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Calif. gay/lesbian, abortion and suicide bills stalled by attention to state budget crisis

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Catholic San Francisco) - A move to legalize assisted suicide has been sidelined yet again in the California Legislature, as lawmakers avert divisive debate to focus on the presidential race and the state’s budget crisis.

AB 374, the California Compassionate Choices Act, died when the Jan. 31 deadline for re-introducing 2007 measures passed and it had not been scheduled for debate. The bill had been stalled since last year, in part because of opposition by a coalition that includes the California Catholic Conference. Last June, Assemblywoman Patty Berg, a co-sponsor, blamed the lack of political support for the bill on “the muscle and money behind the right-to-life movement.”

A spokeswoman for Berg had no immediate comment when asked if another assisted-suicide measure would be introduced in time for the Assembly’s Feb. 22 deadline for 2008 bills.

Carol Hogan, communications director for the California Catholic Conference, predicted that the national focus of the debate over assisted suicide will shift to Washington State, where proponents are gathering signatures for an initiative.

“We’re speculating that a lot of interest and finances are falling in that direction,” she said.

Goring the ox

For Catholic advocates, the lack of action on AB 374 eliminates a major battle to defend the principle of the dignity of life and shifts the state policy focus to budget matters. The state faces a $14.5 billion budget shortfall and the prospect of painful spending cuts, and the crisis could worsen if a recession erodes tax revenues.

“The fight is going to be over whose ox is gored,” Hogan said. “The prison guards union is very powerful and they’ll do their best to be sure money isn’t taken out of their budget. The teachers unions are also very powerful.

“The people who don’t have powerful unions supporting them are the poor.”

The Catholic Conference will concentrate efforts on protecting state aid to the poor and medically needy, Hogan said. The conference, which is the public policy group for the state’s 12 Catholic bishops, will try to insure that funding is not cut for social programs and that cost-of-living increases are granted to the agencies that deliver the services.

The governor has proposed reductions in health care, job training and K-12 education funding.

Albin Rhomberg, who is helping organize an initiative campaign to require family notification when a minor seeks an abortion in California, said legislatures typically avoid taking chances in the second year of a session. He agreed that presidential politics will add to the caution.

“The other problem is the fiscal problem,” he said. “That is so serious that other things pale by comparison. I don’t think there’s going to be any controversial legislation, either liberal or conservative.”

On life matters, activists are fighting an increasingly aggressive legislative agenda by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates. At the start of the current two-year legislative session, the LGBT lobby Equality California announced that all 15 pieces of legislation it had sponsored in the previous session had passed and that the new legislature would put California on the verge of becoming the first state to achieve equality for LGBT people.

Rhomberg said the legislature has grown so hostile to Catholic thinking on life issues that advocates must go directly to the voters through the initiative process. The proposed Sarah’s Law family notification initiative, which has collected nearly 400,000 signatures and is on track to qualify for the November ballot, marks an attempt by Catholic advocates to regain lost ground through an argument they feel will secure broad-based support.

“This could build toward other issues that would gradually build a pro-family, pro-life agenda,” he said. “We’re starting back at the foundations.”

Dangers of secularism

The policy struggles mirror a broader shift by Catholics from natural law thinking to a secular outlook that promotes unrestricted freedom, Catholic sociologist Joseph A. Varacalli has written.

Catholic advocates were stung last year when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB777, a measure that afforded civil rights protections to public school students on the basis of sexual orientation. Proponents said the bill merely clarified legal protections already recognized as constitutional, but opponents said it was unnecessary and could stifle Catholic teaching on marriage and family.

In January, a move to suspend enforcement of the measure until it could be voted up or down in a statewide referendum fell short of the required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. Organizers say they are working to qualify the question for a future election.

A civil-rights lawsuit challenging SB777 is being fought in federal court in San Diego. A group of Southern California teachers, parents and students, called the California Education Committee, filed the suit in November. Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network responded by intervening to defend the new law.

Gay ‘marriage’

A third major battle, over the constitutionality of same-sex marriages, is before the state Supreme Court. The court is considering an appeal of a 2006 state appeals court decision that there is no basis in law or tradition to extend the right of marriage to people of the same sex.

Meanwhile,, a coalition of faith organizations, is gathering signatures for an initiative amending the California state constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.



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