Bishop takes abortion off the table for convention

Tobin says con con should avoid 'cultural/moral/religious issues'

Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin says he wouldn’t push for a Rhode Island constitutional convention to tackle social issues such as abortion, potentially depriving opponents of a key argument they’ve been using to sway voters.

Rhode Islanders will decide in the Nov. 4 election whether to call the state’s first constitutional convention since 1986. The question is required to be on the ballot at least every 10 years, giving voters a chance to decide whether major structural changes are needed in the state’s government.

Organized labor, the ACLU and many top Rhode Island Democrats are all opposed to calling a constitutional convention. Critics have frequently suggested a convention could push changes in state policy on issues such as abortion, as happened in 1986.

But when asked over the weekend whether he would try to do that, Tobin ruled it out, despite his staunch and vocal social conservatism.

“If there is a constitutional convention, I don’t think it would or should deal with cultural/moral/religious issues,” Tobin told WPRI.com in an email sent through his spokeswoman. “These particular, discrete issues are better dealt with in the normal legislative process.”

It’s unclear whether other groups that share Tobin’s views will follow his lead. Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, told WPRI.com his organization had no opinion as of yet. “We’ve not taken a position whatsoever on a constitutional convention and have not yet discussed the matter,” Bracy said in an email Sunday.

Tobin’s comments came days after a new Brown University poll suggested momentum in favor of calling a constitutional convention among voters who’ve made up their minds, even though few said they knew much about the topic. The Brown poll showed 42% of voters favor calling a convention, 27% oppose doing so and 31% are undecided.

Last week the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that supports a constitutional convention, sought to downplay the possibility that issues such as abortion would be a major focus for a convention. Advocates have more frequently highlighted possible structural reforms, such as giving the governor a line-item veto or reining in the power of the General Assembly.

“To put this matter to rest, our center joins with our pro-convention partners in pledging not to support any amendment in a convention that would infringe on individual rights,” Mike Stenhouse, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s CEO, said in a statement.

An August report by Stenhouse’s group that looked at possible topics a convention could cover suggested: “Resolve some thorny cultural issues – one way or another – through the mechanism that most clearly represents the will of the people.” But Stenhouse said last week the language was not an indication his group would seek to tackle those issues at a convention.

Jennifer Norris, a spokeswoman for a coalition of largely liberal groups opposed to a constitutional convention known as Citizens for Responsible Government, said Monday she was “very pleased” to hear Stenhouse’s comments, but argued they show her group is not “fear mongering” as alleged when it discusses the possibility.

“I was at the RI Taxpayers Forum on Wednesday night,” Norris told WPRI.com in an email. “Bob Flanders addressed the group and told them that there was no limit to issues that the con con could address, and Gary Sasse admitted to them that they had not way to control what happened in a convention. Our concerns still stand. A con con is a direct threat to civil rights!”

Another pro-convention group, RenewRI, has scheduled a press conference for Monday morning to announce the filing of a complaint with the R.I. Board of Elections over alleged campaign-finance violations by opponents.

Asked about whether there should be a constitutional convention at all, Bishop Tobin suggested it might be a good idea.

“Because the question of whether or not to have a constitutional convention is primarily a political issue and not moral or religious, I don’t have strong feelings about the question either way,” the bishop said.

“Having said that, I tend to lean in favor of having a convention,” he continued. “I think that a convention has at least the potential of moving the state beyond the status quo and having it function more efficiently.”

“It’s not a bad exercise for any group – government, religious or corporate – to step back once in a while to examine its status and functioning from a broader perspective,” he added.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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