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Updated: 1 hour 33 min ago

The bishops have spoken up on two very different issues – and now the Supreme Court will, too

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 14:38

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 12:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Supreme Court wrapped up its latest term on Monday, it agreed to consider a major religious freedom case, as well as the case of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, this fall.

Both topics have drawn concern from the U.S. bishops, who have urged respect for freedom of conscience and religion in the face of legalized gay marriage, while criticizing the travel ban for abandoning vulnerable refugees in need.  

The court agreed to hear two cases next term which could prove to have major impacts – the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involves the rights of a baker to refuse out of conscience to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

The latter case was relisted 14 times by the Supreme Court, which finally took it up on Monday, SCOTUSBlog.com reported.

“The issue in this case is a free speech case; whether or not the state of Colorado can coerce a person to write a message through culinary arts that violates his conscience,” said Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the baker Jack Phillips in the case.

Phillips, who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo. and has run the shop for over 23 years, explained on Monday how he operates his business in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The shop is “not just a bakery, but a place where I can use my artistic vision and talents to create cakes that communicate just the right message for my clients,” he said. “I gladly welcome and serve everyone that comes into my shop.”

His store is closed on Sundays and he refuses to craft cakes with messages that run contrary to his values, such as anti-American, atheist, or racist messages. He added that “my sincerely-held religious belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman.”

“In 2012, I was stunned when I became the target of a lawsuit relying on sexual orientation gender identity law that offers no exemptions for people of faith,” he said.

After he had declined to make a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said he had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The couple was able to obtain a rainbow-themed cake at another shop in the vicinity of Masterpiece.

Phillips said he was barred by the commission from serving any weddings and ended up losing 40 percent of his business, “a crushing loss.” He was also ordered by the commission to enter anti-discrimination re-education, and submit quarterly reports on updating the policies of the business.

Furthermore, Phillips said he began receiving “vile and hateful calls at the shop, including one death threat that was so bad, that I hid my daughter and granddaughter in the back until the police arrived.”

On Monday, after the Supreme Court agreed to take Phillips’ case, lawyers for ADF hoped that the Court would ultimately uphold his free speech rights.

“We’re hopeful that the Court will affirm the basic principle that the government cannot punish artists like Jack for refusing to create art that violates his religious convictions,” said senior counsel Kristin Waggoner.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court also ruled on Monday that a travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries may go into partial effect, as the ban awaits a hearing and full consideration by the high court in October.

The court blocked full implementation of the executive order originally released by President Donald Trump in January, saying that the ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”  

Thus, family members, students and employees from the six designated countries who wish to visit, live or work in the United States will be able to do so. Those who lack such ties to the U.S. will be banned under the executive order.

The order in question bars persons from six majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days, and also requires that refugees wait 120 days before entering the country. The executive order also lowers the number of refugees accepted by the United States in FY 2017 to 50,000 – down from the 110,000 person limit and the 85,000 refugees accepted in actuality during FY 2016.

Initially released January 27, the executive order was then revised on March 6 after judicial challenge. The modified version removed Iraq from the list of countries subject to the ban, and also walked back provisions that would have prioritized refugee admissions for persecuted religious minorities.

The bans were challenged by courts in Maryland and Hawaii, who blocked them from taking effect. Those rulings were later upheld by federal appeals courts in Virginia and California, respectively, on grounds that they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, asking that the stay be lifted and the ban go into effect until arguments are heard before the Supreme Court later this year.

The Supreme Court’s decision only removes part of the stay on the administration’s executive order, allowing the travel and refugee bans to continue against those with no existing ties to the United States. Many of the plaintiffs in the original cases brought in Hawaii and Maryland had family members, schools or employers based in the U.S.

The executive order has come under harsh criticism by the U.S. Bishops and Catholic refugee experts. Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on migration, stated that the bishops were “deeply troubled by the human consequences of the revised executive order on refugee admissions and the travel ban,” after the ban’s March revision. “The revised Order still leaves many innocent lives at risk,” he said.

“The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal,” the bishop said.

“However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.”

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations at Catholic Relief Services, echoed many of Bishop Vasquez’s sentiments, urging in a March 6 statement that “now is not the time for the world’s leader in refugee resettlement to back down.”

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference runs one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, helping to resettle more than a quarter of all of the refugees admitted to the United States annually.

