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Sexuality and Public Policy

Many people are embarrassed to talk about sexuality, yet our culture surrounds us with references, jokes and outright displays of sexual behavior. The media portrays sex as recreational and impersonal, and homosexuality as “not that there’s anything wrong with it.”Sexuality will be debated in Harrisburg this fall. One legislative proposal adds “sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited categories of discrimination in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). The other is a constitutional amendment to prevent courts from redefining marriage.

These proposals leave us no choice but to talk about sexuality.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) opposes the PHRA change. It could affect the Church’s employment practices, foster care, adoption or other Church operated ministries. The proposal would expose the Church to litigation for acting in a manner consistent with Church teachings. The bill could also expose public school children to mandated instruction about homosexuality, bisexuality and gender identity or expression that may run contrary to the beliefs and values of their parents.

The PCC supports the Pennsylvania Marriage Protection Amendment. Same sex marriage is a judicially forced reality in Massachusetts and civil unions and other same sex partnerships are legal in a number of states. Amending Pennsylvania’s Constitution will preserve the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman and prevent recognition of relationships which mimic marriage.

PCC’s position to support the Marriage Protection Amendment is based on Church teaching which presents a more dignified view of sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that sexuality is to be expressed within the “matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, that is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC 1601). The Church sees sex as much more than an impersonal, recreational act of carnal pleasure.

Homosexual acts, by nature, are outside the matrimonial covenant. “They are contrary to natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complimentarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (CCC 2357)

The Church teaches, “(Persons with homosexual inclination) must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (CCC 2358). We must remember having homosexual inclinations is not immoral; homosexual acts are immoral.

Proposed changes to the PHRA and judicial threats to redefine marriage do not distinguish between the homosexual person and the sexual acts he or she commits. Many believe a person who has homosexual inclination also has the right to fulfill those desires and no one has the right to tell them they are wrong. In the face of these challenging opinions, the Catholic Church cannot abandon its principle of “loving the sinner, not the sins.”

These issues are difficult to consider and sometimes embarrassing to discuss, but we must speak the truth. The Church must support laws that promote family and public morality, and oppose those that do not.

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PCC Column September 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

A Case for School Choice

This time of year there is a lot of talk about taxing and spending here in Harrisburg. The state legislature and the governor just agreed upon a $27.5 billion spending plan for the 2007-2008 budget, including $9.4 billion for education.

The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based think tank, recently released a policy brief that is renewing the call for school choice. The Dollars and Sense of School Choice report supports several conclusions:

  • Per-pupil expenditures are substantially higher, and continue to rise more rapidly in traditional public schools than public charter, private, and home schools.

In the 2005-2006 school year, public school districts spend, on average, nearly $11, 500 per student. The average cost per student in Catholic schools is far less.

  • Alternative schools help relieve the strain on both state and local public education budgets and taxpayers.

If every student who attends a non-public school now returned to their traditional public school, it would cost the taxpayers an additional $3.073 billion.

  • The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) empowers parents to send their children to a school of choice, and does so while saving taxpayer money and leaving public schools better funded.

Since its inception, the EITC has given opportunities to thousands of families. Assuming a fair number of scholarship recipients would not have attended non-public schools without the assistance, the report concludes that for each dollar in EITC tax credits, public school districts save at least $1.89 in instructional costs alone.

  • School choice proposals such as the Property Tax Relief Scholarship Act would provide greater choices to parents, while providing property tax relief to homeowners for each student who migrates from a district school to a school of choice.

This legislative proposal would create a scholarship fund from which $3,000 scholarships would be made available to low income families to send their children to the school of their choice. Per-pupil expenditures far exceed the $3,000 allotment. The public school could return the difference to the taxpayers, providing property tax relief and taking some of the strain off the budget.

This proposal will be under consideration in the fall.

School choice is about more than the money. As the Commonwealth Foundation report says, “Educational choice gives parents the ability to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs, whether their goal is to remove their child from a failing or unsafe school or simply select an institution that better caters to their child’s specific educational needs.”

Catholic schools have provided parents with an excellent alternative to traditional public schools for generations. Catholic school students excel in math, reading and other skills. They go on to attend college at a very high rate and graduation levels are second to none. Many parents would love to send their children to Catholic schools, but because of economic constraints do not.

