By Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
In all the turmoil surrounding the presidential election, many people overlook the fact that there are a number of other very important elections on the ballot in November as well. These could have profound effects on the lives of many Oklahomans, especially the neediest. One of these important issues is an Oklahoma ballot measure called “State Question 790.”
If State Question 790 passes, Oklahomans would remove a current major threat to religious organizations – including Catholic social service agencies – who serve the poor, refugees, the disabled, the homeless, the hungry and many other needy people in our state.
The threat comes from a part of the Oklahoma Constitution called Article II, Section 5. State Question 790 asks Oklahomans whether they want to repeal Section 5. On its face, Section 5 prohibits state money from going to religious organizations, even when those organizations have standard state contracts, do not use the funds for proselytization, and, most importantly, serve everyone who comes through their doors.
For many years, Oklahoma saw few attempts to use Section 5 against Catholic and other religious social service providers. Unfortunately, in recent years Section 5 has been “weaponized” by groups who want to keep religious organizations from providing social services, solely because they are religious.
Sadly, these groups even have brought a series of lawsuits against disabled children and their families who sought to access an Oklahoma disability scholarship program that would help them attend a school that can provide the specialized treatments these children need to thrive despite their disabilities.
These children and their parents had to endure three lawsuits and two trips to the Oklahoma Supreme Court before they received any relief from the Section 5 threat. This kind of uncertainty and delay is tough on families.
In other states, activist groups have brought lawsuits against Christian halfway house programs designed to help recently released prisoners overcome substance abuse problems, and against a Christian day care program that sought to participate in a state program for improving playground safety.
Section 5 has thus created artificial and completely unnecessary barriers to providing help to the neediest among us, including children with disabilities. What’s worse is that if Section 5 were ever strictly applied in the way some anti-religion groups have asked it to be, it would be devastating to Catholic and other religious hospitals, social service agencies like Catholic Charities, homeless shelters, halfway houses for released inmates, substance abuse programs, and the like.
All of these ministries serve every needy person, no matter their beliefs or personal situation. And, whether Section 5 is repealed or not, all of these ministries must still continue to comply with the federal constitution’s rules about church-state separation.
In my view, applying Section 5 in this way would be devastating to the Church’s mission in Oklahoma. I am reminded of the passage in the Gospel of Saint Matthew where Jesus tells a parable that goes to the heart:
Then, the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then, the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And, when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The Catholic Church has a special mission to help all of the poor and needy because they are members of God’s family – our brothers and sisters. This is not just a nice thing to do, but a duty. We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are!
Finally, there is one other reason that repealing Section 5 is relevant to Catholics – repealing Section 5 would right a major historical wrong. Many people do not know that Section 5 was a provision that Congress mandated that Oklahoma include in its state constitution as a condition of becoming a state in 1907.
It is a “Blaine Amendment,” one of a series of state constitutional provisions that were designed to exclude Catholics from providing religious education and from public life more generally. Repealing Section 5 would remove this black mark on Oklahoma’s history.
I therefore encourage all Catholics and all people of good will to consider this issue carefully and to visit www.oklahomablaine.org that describes in some detail what is at stake with State Question 790.
Originally published in the Sooner Catholic as “State Question 790: Helping the “least of these” while healing the past.”