 

Supreme Court rules in favor of church in crucial First Amendment case

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 13:32

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 11:32 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In one of the biggest religious cases of the term, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote June 26 that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran,” the church at the center of the case, “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer was about “religious people being treated just like everybody else,” stated Mike Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom.

At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and operated by the church’s preschool. To resurface the playground for safety reasons, the church had applied for a state reimbursement program that provides rubber surfacing material made from used tires. Trinity Lutheran had ranked the fifth most qualified out of 44 applicants for the program.

The state’s natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status. The Missouri state constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the Court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the free exercise clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.

He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s opinion.

The Church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.

It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.

Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.

Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”

The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed by Congress.

In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.

Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions, and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated.

“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, stated. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”

“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."

The decision “will have an effect” in the future, David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the Court in April, said. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.

Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and who filed an amicus brief with colleagues on behalf of Trinity Lutheran in the case, stated that “today’s decision affirms the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion—to have more than just a belief but to live out your faith without discrimination from the government.”

The case was ultimately between the church and the state’s natural resources department. Missouri’s attorney general recused himself in the case.

Missouri’s governor Eric Greitens (R) had already announced that in the future, religious institutions could be eligible for benefit programs of the natural resources department. However, the Court stated on Monday that “that announcement does not moot this case.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, stated that “this case is about nothing less” than the relationship “between church and state.”

“The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” she added. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “it is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel.”

“But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.’” And a church being denied participation in public benefits because of its religious character can be such an “indirect coercion” on the free exercise of religion, he continued.

“In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”

Judge halts deportations of Chaldean Christians to Iraq

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 17:26

Detroit, Mich., Jun 23, 2017 / 03:26 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A district court judge on Thursday halted the deportation of more than 100 Iraqis, including many Chaldean Christians, who were recently picked up by immigration officers and detained.

“We are thankful and relieved that our clients will not be immediately sent to Iraq, where they face grave danger of persecution, torture or death,” Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, which represented the Iraqi nationals, stated in response to the ruling.

On Sunday, June 11, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement began picking up Iraqi nationals in the Detroit metropolitan area who had previous criminal records.

Ultimately, 114 Iraqis were picked up, some reportedly at their homes in front of their families and others in public places like restaurants. They were detained and informed of their immanent deportation.

Many of the detainees were Chaldean Christians, and members of the local Chaldean Church were dismayed at the arrests.

ICE stated that the detainees had criminal records and although they had entered the U.S. legally and had not yet become citizens, they were no longer eligible for full citizenship. Furthermore, they had been ordered for removal by a federal judge, although in some cases the orders were reportedly decades old.

Iraq had previously refused to accept the Chaldeans, “in some cases, for humanitarian reasons,” Thursday’s decision read.

However, they recently agreed to accept them as part of a deal with the U.S. that removed Iraq’s place on a list of countries where foreign nationals were barred from traveling to the U.S., except in special cases, as part of President Donald Trump’s immigration executive order.

Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit insisted that many of those who were detained were responsible residents since they had served their time in prison, and that many of the crimes had been committed decades prior to the June 11 arrests.

Pleas to stay the deportations reportedly reached the highest levels of government. The ACLU represented the Chaldeans in court, filing a habeas corpus action petition on their behalf, while the Knights of Columbus and members of Congress wrote Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Leading U.S. bishops also wrote Secretary Kelly, advocating for a stay on the deportations until Iraq could guarantee the safety of religious minorities.

“Returning religious minorities to Iraq at this time, without specific plans for protection, does not appear consistent with our concerns about genocide and persecution of Christians in Iraq,” a letter by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chair of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee, and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the bishops’ migration committee, stated.

“The persecution that the Christian and Chaldean Catholic community has faced in Iraq is well- documented,” they added. “The deportations to this same country, under such scrutiny for abuse and genocide of Christian and other minorities, seems to run counter to what is happening in other parts of our government.”

Lawyers for the detainees insisted that under the Convention Against Torture they should not be sent back to a country where they have a reasonable expectation of persecution.

Furthermore, since the detainees have already served their prison sentences for their previous crimes, “we believe it would not be just or humane to deport a person who has integrated into American life and poses no evident risk to the local community,” the bishops continued.

This past week, Bishop Kalabat noted in a Facebook post that Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako was also involved in the efforts to halt the deportations, and “spoke with an international Catholic organization that are in contact with Vice President Pence directly.”

Bishop Kalabat also said he had appealed to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to pardon all those who had state felonies.