School choice makes sense. It’s time for Pennsylvania to reconsider this solution.

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PCC Column August 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

The Question of Religious Freedom

Each year in July, we get a day off to celebrate our country – the land of the free and home of the brave; but what is freedom? In particular, what is religious freedom? When asked this question, most of us think of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. It starts with:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

It is easy to see that this clause protects the Church from government interference in obvious religious activities. It is almost laughable to think there would ever be a law governing which hymns to sing on Sunday, which version of the Bible could be sold at a Catholic bookstore, or how long the pastor’s homily must be. The question of religious freedom becomes more difficult to answer when morality and religious convictions are practiced in a more public setting.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) was very busy the first half of this year advocating a number of issues with a common theme – religious freedom.

A mandate for hospitals to administer emergency contraception, even when it may cause an abortion is one issue. Another is the Pre-K Counts program that proposes to spend millions of tax dollars on pre-school education, but excludes religious programs unless they cease to be religious. The attempt to include vague and undefined language about discrimination for “sexual orientation” in a bill designed to help foster children is yet another issue that invites the question, “Does the Catholic Church have the freedom to be ‘religious’ in its various public ministries?”

Sadly, these issues are not unique. Our freedom of religion, of expression, of conscience, of private and public worship, and respect of religious convictions for believers of all faiths and for non-believers alike are among the most hotly debated topics in American history. Even the drafters of the Constitution disagreed about the role of religion in public life and the role of government in religion.

We believe we have a right to practice the tenets of our faith in the pews and on the altar, and in the public square. We believe we have the freedom to be pro-life in our hospitals, to educate our children in faith-based programs, and guide them to make good moral and ethical decisions without fear of interference from those who disagree with the teachings of the Church. This is precisely the religious freedom the Constitution is designed to protect.

The glossary of the US Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCB, 2006) explains our civic responsibility: “Citizens should work with civil authority to build a society of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. In conscience, citizens may not obey civil laws that are contrary to the moral order.” The PCC does what it can to advance this cause in Harrisburg. As concerned Catholic citizens, each of us must be ever vigilant to defend against attempts to chip away our religious freedom.

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PCC Column July 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

Never Say “Never”

Never say “never.” We’ve all heard that one before.

Religious liberty was once sacrosanct in the public policy debate. Many laws included a conscience exception to preserve constitutional integrity. It was absurd to think a law would compel a person to do something against his or her firmly held religious beliefs. Policy makers said, “It’ll never happen.”

But, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) is currently advocating two issues which have the potential to blur the line of religious liberty: a conscience exception for Catholic hospitals concerning emergency contraception and the marriage protection amendment.

Proposed legislation would require Pennsylvania hospitals to give emergency contraception to sexual assault victims on demand. Catholic hospitals already provide emergency contraception to sexual assault victims to prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg by the sperm of the assailant; but do not administer emergency contraception when tests determine there is a likelihood that fertilization has occurred. Emergency contraception according to its manufacturer at times may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, thus ending a new life. The Catholic Church’s position is that life begins at conception – that is, fertilization of an egg. The proposed legislation does not allow for this exception. The Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA) and the PCC are fighting for a conscience exception so Catholic facilities will not have to provide a treatment that goes against moral teaching.

The Abortion Control Act of 1989 provides a protection of conscience clause that assures health care facilities do not have to participate in administering abortifacients. In the Church’s view, a drug which terminates life is abortifacient in nature. In 1989, policy makers said Catholic hospitals would never be forced to perform abortions. The legislature upheld the Commonwealth’s long tradition of religious liberty back then; so why is there even consideration of forcing Catholic hospitals to provide a service they find morally reprehensible now?

Religious liberty is also part of the battle to defend marriage. The PCC is advocating an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Same-sex marriage and civil unions are now legal in several other states, and there is an impact on religious liberty which goes beyond government authorized “marriage.”

In Massachusetts, for example, it is illegal to discriminate against same-sex couples. As a result, Boston Catholic Charities ended its adoption services because the law would have required the agency to place children for adoption with same-sex couples and thereby force them to go against Church teaching. Catholic Charities in Boston has been serving the community for over 100 years. Their forefathers would never believe the agency had to choose between religious liberty and a program that serves hundreds of children in need.

