Catholic Church alters state lobbying effort

In recent weeks, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church joined with several
liberal groups to try to save funding for health care for the children of
illegal immigrants.

While that effort was unsuccessful, a representative of the Church said it
plans to get more involved in issues important to Latin American immigrants.

This includes a variety of stereotypically liberal or conservative
positions. The Church supports increasing the minimum wage and expanding
social programs, but strongly opposes abortion, stem-cell research and
increased rights for homosexuals.

“We’re really going hard on the faith-based, moral stand position,” said Al
Hernandez Santana, director of Hispanic Affairs for the California Catholic
Conference, of the health-care debate last week. “Kids are kids. We should
not penalize them for something they had no hand in.”

This was before the controversial $23 million in health-care funding was
officially declared dead on Monday, when an initial budget deal was
announced. In recent weeks, this single issue has held up efforts to pass an
on-time budget, with lawmakers in both parties refusing to budge. Hernandez
said his organization targeted moderate Republican legislators, such as
assemblymen Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton, and Alan Nakanishi, R-Lodi.

Other Republicans said they were not contacted–including Assemblywoman
Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City. “I haven’t heard anything [from them], and
I’m the only Latina Republican in the Legislature,” Garcia said. She also
said that she was heavily involved in health-care and faith-based efforts in
her district, which includes the majority of California’s border with

Representatives from both assemblymen’s offices confirmed they were
contacted by the Catholic Charities arm of the Diocese of Stockton. While
Nakanishi, a doctor who still spends every Friday at his practice, is known
as a moderate, pro-healthcare voice within the Republican delegation, he
said could not go along with the program.

“Illegal is illegal,” he said. He later added that it didn’t make sense for
the state to pay for health insurance for these children “when other people
in California don’t have health care for their kids.”

But this is hardly the only issue his office has been hearing about from the
Church, Nakanishi said. They’ve also been talking to him, Aghazarian and
other Republican legislators in support of AB 3029, which would simplify
eligibility for CalWORKS and food stamps.

AB 3029 is sponsored by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, who is hardly
a favorite of many religious conservatives. But Democratic names appear
repeatedly on the lists of legislation supported by the Church. Dan Savage,
chief of staff to Senator Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said that they’ve been
getting support from the Church for years on a number of issues. This
includes not only Cedillo’s efforts to raise the minimum wage, but also his
repeated attempts to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The Catholic lobby’s fiscally liberal, socially conservative approach would
appear to set it on an opposite path from the rest of a state, which many
say is growing more fiscally conservative but socially liberal. State voters
appear to support paying down the deficit and have grown wary of approving
new spending via the bond process. Yet in recent years they have approved
medical marijuana and billions for stem-cell research, both measures opposed
by the Church.

Hernandez said that his position has existed for at least a dozen years, but
that the role became more political during his five years on the job. The
Catholic Church has long been involved politically, he said, but is
increasingly trying to advocate for issues affecting the Latino immigrant

These moves come amid many other changes in the relations between Catholic
institutions and the Church’s numerous followers. A growing number of
Catholic organizations have borrowed strategies from the Evangelical groups
that have been making major crossroads with Hispanics.

In fact, only about 70 percent of the nation’s Latinos are Catholic, but
this is enough to make up at least 40 percent of U.S. Catholics, according
to research by Claremont McKenna College religious studies professor Gaston
Espinosa. The percentage of Latinos who are Catholic drops from 74 percent
for first generation residents to only 62 percent of those in the third
generation. Protestant groups, mainly Evangelical and Pentecostal, claim
almost a quarter of American Latinos. By their very nature, these groups
aggressively seek new converts and are generally conservative in their

By contrast, many Latino Catholics have been influenced by Cesar Chavez,
Liberation Theology and Catholic social teachings that place a strong
emphasis on social justice, Espinosa said.

“Catholics and Evangelicals line up fairly well on social/moral issues like
abortion, gay marriage and related topics,” Espinosa said. “However, Latinos
are significantly more likely to vote for Democrats, although not
necessarily register as Democrats, than their white Catholic counterparts,
by more than 20 percentage points,” Espinosa said.

However, according to Richard Fowler, the political stands taken by the
Church reflect long-held values, not just political opportunism with the
state’s fast-growing Latino population. Fowler, director of Catholic
Charities for the Diocese of Stockton, was the point man on the efforts to
save children’s health care.

“It’s not just a matter of keeping people who are nominally Catholic, but
doing what the Church ought to do, which is reaching out to people on the
margins and helping the poor,” Fowler said.

In fact, he said, the Church’s political efforts on behalf of immigrants are
matched by ground-based programs to move reunite immigrant families and put
them on the path to citizenship. These efforts go back to the 1980s, when
many individual churches declared themselves safe havens in the sanctuary
movement, which sought to help refugees from civil wars in El Salvador and
other Central American countries.

However, the Church is also keenly aware of where its future lies. The
Conference put out a press release earlier this month noting that one-third
of the state’s population will be Catholic by 2025 if current trends hold.
“We know that the size of the Latino community will define who we are as a
Church,” Hernandez said.

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