Then on June 22, Judge Goldsmith granted a two-week stay on the deportations of the Iraqi nationals “within the jurisdiction of the Detroit ICE Field Office with final orders of removal, who have been, or will be, arrested and detained by ICE.”

“In light of these complex jurisdictional issues, and the speed with which the Government is moving to remove Petitioners, it is necessary to stay Petitioners’ removal pending the Court’s determination regarding its jurisdiction,” Judge Goldsmith stated.

He also cited the threat of “irreparable harm” claimed by the detainees through the “significant chance of loss of life and lesser forms of persecution” if they were to be deported to Iraq, as well as “the public interest” in due process that their requests for relief be heard by a federal court before their deportation.

“The court took a life-saving action by blocking our clients from being immediately sent back to Iraq,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, stated. “They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return.”

US Senate healthcare bill 'unacceptable as written', bishops warn

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 13:10

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2017 / 11:10 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. bishops' conference has warned that the proposed Senate health care bill will put serious burdens on poor families and is “unacceptable as written.”

After the draft of a Senate health care bill was finally released on Thursday, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, stated that “this proposal retains many of the fundamental defects of the House of Representatives-passed health care legislation, and even further compounds them.”

He had previously explained, in a March letter to members of Congress, how the House bill was problematic for vulnerable populations such as the poor, the seriously ill, and the elderly.

After the Senate draft, known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act, was released June 22, he reiterated that “it is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written.”

After the House narrowly voted May 2 to pass its own version of a health care reform bill, the US bishops wrote to Senators urging them to reject the “grave deficiencies” of the American Health Care Act.

The bishops had asked the Senate to reject major changes to Medicaid, to retain protections for human life, to increase tax assistance for those with low-income and the elderly, to retain a cap on health care plan costs for the elderly, to protect immigrants, and to add health care protections.

Senate Republicans released the draft version of their bill after weeks of anticipation and controversy that the draft was being worked on behind closed doors. The bill would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act.

A major sticking point for pro-life groups and the U.S. bishops was Hyde Amendment-language protecting taxpayer subsidies from being used to pay for abortions.

However, pro-life leaders are concerned – or are even certain – that the pro-life language will be removed by the Senate Parliamentarian before the bill reaches the Senate floor.

This could happen because the language might be determined to be not pertaining to the rules of budget reconciliation. Since the bill may be passed through the budget reconciliation process – thus requiring a simple majority vote, rather than the normal 60 votes needed to bring it to the floor for a vote – its measures would need to be ruled as pertaining to the budget.

Senate Republicans can also afford no more than two members of their party voting against the bill, as no Democrats are expected to support it. Several moderate Republicans in the chamber have voiced concern about the bill, and four conservatives have said the draft does not go far enough in repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The draft also strips Planned Parenthood of taxpayer funding and redirects that funding to community health centers which do not provide abortions.

Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, approved of the Planned Parenthood language but added that “the reality is that necessary pro-life protections in this bill will be stripped by the Senate Parliamentarian, as we have now publicly heard from two Senators.”

The Washington Examiner reported Wednesday that Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both admitted that the Senate Parliamentarian would not approve of the pro-life language being used in a bill passed by reconciliation.

“If this happens, one of the most egregious aspects of Obamacare – tax credits for plans covering abortion – will continue under this Administration and Congress,” Mancini continued.

Pro-life groups have insisted that the Affordable Care Act ushered in a massive expansion of abortion funding through tax credits paying for abortions and federally-subsidized plans offering abortion coverage, without sufficient guarantees that the subsidies were not being used themselves to pay for the abortion coverage.

While President Obama issued an executive order forbidding taxpayer dollars from funding abortions under the health care law, many – including then-president of the U.S. bishops, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago – insisted that would not offer sufficient guarantee against taxpayer dollars funding abortions.

A 2014 GAO report found that in five states, all the taxpayer-subsidized plans offered on the health exchanges covered abortions, thus leaving no choices for those who wanted a health plan on the exchanges which did not include abortion coverage.

Furthermore, the report found that 15 insurance issuers and one state exchange were not billing abortion coverage separately from other coverage in federally-subsidized plans, thus leaving open the possibility that federal dollars were going to fund abortion coverage.

“The expectations of the pro-life movement have been very clear: The health care bill must not indefinitely subsidize abortion and must re-direct abortion giant Planned Parenthood’s taxpayer funding to community health centers,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said in a joint statement released Friday.

