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Deputies tackle fair sentencing, health care

By James Thrall
[Episcopal News Service] 

The House of Deputies began 10 days of debate and decision Wednesday by addressing issues of fair sentencing laws and health care.

The 831 deputies seated included 416 clerical and 415 lay deputies.

Following an impassioned endorsement by a judge, deputies overwhelmingly approved the resolution (A008) that directs the church’s Office of Government Relations to work for repeal of mandatory federal sentencing guidelines.

James E. Bradberry of Southern Virginia, a federal judge, said that “judges no longer have the ability to do that which is right.” Judges presiding over drug cases, for example, he said, “know that very young people are going to be sentenced to very long terms of imprisonment unfairly and unreasonably and unnecessarily, and they have absolutely no way to stop it.”

Anne C. Brown of Vermont, representing the Committee on Social and Urban Affairs, pointed out that current federal sentencing guidelines severely limit the ability of judges to impose sentences that are more lenient than those prescribed. “They have no option to determine what may be a fair or just sentence,” she said. Those most likely to be affected by the harsh sentencing requirements, she added, are disproportionately people of color, and young people.

Responding to a suggestion that the church’s role should be to encourage its members to vote their consciences on the matter in local elections, Bradberry maintained that “it’s not sufficient for us to just vote for politicians. The fact is that they do not have the moral courage to do that which is right.” The church, he said, needs to tell federal and state legislators that “we need a fair sentencing system, not a mandatory sentencing system that effectively throws people away.”

The resolution as amended by the Social and Urban Affairs Committee combined resolution A127, also concerning mandatory sentencing guidelines, with A008. It will now be considered by the House of Bishops.

Deputies also called for re-establishing a standing commission on health and the appointment of a staff person at the Episcopal Church Center to address health care issues (A124). The move, which is not currently funded by the Executive Council’s proposed budget for the coming triennium, would reverse an earlier action that dissolved the Standing Commission on Health and assigned issues of health to the Commission on National Concerns.

The Rev. Stephen M. Carpenter of Northern California described the country’s health care system as “in crisis,” arguing that “we all struggle with the rising cost of health care, and the church needs to respond to this out-of-control inflation.” If the church does not address “this critical situation from a Christian perspective,” he said, “others will address it without this perspective for us.” Re-establishing the standing commission and creating the staff position “will ensure that attention will be taken and a response will be made.”

The Rev. Patricia L. Hanen of Ohio, who is her diocese’s officer for congregational development, said “there is no other single issue that creates so much coherence and agreement among our congregations as the issue of health care costs and expense.” Hanen argued that the church must “help all members of our society to find the health care that they need. The health of our entire society depends on it.”

The Rev. Willa Marie Goodfellow of Iowa, however, said that concerns about health care can be adequately addressed by the existing Commission on National Concerns, while re-establishing a separate commission will undo steps taken to streamline the national church structure.

The House of Bishops will now consider the resolution.

In other business, the deputies :

  • rejected resolution A148, which would have changed the required number of days before Convention for referring resolutions to a legislative or special committee from 60 to 15. The measure failed for lack of a two-thirds vote.
  • gave their consent to the elections of the Rev. Joe Goodwin Burnett as bishop of the Diocese of Nebraska and the Rev. George Edward Councell as bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey.
  • stipulated that the term of a member of Executive Council will become vacant after two unexcused absences from Council meetings within one triennium (A009);
  • rejected a call for special legislative committees appointed to “handle ‘hot button’ issues” to be appointed a sufficient time before convention to “ensure that existing Legislative Committees not lose vital members and to allow scheduling of special hearings at times when members of legislative committees can attend” (A149);
  • approved X003 establishing the procedures at this convention for electing trustees of the Church Pension Fund;
  • amended Canon I.1.2(n)(6) on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to correct the canon’s title.