By Dan McWilliams
NASHVILLE — School vouchers were a popular subject in meetings Bishop Richard F. Stika and Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib, SVD, had with Gov. Bill Haslam and legislators at the 17th annual Catholic Day on the Hill in Nashville.
Catholic Day on the Hill offers a chance for the faithful to meet with their legislators and advocate on issues important to the Church.
“I always look forward to Catholic Day on the Hill,” Bishop Stika said. “Every year the issues are a little different. This year we focused a lot on the school-voucher program that’s proposed by the governor as well as many different other educational opportunities, and then we brought up immigration and working with the people in need and the death penalty.”
School vouchers came up in conversations between the bishops and the governor, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, the Senate Education Committee chair.
Under the governor’s plan, school vouchers would allow parents of students in under-performing public schools to use tax dollars to enroll their children in non-public schools.
“Officially, we think they’re a very positive step,” Bishop Stika said of school vouchers. “The Catholic Church has a long history of education. We founded the first universities and such. Here in East Tennessee, I think it can have a profound impact on so many.”
Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville was scheduled to attend the Feb. 18 Day on the Hill but was in Cincinnati, where his flight to Nashville was delayed.
Paul Simoneau, director of the Diocese of Knoxville Office of Justice and Peace, attended Catholic Day on the Hill, as did Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools; Sister Mary Christine Cremin, RSM, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee; Deacon Sean Smith, diocesan chancellor; and Father David Boettner, vicar general and moderator of the curia. Also present was Mary Catherine Willard of Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, the founder of Catholic Day on the Hill.
“It’s always a great opportunity to be able to interact with our elected officials, whose very role is to safeguard and protect and help promote the dignity of those whose care they’re entrusted to, who they represent in the state government,” Mr. Simoneau said. “It’s a process that we must support and respect to the degree that we interact with them—they are able to be our voice of concerns as well.”
The governor asked the Catholic group for papers stating the Church’s position on the death penalty and on immigration. Regarding the death penalty, Bishop Stika shared with the governor the account of Pope John Paul II’s role in commuting the death sentence of Missouri’s Darrell Mease to life in prison during the papal visit to St. Louis in 1999.
Another subject that came up during the day was a proposal on the radar regarding teacher licensure. If passed, such a law would require separate licensing for non-public and public school teachers. The diocese is firmly against the measure, in part because non-public teachers’ tenure would not count when applying for a public-school position, and because non-public schools would have difficulty in easily hiring teachers.
The pro-life Amendment 1, which will be on the ballot in November, was a topic of conversation in the meetings with Lt. Gov. Ramsey, R-Blountville, and Sen. Gresham. Tennessee Right to Life has a statewide “vote yes on 1” campaign in support of the amendment.
The meeting with Sen. Gresham, R-Somerville, covered a wide range of subjects, including teacher licensure and the Common Core curriculum. When Bishop Stika asked if there was anything the group could do for Sen. Gresham, she said, “Just keep praying.”
Medicaid expansion arose during the group’s meeting with Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee chair and a parishioner of St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge. Sen. McNally confirmed that he would attend the Catholic Charities’ fundraising dinner in Knoxville in March.
The group concluded its day by meeting Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, of the House Education Subcommittee and Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chair of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Brooks said he was a firm believer in the Common Core curriculum, which he credited with moving the needle of state education scores upward after years of stagnation.
The Knoxville group was unable to meet with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, but Bishop Stika and Sister Mary Christine left a thank-you note for him for his sponsorship of Senate bills 2115 and 1951.
SB 2115 would permit a student at a public college or university to be charged in-state tuition if the student is a citizen of the United States, has resided in Tennessee for at least one year, and has graduated from a Tennessee public secondary school or a private secondary school in the state. SB 1951 would permit undocumented students who are Tennessee residents and who meet the academic requirements of the HOPE scholarship and attend Tennessee schools for five years before graduating from high school, to be charged in-state tuition at public institutions of higher education.
A scheduled meeting with Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a parishioner of Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville didn’t occur, but Bishop Stika greeted the representative in the War Memorial Building as the group exited at the end of the day.
Bishop Stika said he was overall satisfied with the 17th Catholic Day on the Hill. He began his day in the War Memorial Auditorium with a talk to an audience that included students from the Diocese of Nashville attending Catholic Student Day on the Hill the same day.
“I have great respect for people involved in government,” Bishop Stika said. “Earlier in the day when I spoke with 350 children and young adults from the Diocese of Nashville, I reminded them that the United States is a blessed nation because we have a federal republic and that these people represent us. I hope that someday some of those young students, basically seventh- and eighth-graders, follow in the footsteps not only as priests and nuns but also people involved in civil service.”
Catholic Day on the Hill is sponsored by the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission. For more information, including position papers and updates on Senate and House legislation, visit tncppc.org.