“The Senate discussion draft includes these pro-life priorities, but we remain very concerned that either of these priorities could be removed from the bill for procedural or political reasons,” they added.

“We are working closely with our pro-life allies in the Senate to prevent this from happening as it could result in our opposition.”

Bishop Dewane echoed those concerns that the pro-life language could be stripped from the bill. He insisted as well that “full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill.”

Moreover, there are other serious problems with the Senate draft legislation that carry over from the House bill, he maintained.

Changes to Medicaid could cut vital coverage for low-income families; conscience protections for everyone in the health care system are lacking; and access for immigrants to health care would not be furthered, he said, which the bishops pointed out as one of the problems in the Affordable Care Act when it was passed in 2010.

The “per-capita cap” on Medicaid dollars to states would limit Medicaid funding based on the populations of the states themselves, “and then connects yearly increases to formulas that would provide even less to those in need than the House bill,” the bishop stated.

“These changes will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported,” he stated.

While efforts to assist people “living at an above the poverty line” are laudable, he continued, the proposed bill “stands to cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net.”

The bill would phase out the expansion of Medicaid more gradually than did the House's version, but the program would see larger cuts in the long run under the Senate's plan.

Bread for the World, a social welfare organization of Christians that advocates for the ending of hunger the US and abroad, was also critical of the Senate bill's changes to Medicaid, saying it will increase hunger and poverty domestically.

“Rolling back the Medicaid expansion at a slower rate still means that millions of vulnerable Americans will lose their health care coverage,” said David Beckmann, Bread for the World's president. “Without health insurance, people must often choose between putting food on the table and receiving the medical care they need.”

He charged that “any senator who supports this bill will be voting to take away health insurance from the elderly, people with disabilities, and children.”

Bishop Dewane also said the bill “fails, as well, to put in place conscience protections for all those involved in the health care system, protections which are needed more than ever in our country's health policy,” he stated.

For instance, the bill could set up conscience protections for religious organizations that refuse to comply with previous mandates that coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives be provided in their employee health plans, the bishop noted. Or doctors who conscientiously refuse to perform abortions or gender-transition procedures could be protected against federal or state mandates that they do so.

“The Senate should now act to make changes to the draft that will protect those persons on the peripheries of our health care system,” Bishop Dewane stated.

A doctor prescribed a procedure, but insurance offered death

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 08:01

Reno, Nev., Jun 23, 2017 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Dr. T. Brian Callister chose to become a physician for the reason many choose to go into the medical field – to make a difference in people’s lives.

But that difference has recently been cut short by assisted suicide legislation.

An internal medicine specialist and the National Medical Director at The LifeCare Family of Hospitals based in Reno, Nevada, Callister sees many patients from out of state, since the Reno-Tahoe area is a vacation destination.

Recently, he had two patients within two months who both needed life-saving procedures.

In both cases, he requested a hospital transfer to their home state: one in California and one in Oregon, both of which have legalized assisted suicide.

Both patients were denied the requested transfer and requested life-saving procedure by their insurance companies, who instead asked Callister if he had offered his patients assisted suicide.

“I was just floored. The best I could muster was ‘uh, that’s not legal here yet.’ And they said if you get them back home we can take care of it,” Callister told CNA.

He said he had not at any point indicated that he or his patients would be interested in assisted suicide. It was offered simply because it was the cheapest option.

HIPPA laws, which govern the privacy of patient information, limit the specifics that Callister can go into on these cases.

However, he said one of these patients ended up going to a lower level of care but did not get the lifesaving procedure, and the other got so frustrated that they left the hospital.

Neither received the care recommended by their doctor.

Callister said in both cases, the recommended care was a standard medical procedure and not an experimental therapy, which are often not covered by insurance companies for other reasons.

“Most people look at (assisted suicide) as a freedom and autonomy thing, and it really is the opposite when you look at my cases, since access to care and choices are being limited by this law,” Callister said.

“It’s cutting your choice, not adding to it.”

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in a handful of states, gaining momentum ever since the high profile suicide of cancer patient Brittany Maynard in 2014.

Many prominent Catholic leaders, such as Pope Francis, have spoken out against assisted suicide, calling it “false compassion.” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has said assisted suicide “represents a failure of solidarity” and abandons the most vulnerable in society.

Callister’s cases are not the first time patients have been denied care and offered death instead.

Stephanie Packer, a terminally ill wife and mother, was recently denied chemotherapy, but was offered assisted suicide by her insurance for just $1.20.

