By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DES MOINES — During the Iowa Catholic Conference’s recent legislative breakfast, Bishop Thomas Zinkula advocated for restoration of voting rights to individuals who have served their felony criminal sentences.
He was one of three Iowa bishops who participated in the Feb. 19 event to discuss their legislative priorities in person with Iowa legislators and the governor. Bishop Zinkula also served as Pastor of the Day, a privilege that rotates among the bishops each year. In that role, he gave the prayer at the start of the session in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature. He prayed, in part, “Be with those who serve in this House/Senate. May their time here be marked by gracious speech, listening hearts and mutual respect ….”
Regarding restoration of voting privileges, House File 85 requires that “the right to register to vote and to vote be restored for any individual who has been discharged from criminal sentence for any felony.” An individual must also have completed probation, parole or supervised release. The individual would also regain the right to hold elective office.
Iowa is one of only two states that withhold the vote from individuals who have served their felony criminal sentences. “Citizens have the right and responsibility to participate in the public life of the community,” Bishop Zinkula said. “They shouldn’t have to forfeit their rights forever if they commit a felony. The right to vote should be restored without undue hardship when someone who has committed a felony completes his or her sentence. The church teaches that each and every person should be treated with dignity and respect. No one should be defined by the worst thing they have done. No one should have to wear the scarlet letter of ‘felon’ forever. Christians believe in redemption.”
Abortion, racial profiling and other issues
The other two bishops who attended the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) event also spoke on a specific topic with Iowa legislators. Bishop R. Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City focused on the abortion neutrality amendment for Iowa’s Constitution. Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines spoke on the racial profiling bill.
The proposed abortion neutrality amendment responds to last year’s Iowa Supreme Court decision that struck down an Iowa law providing for a three-day reflection period before an abortion can take place. The court decided that elective abortion is a fundamental right in Iowa’s Constitution. Supporters say an amendment is needed that would state: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the government funding of an abortion.” Such language would make the Constitution “abortion-neutral; it neither would support nor outlaw a person’s right abortion,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the ICC.
Other issues were also discussed with legislators, including proposed anti-racial profiling legislation. “It appears that African-Americans are being put in jail in numbers out of proportion to their population in Iowa,” Chapman said. Yet, Iowa is one of the few states in the region that does not have a law specifically prohibiting racial profiling. Iowa’s bishops support legislation that would define racial profiling, ban racial profiling, review and analyze data on law enforcement officer stops and provide adequate training for law enforcement personnel to prevent profiling.
The bishops also discussed choice for parents in the education of their children through creation of an Education Savings Account (ESA) and the improvement of Iowa’s current School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit that provides $13 million annually to donors to nonpublic school scholarship funds.
Protection of children
“We focused on the things we can work together on,” Bishop Zinkula said of the meetings with legislative leaders and with Gov. Kim Reynolds. “We did talk with legislators about what we’re doing regarding the Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse of minors.” Among those things:
All four Catholic dioceses in Iowa are required to report the abuse of minors to civil authorities, respond promptly and compassionately to victims, and remove offenders following a review of allegations by lay experts in relevant fields. The dioceses must also conduct background checks through law enforcement and Department of Human Services’ databases on church employees and volunteers in contact with children. The dioceses must also train church employees and volunteers to provide a safe environment for children in church programs.
The bishops provided additional details about annual audits of their compliance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Catholic schools in the dioceses also provide education about appropriate types of behavior and boundaries.
Bishop Zinkula said the bishops spoke with Gov. Reynolds about welcoming refugees to Iowa, and how the business community can reach out to them. She told them of a business in Cedar Rapids that provides an opportunity for its employees to teacher English as a Second Language, the bishop said.
The bishops discussed the voting rights legislation with the governor and also stated their support for background checks and for ensuring that individuals who are mentally unstable do not have access to guns.
Bishop Zinkula views the annual day on Capitol Hill as valuable. “I think it helps to get to know the legislators and to have a relationship with them. Tom Chapman said it is important for the legislators to hear from the bishops themselves; it reinforces the work the ICC is doing.”