Before the Senate Special Legislation Committee convened in the air conditioned and quite comfortable room 313 of the State House to discuss Senate Bill 298, the votes had been counted and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (firstname.lastname@example.org (401) 222-6655) knew that her presence was going to be required in order to pass the bill out of committee. No one spoke in favor of the bill but seven citizens, representing themselves and thousands of Rhode Islanders, spoke out against it. Still, early in the hearings two senators got up and left the room, taking their “no” votes with them and when the tally was taken, the vote was five to four in favor.
Paiva-Weed cast the deciding vote.
The legislation creates a special “Choose Life” license plate that was originally going to be designed and marketed by the Knights of Columbus, but realizing that the KoC has bargained away a good deal of its political capital and public good will with its strong stance against marriage equality and its insistence on preserving its right to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, a last minute change was made to make the recipient of the “Choose Life” license plate funds a group called CareNet, a faith-based pregnancy counseling center that “does not provide or refer for abortions.”
CareNet describes itself as “a Christian outreach ministry.”
Here’s the “Organizational Statement of Faith” from their website:
We believe the Bible to be the inspired, only infallible authoritative Word of God. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return…
Blah blah blah. It goes on like that for a looong time.
I guess Paiva-Weed doesn’t give a shit about the First Amendment to the Constitution (which she swore to uphold) or about the long legacy of religious freedom and separation of church and state that we have had in Rhode Island for three and a half centuries. She’s okay with shoveling money from the Department of Motor Vehicles to groups more interested in spreading the word of the mythical Jesus than in protecting the health and safety of Rhode Island’s women. She cares so much about trampling over the Constitution and women’s reproductive rights that she made sure that she appeared at the committee meeting to exercise her voting prerogative, a fairly rare occurrence.
Public commentary was to be heard on this bill and I was the first speaker called. I had prepared my remarks based on the idea that the Knights of Columbus were to be the group taking care of this license plate deal. Ten seconds into my comments Paiva-Weed interrupted and informed me that the bill had been changed. She asked Senator Louis DiPalma (email@example.com (401) 847-8540) to explain.
“So,” I asked, “the Knights of Columbus are no longer involved?”
Paiva-Weed did not answer me directly, but said, “The whole thing has been completely modified in response to those concerns being expressed to the Speaker [Fox].”
DiPalma explained that everywhere in the bill where it previously said “Knights of Columbus” it now says “CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rhode Island.”
“It is,” said DiPalma, “no different than the plates that we did for the Red Sox.”
Of course, the Red Sox plates raise money for “for academically talented Rhode Island high school seniors going on to college who have demonstrated a commitment to community service.” I think even DiPalma, were he being forthright, would see a difference between a secular, non-partisan scholarship program and a faith-based anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. Conflating the two is simply dishonest.
My testimony now out the window, I did my best. “I don’t know what CareNet is, exactly, ” I said, “but I know they are not a medical group. They are a crisis center and don’t offer a full range of options for women who might be dealing with a problem pregnancy. For instance, CareNet would not refer a woman to Planned Parenthood or to a doctor for birth control or an abortion. In fact, they would try to counsel the woman out of it.”
Everyone was forced to modify their testimony somewhat, in response to the changes in the bill. Tony Houston, speaking on behalf of the Secular Coalition of Rhode Island (SCRI), had kept his testimony centered primarily on principles rather than specifics, and suffered the least modification. (As an aside, this was SCRI’s first piece of public advocacy, and you can read Tony Houston’s testimony here.)
Susan Yolen of Planned parenthood asked why the General assembly was more interested in license plates that will do nothing to prevent unwanted pregnancies or reduce abortion when they could have passed common sense medical expansions for reproductive health care. Non of the Senators in attendance knew enough to hang their heads in shame.
It should be noted that this last minute change to the bill changed none of the essential problems. The Knights of Columbus were originally going to give the money they gathered with the “Choose Life” license plates to a faith based pregnancy crisis center. As I said in my somewhat confused and off the cuff testimony, at the point the state starts funding “non-government funded” crisis pregnancy centers they cease to be “non-government funded.”
Meanwhile, behind me, the others there to argue against the bill were furiously looking up CareNet on the Internet, and discovering things about the group. Nothing learned about CareNet did much to ease our concerns, and I only touched on how deeply conservative and out of touch the group is with mainstream Rhode Islander’s beliefs regarding reproductive health care and abortion.
The Providence Journal notes the bill’s passage as a “win” for the anti-abortion lobby in Rhode Island. The legislation has been rushed through both houses, with the House actually voting on and approving the wrong, earlier version of the bill before being summoned back by text message to revote. This begs the question, “Why the rush?” Are the forces that be afraid that public scrutiny and attention will scuttle the bill’s chances when it is learned how absolutely outrageous this is?
Once the bill passes, only a veto from Governor Chafee will stop it. Contact him, let him know: firstname.lastname@example.org (401) 222-2080
I spent some time before the committee meeting talking to Barth Bracy, of RI Right to Life, the premier anti-abortion group in Rhode Island. He told me that the bill “wasn’t even on his radar” and that there were many more important bills to be working on in the General Assembly. Bracy seems to have been wrong about this, since Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva-Weed moved heaven and earth to pass this bill, but more likely Bracy had already done his work, and set everything for the bill’s passage in motion.
Bracy wasn’t in the room when the bill passed the Senate Committee.
Why should he be? The fix, like I said, was in.