Packer said it was the ultimate slap in the face: her insurance company denied the coverage of critical chemotherapy treatment that her doctors recommended for her condition.

Particularly concerning is that the insurance company had initially suggested that they would cover the chemotherapy drugs. It was one week after assisted suicide was legalized in 2016 that they sent Packer a letter saying they were denying coverage. Despite multiple appeals, they continued to refuse.

Often, proponents of assisted suicide will argue it is necessary for people to avoid unending pain or unbearable suffering at the end of their life.

This argument ignores the advances made in palliative and hospice care which can control pain and symptoms at the end of life, Callister noted.

“In this day and age, we have outstanding palliative care, hospice care, we have the education, the skill and the drugs to keep you comfortable,” he said.

Opponents of assisted suicide say there are not enough legal safeguards possible to guard against coercion and abuse, whether by insurance companies or by family members who may benefit financially from the death of a family member.

“It’s illegal for a family to coerce the patient. How are they going to regulate that? The coercion police are going to go to your house? It all sounds good on paper, but none of it is practically enforceable; it really isn’t,” Callister said.

Another argument used by proponents of assisted suicide is that they follow the same guidelines as do doctors for referring patients to hospice and palliative care – they only suggest assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis with six or fewer months to live.

But the problem with that, Callister said, is that doctors are often wrong when it comes to terminal diagnoses: the margin for error is 50-70 percent. Some patients die sooner than expected, while many also go on to outlive their prognoses, sometimes by years.

“My take on it is: if we’re not sure how much quality time you have left, why would you throw that away? And the second part of that is once it becomes clear that you are dying, you’re in your last weeks, we have the ability to keep you comfortable. So why do we need this law?”

He added that as a physician for 30 years, he has seen the end of life be some of the most important times in a family for healing, for reconciliation, for self-giving love.

“I see more self-giving love for other people, I see more families healed and brought together, and bad rifts healed and reconciled at the end of life than any other time.”

Dating apps and the death of romance – what's a Catholic to do?

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 05:22

Denver, Colo., Jun 23, 2017 / 03:22 am (CNA/EWTN News).- If a recent Vanity Fair issue is to be believed, there's some disheartening news for single people: the “dating apocalypse,” brought on by wildly popular dating apps like “Tinder,” is upon us.

Young singles are too busy swiping left and right on their phones making shallow, transient connections, rather than finding real love with real people. Romance is dead, proposes author Nancy Jo Sales, in the September 2015 issue of the publication.

What sets Tinder apart from most other dating app or online dating experiences is speed and brevity. Based on a photo, first name, and age alone, users decide whether to swipe left (to pass) or right (to like). With GPS tracking, the app also tells users exactly how far away potential matches may be, making life even easier for those just looking for a quick hook-up. 

Shallowest dating app ever?

The biggest criticism of Tinder? It's a seriously shallow app that turns people into quickly-judged commodities on a screen.

In a 2013 article by The Guardian, “Tinder: the shallowest dating app ever?” author Pete Cashmore explains the ick-factor, yet addictiveness, of Tinder when compared to another dating app called Twine.

“Of the two apps, though, Tinder sounded worse, just because it seemed so contemptuously superficial. There are hundreds upon thousands of women, about whom you know almost nothing, and you snap-appraise them with a single swipe. It's a finger-flicking hymn to the instant gratification of the smartphone age. It's addictive.”

Matt Fradd is a Catholic speaker and author and founder of The Porn Effect, a website with a mission to “expose the reality behind the fantasy of pornography and to equip individuals to find freedom from it.” In his ministry, he’s heard a lot of stories from young people about their struggle to overcome objectifying people through porn.

Fradd had some harsh words for Tinder.

“Tinder exists for those who would rather not purchase a prostitute,” he told CNA.

“I would imagine most people who use that app aren’t there because they’re looking for a chaste relationship,” he added. 

And indeed, quite a bit of colloquial evidence backs him up. Alex in the Vanity Fair article said dating apps have turned romance into a competition of “Who's slept with the best, hottest girls?”

“You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger,” he said. “It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”

But Tinder doesn't always have to be that way, users argue. It is possible to find people on the app who want to go on some good old-fashioned dates.

Tinder users speak

Ross is a twenty-something Nebraska-to-New York City transplant and a cradle Catholic who’s used his fair share of both dating apps and sites. When signing up for Tinder, Ross said, probably the most important factor in whether someone will find potential dates or hook-ups is location, location, location.