Without a marriage protection amendment Pennsylvania could be faced with a similar moral dilemma. Marriage amendment opponents say that clergy would never be forced to perform marriages between same sex couples. But how can we trust that to remain true? Our experiences with emergency contraception and Boston Catholic Charities are just two of many examples of why we can never trust “never.”

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PCC Column June 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

Re-examine Pennsylvania’s Death Penalty

by Francis J. Viglietta and Rev. Sandra Strauss

It’s time to re-examine the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Fifteen diverse, faith-based, legal, and civil rights organizations, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, form the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition. The coalition is calling on state government for a thorough examination of Pennsylvania’s death penalty and an official two year suspension of executions.

Government routinely reviews its programs. In today’s era of accountability and transparency in Harrisburg, thoroughly reviewing the death penalty is the responsible thing to do.

Capital punishment has long been a troubling issue for society; but, in recent years, public opinion has markedly shifted away from the death penalty. This January, the Center for Survey Research of Penn State Harrisburg released a poll showing more Pennsylvanians prefer life sentences, either with or without parole, over the death penalty. This is why the new coalition is calling for the review.

The possibility of executing an innocent person is an urgent problem. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, six people in Pennsylvania and 123 nationwide on death row were completely exonerated. With more than 220 people on death row in the Commonwealth – the fourth largest death row population in the country – one can reasonably estimate that other innocent people could be awaiting execution in Pennsylvania today.

Poverty plays a significant role in imposing the death penalty. As people of faith we are called to reach out to the poor and those in need; but, what has become clear in 29 years with Pennsylvania’s death penalty is that death sentences are often given to those unable to afford private legal representation and not necessarily to those who commit the worse crimes.

Nine of 10 people on death row in the Commonwealth were too poor to afford an attorney; they were left with whatever representation the state chose for them. In some cases, competent but overburdened public defenders represented these defendants. In others, court appointed counsel handled the defense. Only two states do not provide state funding for public defenders’ offices. Pennsylvania is one of them.

The Christian community has long been a stalwart defender of justice for racial and ethnic minorities. Sadly, last year Pennsylvania passed a shameful milestone in its civil rights history. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, we now have the highest percentage of minorities on death row in the entire country – 70%.

Opposition to the death penalty should not be construed as a lack of compassion for those who have been touched by violent crime. Those who suffer unimaginable grief as a result of a senseless murder of one dear to them deserve the love and support of their families, friends and churches, as well as the compassion and care of the communities in which they live. They have a right to expect justice and that perpetrators will be punished swiftly and effectively. But justice can be served without taking the life of the offender.

The morality of capital punishment remains an important concern for society. Consequently, the need for a moratorium is clear and many questions about the death penalty in Pennsylvania must be addressed.

The Reverend Sandra Strauss is the Director of Public Advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. Francis Viglietta is the Director of the Social Concerns Department of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

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PCC Column May 2007

“Pre-K Counts” Proposal Unfair to Religious Pre-Schools

Do we really need government to take more decisions away from parents? This question is being considered right now in Harrisburg.

Governor Ed Rendell proposes $75 million on his “Pre-K Counts” initiative for pre-kindergarten education for four-year-olds, but it unfairly discriminates against existing church-affiliated pre-K programs. It interferes with religious freedom; only aids families in certain geographic locations; discounts parental choice; and costs more.

There are better options for helping children get ready for kindergarten – Senator Mary Jo White’s (R-Venango) pre-K grants proposal now seeking co-sponsors, or the existing, successful pre-K Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.

Advocates for the Rendell proposal claim that any pre-school can apply for funding, but in order to qualify providers must accept regulations that include those that allow the government to dictate program content. The legislature long ago exempted religious facilities from these types of restrictions to protect the freedom to provide religious education. Catholic pre-schools would have to forego this constitutional freedom to participate in this program.

But that requirement aside, Catholic providers still might be prevented from participating because of First Amendment concerns over the funding mechanism in the governor’s plan that would require direct payments from the government to the school.

The governor’s supporters say every community will be eligible; but, some will be more eligible than others. School districts serving 30 percent or more children free or reduced lunches get priority. So, poor families who happen to live in more affluent school districts will not have the same chance to participate in pre-K programs. Ironically, wealthier families in priority areas could take advantage of the program. With such scarce resources, we need to be sure that those with the most need get aid first. The tax dollars spent for Pre-K Counts are disconnected from those who really need the help – individual families.

