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Miss. bishops prod lawmakers to show compassion

Three religious leaders are asking Mississippi elected officials to show compassion toward the most vulnerable members of society — children, immigrants and poor people.

Working through a group called Congregations for Children, the bishops are asking legislators to expand access to health care, to improve the juvenile justice system and to restore millions of dollars that have been cut from public education.

The bishops of the Jackson Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church hosted a breakfast Tuesday for dozens of lawmakers.

They’re also asking lawmakers to increase the cigarette tax to improve public health and boost state revenues and to defeat bills that would put more restrictions on immigrants.

Mississippi’s elected officials should work to create a “gracious” environment in which all people are treated with respect, said the United Methodist bishop, Hope Morgan Ward.

“There is a degree of harshness in our culture that is grievous to each of us,” Ward said at a news conference after the breakfast. She said Mississippi now has some of the strictest immigration laws in the nation.

A 2008 state law requires employers to do electronic verification of all new workers’ citizenship or immigration status.

One of the main proponents of the law, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, attended the bishops’ breakfast and said later that he was “frustrated” by the criticism of a verification requirement he does not consider punitive.

“I’m sympathetic, as a United Methodist, to children who may be brought to this country improperly by their parents who are illegal immigrants,” Bryant said at the Capitol.

Bryant said he has seen extensive poverty during mission trips to Mexico and he understands why some people might want to pursue jobs in the United States.

“But you shouldn’t violate immigration laws,” he said.

Catholic Bishop Joseph Latino said during the current recession, it’s especially important for public-policy makers to remember the people who can’t fend for themselves.

“It seems that the poorest of the poor are the ones that are eliminated, the ones that are forgotten, when it comes to education, health care, etc.,” Latino said.

Episcopal Bishop Duncan Gray said after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, he saw how people pull together to support each other. He said the same can happen now, on a different scale, as people cope with job losses and other economic problems.

“There is a certain wisdom, a certain insight, that comes out of brokenness, that is not readily apparent in times of strength,” Gray said.