“Your region matters so much,” he told CNA in an e-mail interview. “In Nebraska, women date on Tinder. They really do… In New York, (most) want a distraction, attention, and/or a hook up. Not emotion or connections.”

Holly, a twenty-something devout Catholic living in Kansas City, said she has had success finding a date – and a pretty decent one at that – on the app.

“I went on a great Tinder date. Granted it was the only Tinder date, but we even went out a few times before things ended. At the time Tinder sort of freaked me out, but I decided to jump in head first and it was an enjoyable experience over all,” she said. 

Many young people who've used Tinder also argue that the “shallow” critique is a bit overblown, considering that dating always takes into account whether or not a potential mate is physically attractive.

“How is me swiping right on a guy that I find attractive, and swiping left (on those) that I'm not that into any different than someone approaching a guy that I find attractive in a bar? We make snap judgements all the time. Why is it suddenly so much worse if I'm doing it online?” asked Michelle, a twenty-something practicing Catholic who lives in Chicago.

While she's definitely experienced the creepier side of Tinder – with guys sending her “rankings” on a scale of 1 to 10 and other, um, less-than-endearing messages, she said she found the app could be used as a way to maybe meet some new people in person and to get recommendations of things to do in the city.

“I think to immediately classify Tinder or any other dating app as a 'hook-up' app or as a very bad thing goes against the idea that things are morally neutral,” Michelle said. “Just like alcohol is not inherently bad but can be used for evil, I don't think Tinder is inherently evil as well. I definitely think you can use Tinder if you're using it to meet people – not to hook up with people.”

The morality of Tinder

It's admittedly a bit difficult to find someone who can speak with moral authority specifically to dating apps in the Catholic world. Because of the very recent explosion of smartphones, followed by the subsequent explosion of dating apps, or because of vows of celibacy, many clergy and moral experts have actually never used dating apps themselves.

Fr. Gregory Plow, T.O.R., falls into that category. Even though he's a young priest and friar who’s never used Tinder, Fr. Plow works with hundreds of young people every day as the director of Households at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio (kind of like Greek houses, but faith-based).

Fr. Plow said when Catholics determine the morality of any act or tool, like Tinder, three things must be considered.

“Whenever discerning the morality of an act not explicitly defined by Church teaching, we must examine the object, the intention, and the circumstances,” he said, referencing paragraph 1757 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Regarding the 'object,' apps – in general, as an invention – are not bad in and of themselves. Like most other technologies, they are morally neutral in and of themselves,” he said. “Apps do, however, possess a certainly quality of being transitory that can factor in to the other two components (intention and circumstances) that factor in to judging the morality of an act.”

The transitory, cursory nature of swiping based on one picture in Tinder can be morally dangerous if that same mentality transfers to relationships with people, he said. Instead of pausing and taking the time to form real relationships, some people may decide to move on to the next best thing because they have so many options.

“Therefore, in as much dating apps are impersonal and transitory, or are used with the intention for receiving gratification and pleasure, they are immoral,” he said. “If, however, online dating apps or services assisting people in leading them to find another person to share the love of God with in the uniqueness of a dating relationship or marriage, it can be (morally) good.”

Mary Beth Bonacci, a Catholic speaker and author on John Paul II's Theology of the Body, said what's concerning about Tinder when compared to online dating sites such as CatholicMatch is the rapidity with which people can be turned into objects.

“The entire realm of dating is full of opportunities to turn a human person into a commodity. We get so wrapped up in thinking about what we want for ourselves that we forget we are dealing with another human person – and image and likeness of God. It's always been a temptation,” she said.

“But the rapid-fire nature of Tinder's 'scan and swipe' makes it easy to turn many, many human persons into commodities in a short period of time. That is what is scariest to me.”

Bonacci said while it's possible to find someone who’s interested in a virtuous dating relationship through apps like Tinder, the chances of that happening are probably pretty low when compared with online dating sites that have more extensive profiles.

Meeting someone in person as soon as possible is also key, she said, in determining whether or not a match made online or in an app has a chance of turning into a dating relationship. But apps like Tinder aren’t exactly helping breathe new life into romance, she said.

“Everything is instant. The nearly-anonymous sex is of course the antithesis of anything romantic or respectful. In the old days of the 'meat market' singles' bar, a person had to get dressed up, leave the house, buy a few drinks and at least pretend to have some real interest in the other person.”