In contrast, Sen. White’s grants proposal and the existing EITC program are connected to families in need no matter where they live and only those families with the truest need are served.

Parents are responsible for the education of their children. It is their role to choose the school that best suits their needs, especially during the particularly formative years of their pre-K aged children. The Pre-K Counts program places the decision making with the government, not with parents.

The governor’s proposal unfairly excludes religious pre-K programs from the list of opportunities available to families in need. The other options leave that choice up to the parents, and are therefore the preferred options.

The governor’s $75 million will educate 11,100 students over the space of one year – an average cost of $6,750 or more per child each year. The existing pre-K EITC program in the last three years cost the taxpayers only $15 million while helping 10,935 children, an average per kid cost of $1,370. The EITC program helps families for a lot less money. Imagine what it could do with just a portion of that $75 million.

Urge your legislators to vote “no” on the governor’s Pre-K Counts program. Tell your representative and senator that if Pennsylvania taxpayers are going to make this critical investment in their children, there are smarter, more cost effective ways to do it by supporting a pre-K grants program or by expanding the already successful pre-K EITC. Log on to the Catholic Citizens’ Action Center at pacatholic.org to send an e-mail.

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PCC Column April 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

Statistics in the Eye of the Beholder

Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) published its required annual report on abortions in the Commonwealth. The report shows in 2005 there were 34,909 abortions performed in Pennsylvania, a decrease of 3.1% from 2004. The statistics report when the abortions were performed (93.8% first trimester), the ethnicity of the women (56.9% white, 38% black, 6.4% Hispanic), their ages (33.6% age 20-24, 17.1% age 19 and under, etc.), marital status (85% unmarried), and other data.

Any decrease in the number of abortions is worth celebrating; but, what do these statistics really reflect?

In 2005, pregnancy centers statewide receiving state funding through Pennsylvania’s Alternatives to Abortion Program provided 16,344 women with counseling, mentoring, and support throughout their pregnancy and after their baby’s birth.

In a statement released about the abortion statistics, Kevin I. Bagatta, President and CEO of Real Alternatives, Inc., which manages the program said, “We have seen a steady decrease in annual abortions since the start of the (alternatives to abortion) program 12 years ago. Even though we are happy to see the 2005 (number of) resident abortions as one of the lowest on record, we are striving for the day when no woman in the Commonwealth feels that she must have an abortion.”

Real Alternatives can rightly take credit for some reduction in the number of abortions. It can point to the living, breathing babies of its clients as proof. As concerned citizens, readers should contact legislators and advocate for increased funding for this invaluable program.

Interestingly, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates (PPPA) also released a statement about the statistics claiming credit for the reduced abortions. The group’s president, Susan Gobreski, said, “The link between increased contraceptive use and unintended pregnancy is undeniable. We are very pleased with the 2005 data, and with the continued progress it shows towards a responsible, preventative approach to reproductive health care in the Commonwealth.”

The DOH does not measure data about the women on whom abortions were performed and their birth control habits, but other research does.

The summer 2006 Policy Review of the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research organization founded by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, discusses unplanned pregnancy and contraception. Defining “at-risk” women as sexually active and able to become pregnant, but not seeking pregnancy, the article states, “The 11% of at-risk women who do not use contraception account for half of all unplanned pregnancies.”

But who makes up the other half of unplanned pregnancies?

It is reasonable to infer that the other unplanned pregnancies were to women using some form of contraception. Therefore, is it really “undeniable” to say that use of contraception is responsible for the decrease in abortions, as Gobreski claims?

On both sides of this issue, care must be exercised in drawing conclusions from statistics; but that does not mean review of abortion statistics should discontinue. Even the smallest decrease in abortions should be celebrated. But, more must be done to prevent the damage caused by abortion. Our work as champions of life is far from over. That, more than anything else, is what the statistics tell us.

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PCC Column March 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

Cultivating Pennsylvania’s Catholic Grassroots

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006) states, “Catholics must participate in political life and bring to bear upon it – by their voice and their vote – what they have learned about human nature, human destiny, and God’s will for human beings from his self-revelation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant for all times and all places.”

