By Gerry Jackson
Catholic Review (Baltimore)
After a somewhat disheartening 2023 legislative session, the Maryland Catholic Conference is turning its attention to reviewing the possible impact of bills approved by the Maryland General Assembly and signed or soon-to-be signed into law by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore.
The passage of measures boosting abortion access in the state and the extension of a statute of limitations bill that was characterized as unfair to the Catholic Church were a few of the legislative lowlights for the legislative advocacy arm of the state’s bishops.
Meanwhile, the extension of the BOOST scholarship program, the passing of the “Fair Wage Act” and “Family Prosperity Act,” and the lack of advancement of an assisted-suicide bill were a couple of highlights.
“This was an incredibly busy legislative session, with both wins and losses,’’ said Jenny Kraska, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which serves the three Catholic dioceses that cover Maryland. “We are still reviewing the final language of many bills, including late amendments.
“Unlike last year, an extreme abortion bill passed that will put a referendum on the 2024 ballot seeking to enshrine abortion in the state constitution. We will be providing parishes information about this referendum. On the positive side, legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide never made it out of committee and efforts to legalize human composting were stopped in a Senate committee.”
One of the biggest legislative victories for the MCC was the continuation of BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today Program) scholarships by the state. Gov. Moore’s original budget proposal called for a $2 million cut in the $10 million program. However, $9 million in funding was restored by the legislature as well as $2.5 million for nursing and security at BOOST-participating schools.
The BOOST program provides scholarships for families of lower-income students to choose the educational option that is the best fit for their child, a principle inherent to Catholic social teaching. BOOST has provided 20,000 scholarships for students to attend Catholic or other non-public schools.
“What BOOST means for children and families in Maryland is opportunity,” Archbishop William E. Lori said. “Because of this commitment the General Assembly’s made to education, more families will have the power to choose the school where their child will thrive.”
“BOOST opens up the gift of Catholic education to new and returning students, who find environments that are Christ-centered and academically excellent. This is an invaluable investment in all of our futures.”
In the 2021-22 academic year, there were 3,268 BOOST scholarship recipients. Their average household income was $35,488 and 56 percent were from minority communities. All were eligible for free or reduced lunches.
In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, there are more than 700 BOOST scholarship recipients this year at archdiocesan and independent Catholic schools.
Two bills, supported by the MCC, passed that will substantially benefit low-income families. The “Family Prosperity Act” will boost the Maryland earned income tax credit by altering the definition of a “qualified child” as well as change income eligibility requirements. The “Fair Wage Act” will increase the state minimum wage when inflation rises.
The “End-of-Life Option Act,” originally introduced in 2020, again did not make it out of committee. The bill would have legalized physician-assisted suicide.
Maryland is already one of the most permissive abortion states in the nation, and it could be further cemented with the passage of the “Declaration of Rights – Right to Reproductive Freedom.” That bill moves to codify abortion through all nine months of pregnancy into state law by putting the issue to a November referendum.
After the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade in its decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June, decisions on the legality of abortions were returned to states. Maryland already has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the nation, and the referendum, if passed, would prevent future legislation from restricting access to abortion.
Another major concern for the Archdiocese of Baltimore was legislation that will take effect Oct. 1 that does away with a statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits.
The MCC opposed the “Child Victims Act,” signed into law April 11 by Gov. Moore, noting that it will treat private institutions such as the Catholic Church differently from public institutions in civil liabilities faced for child sexual abuse.
The law removes the civil statute of limitations for lawsuits and allows an unlimited “lookback window” for survivors to take legal action no matter when the abuse occurred.
The previous law in Maryland allowed victims until age 38 to file such claims, an extension – from age 25 – that was supported by the church in 2017.
“The draconian provision of an unlimited window for currently time-barred civil cases to be filed, regardless of when they occurred, is nearly unprecedented among similar laws passed in other states,” the MCC said in a statement March 10.
The law “creates blatant disparity in its treatment of victims, with much lower monetary judgements available to victims of abuse in public institutions than those of abuse in private settings,” the Catholic Conference said.
The law caps judgements for private institutions at $1.5 million, while capping judgements against public institutions at only $890,000.
The MCC said even with the lower damage cap for public entities, the proposed law will “carry an immense financial burden for Maryland families, including those already struggling financially and those who rely on the state and others for support.
A provision built into the law enables challenges to its constitutionality. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is taking a wait-and-see approach for what the impact of the removal of statute will mean, and said it is too soon to judge possible financial repercussions.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has remained steadfast in its decades-long effort to implement long-standing and successful efforts in protecting children as well as continuing its mission of “faith, service and education.”
The MCC’s Kraska echoed those sentiments.
“Throughout session, we raised concerns about the legislation to allow lawsuits against organizations for abuse involving minors dating back decades,” she said. “The concerns we had prior to session remain: the new law treats public and private organizations differently, and we believe it is unconstitutional. Our dioceses have and will continue to offer support and healing to victims and to do all they can to ensure the safety of young people.”
Email Gerry Jackson at email@example.com
George P. Matysek Jr. contributed to this report.