"Contact your legislators."
That’s the message Connecticut’s Catholic bishops are urgently sending to every parishioner, pressing them to voice their opposition to the Obama administration’s health care mandate that infringes on the religious rights of Catholics.
"We’re asking parishioners to reach out and defend our religious liberty," said Michael C. Culhane, director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference, by writing, phoning or e-mailing their congressional representatives.
Does contacting legislators make a difference?
Absolutely, says Mr. Culhane. "Any time you reach out and express your opinion, it’s being heard," he stated.
Next to face-to-face contact, the best way to get your voice heard is by a personal letter, he said, followed by a telephone call or personal e-mail.
"A personal letter is best, because the congressional offices recognize that someone took the time to write," said Mr. Culhane.
At issue is the Obama administration’s regulation ordering all Americans to purchase government-approved health insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that cause abortions.
The administration attempted to quell the backlash the rule received from the bishops and others in February by having insurers – rather than Catholic hospitals and universities – pay for birth control, but Catholic bishops were not swayed.
Archbishop Henry J. Mansell and the other bishops have called that so-called accommodation a meaningless move.
While the immediate flashpoint is that the ruling flies in the face of the teachings of the Catholic Church, the fundamental issue at stake is the unconscionable violation of the Constitution, as well as the ruling’s potential to unleash a watershed of religious infringements, opponents say.
In unflinching words, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in a letter dated March 2 to his fellow bishops, "We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans.
"We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it," he added.
Cardinal Dolan wrote that since Jan. 20, when the final, restrictive rule from the United States Department of Health and Human Services was first announced, "we have become certain of two things: religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it."
Since then, the bishops of Connecticut and Mr. Culhane’s office have been working feverishly to get 100 percent of the state’s Catholics to contact their legislators in opposition to the regulation.
"The bishops have sent out a number of bulletin inserts to parishes, asking pastors to put a box in the parish bulletin that provides an update on the regulatory move and asks parishioners to contact their federal legislators – senators and congressional representative," he said.
Mr. Culhane acknowledged that because of the sheer volume of correspondence sent to Washington, not every letter or e-mail gets read by legislators. Even so, staff members typically give them a sampling of letters from constituents to read.
Further, he explained, staff members also log the number of phone calls and e-mails and tally the results. While he notes that form letters, postcards and e-mails are not as effective, he quickly adds that they definitely are better than no communication at all.
One caution is that personal mailed letters take two-weeks to a month to pass through security. But, if time is of the essence, an e-mail and fax are the fastest.
Another effective means, he added, is the use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, that "make use of technology to expand communication."
Confirming this is Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) who told The Catholic Transcript, "As an elected official, I find it critical to hear from my constituents about the issues facing America. By contacting Congress, you can make an important difference in how our laws are made and also to help shape the course that our country will take."
State Senator Michael A. McLachlan, a Danbury Republican, said any form of communication is effective, including through social media and his blog.
"Today, there’s so much e-mail. It’s easy to just push a button. But handwritten notes are the exception. There are so few handwritten notes that we tend to act upon them because they stand out the most," he said.
Senator McLachlan encouraged people not to feel intimidated. "Don’t be shy, because all voices are important. Your voice needs to be heard. I remind constituents that we work for them, and I frankly look forward to hearing from them."
His advice is supported by a study from the Connect U.S. Fund, a team of foreign policy advocates that works to build relationships and deliver messages to policymakers.
While in-person contact is the most effective way to influence an undecided senator or representative, the group’s study reports that Congressional staffers say that letters and e-mails have an 88 to 90 percent rate of positive influence on undecided legislators. While form e-mails are not as effective, 50 percent of staffers report that they still carry "some influence."
Backing this up, The Consumerist, an online subsidiary of Consumer Reports, states that "the average consumer has a surprising ability to influence legislation by crafting a well-written missive." But, it cautions that form letters are "not an expression of values; they are a show of organizational strength …" While Congressional offices know this and generally disregard (the content of) form letters, they still keep a log of all communication that is sent.
Does your communication with elected officials matter?
According to the Web site of the Minnesota Citizens for Concerned Life, federal elected officials use the following rule of thumb:
• Each phone call to the local office represents 10 other people with the same opinion;
• Each call to its Washington, D.C., office represents 500 people;
• Each e-mail represents 100 people;
• Each letter represents 500 people; and
• Each visit represents 1,000 people.
Additionally, The Consumerist offers that "every office has its own procedures for tabulating constituent correspondence, but most" produce a weekly report breaking down how many letters were received by issue area, and separating form letters from letters sent by individual constituents.
"Members treat each type of letter differently, but most look for individual letters as a barometer of their district’s concerns. ... Very few people take the time to write to a member of Congress, so the few that do carry a disproportionate influence," the resource states.
The bottom line is that elected officials need and want to know what their constituents think.
Some added advice from insiders: be calm, clear, reasonable, respectful and politely firm. Open antagonism won’t work.
The Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference is urging constituents to make their voices heard and express their dissent by contacting their federal representatives’ office. E-mail addresses may be found at www.ctcatholic.org.