As faithful citizens, our political participation does not stop at the ballot box. The new legislative sessions in Washington, DC, and Harrisburg, PA, will present many opportunities to participate with our voices.

Legislation is introduced for many reasons. It might be in response to a perception of some need, or to show a public reaction to a situation or crisis. Legislators may feel they have to do something to correct a problem or to encourage positive change. Hundreds of bills on every topic are introduced every session. To become law, these bills must pass both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate by a majority vote then be signed by the president. Laws in Pennsylvania pass through a similar procedure.

Every legislator has different reasons for each vote. Individual lawmakers use many methods for determining what to support or oppose. But, one thing is certain – public input from voters in the district is one of the most influential factors. Legislators listen to arguments from different sides of every issue. Lobbyists and other experts provide points and counterpoints to persuade the vote. But often, the “squeaky wheel” principle plays a large role in formulating a legislator’s position. Simply put, if more constituents contact the legislator’s office to voice support for a piece of legislation, then the legislator is more likely to vote “yes.” It shows him or her that the issue matters to people back home.

This is where you can participate.

There are three easy ways to voice your opinion on important Catholic issues.

1. Write a letter. Even in today’s fast-paced high-tech world, a typed or handwritten letter is still a great way to communicate. Pen a few sentences telling your legislator how you want him or her to vote on an issue and why it is important to you. Legislators’ mailing addresses are usually listed in your telephone directory’s blue pages. Be sure to sign your name and list your address. The opinions of the citizens who live and vote in the district carry more weight.

2. Pick up the phone. Call your legislator’s office. Don’t be discouraged if you do not talk to him or her directly. The office staff is very knowledgeable about issues and is paid to keep track of public opinion. Your message will get across.

3. Log on and hit send. E-mail is the most effective and cost efficient way to voice your opinion. Log on to pacatholic.org and click “contact legislators.” By typing in your zip-code, you can send an e-mail directly to your state legislator.

Whichever method you choose, your voice will make a difference.

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PCC Column February 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.

Educational Improvement Tax Credits

Parents, in virtue of their participation in the fatherhood of God, have the first responsibility for the education of their children and they are the first heralds of the faith for them. (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church #460)

Education is one of the most important responsibilities entrusted to parents. Parents must provide the necessary foundation for their children to thrive and grow into good citizens, leaders and problem solvers. The future of our entire community depends on the education of today’s youth.

Catholic schools offer excellent educational opportunities; but how can families pay for it?

In 2001, Pennsylvania established the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. The EITC provides businesses with a tax credit for donating to nonprofit scholarship or educational improvement organizations. These groups grant scholarships to students giving parents the economic means to choose the learning environment they believe is best for their children.

Scholarships are awarded according to the scholarship organization’s criteria. Minimally, scholarships go to families with an annual household income of $50,000 or less with an additional $10,000 allowance per student and each other dependent living in the same home. Each diocese has its own program criteria.

Tax credits are not deductions; they are an actual reduction in the tax liability of a business. A onetime donation to a K-12 scholarship program earns a 75% tax credit; a two-year commitment yields a 90% tax credit. A business contributing to a pre-kindergarten scholarship program receives a 100% tax credit for the first $10,000 and a 90% credit thereafter. To be eligible for a tax credit, a business must pay at least one of Pennsylvania’s business taxes.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) will begin accepting applications for businesses renewing their EITC donations on May 15, 2007. New business applications begin July 2, 2007. Tax credits are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. In 2005, the available tax credits ran out within a few weeks.

Currently, more than 25,000 students in Pennsylvania are already benefiting from EITC scholarships and nearly 2,200 companies participate. This year, $44 million is earmarked in the Pennsylvania state budget for EITC. But, the demand is much greater. Many more families could benefit from scholarships; and, many businesses are willing and ready to contribute. Governor Ed Rendell expressed his support for the program during an interview with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) last summer. When asked if he would support allocating more money for EITC he said, “Yes. My record speaks for itself. We have doubled it during my time as governor. I support it and I think it is a good idea.” Contact the governor and thank him for his support and urge him to push for more funding. Contact your state legislators and ask for their support. Let them know that EITC is helping families fulfill their responsibility for educating their children in your community. Log on to pacatholic.org to send an e-mail.

For more information about the EITC, log on to www.paschoolchoice.org.

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PCC Column January 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.