennsylvania.”
Advocates can show their support by sending messages to their legislators with the Catholic Advocacy Network at pacatholic.org.