The Church has a duty, she said, to offer young people better alternatives in the dating world than the instant gratification that they find in the current culture.

“The Vanity Fair article reminded me once again that we have to offer teens and young adults an alternative to the degrading, hook up world that surrounds them. We can't scare them out of it. They need to be inspired, to fall in love with the real beauty of the Christian vision of human sexual morality,” she said.

“They need to see their own dignity, their own importance, and how respecting their bodies and the beautiful language of human sexuality is the only way to finding real love. We have to. We can’t allow another generation of kids to fall into this cesspool.”

 

This article was originally published on CNA Sept. 13, 2015.

Calif. court drops 14 charges against Planned Parenthood investigator

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 18:43

San Francisco, Calif., Jun 22, 2017 / 04:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A California court on Wednesday dismissed 14 of 15 criminal charges against an undercover journalist behind the video exposé of Planned Parenthood’s role in the fetal tissue trade.

“This is a huge victory to have 14 criminal counts dismissed,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which defended Sandra Merritt in court as she faced 15 felony charges. One charge of conspiracy to invade privacy has still not been dismissed.

“We will now turn our attention to dismissing the final count,” Staver continued. “Sandra Merritt did nothing wrong. The complaint by the California Attorney General is unprecedented and frankly will threaten every journalist who provides valuable information to the public.”

In March, California Attorney General Xavier Beccerra charged Merritt and her colleague David Daleiden with 14 criminal counts of recording others without their consent in a confidential conversation, and one count of conspiracy to invade privacy.

Merritt and Daleiden were undercover journalists at the Center for Medical Progress, a group which seeks to expose the role of Planned Parenthood clinics and tissue harvesters in the trade of fetal tissue of aborted babies. The group began releasing videos in July of 2015 that were undercover video recordings of conversations with Planned Parenthood officials.

CMP alleged that Planned Parenthood clinics illegally broke the law by profiting off of the transfer of the fetal tissue to harvesters. Federal law does allow for reasonable compensation for fetal tissue in cases where it is procured for medical research purposes. The compensation cannot be for “valuable consideration,” but may cover operating expenses like storage and transfer costs.

The recorded conversations Merritt and Daleiden had took place as they posed as representatives of a tissue procurement company BioMax seeking to possibly partner with Planned Parenthood clinics and other representatives in the abortion industry to obtain body parts of aborted babies.

In the criminal complaint against Merritt and Daleiden, Beccerra had alleged that both persons had recorded confidential conversations without the consent of other parties involved. Each of the 14 counts involved a separate conversation that allegedly took place.

Eight of the charges had to do with secretly recorded conversations with attendees at a National Abortion Federation conference in San Francisco. Other conversations with Planned Parenthood officials and tissue procurement representatives were recorded at other times.

California is a “two-party consent” state, which means that both parties of a conversation, where it is expected to be private and confidential, must agree to it being recorded.

An affidavit from a California Peace Officer claimed that, according to accounts from multiple persons to whom Daleiden and Merritt allegedly talked, they recorded conversations that were believed to be confidential by the other party.

Liberty Counsel, on the other hand, said that the “the videos produced by Merritt and Daleiden exposed unethical and potentially illegal conduct by Planned Parenthood, and Planned Parenthood itself has admitted, under oath, that the recorded conversations took place in ‘non-confidential’ and public venues,” such as restaurants.

Beccerra also charged Daleiden with conspiracy to invade privacy, alleging that Daleiden used a password from a former employee at the tissue procurement company StemExpress, accessed the company’s email system, and took documents.

The affadavit also alleged that Daleiden and Merritt set up a tissue procurement company of their own – BioMax Procurement Services, LLC – and used false names to “pose” as representatives of the company and to be admitted to a National Abortion Federation conference in San Francisco, “where they secretly video recorded conference speakers, vendors, and attendees.”

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Superior Court dismissed the 14 recording charges, but the charge for conspiracy to invade privacy has not yet been dropped.

Beccerra, a former Democratic congressman, had previously received small donations from Planned Parenthood as a candidate for Congress amounting to around $6,000 over the last 20 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Sandra did not break any law and the criminal complaint against her is legally deficient, vague and full of inconsistencies,” Horatio Mihet, Liberty Counsel's vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel, stated.

“No other citizen journalist or organization has ever been charged with a crime for undercover recordings,” he added.

After Center for Medical Progress began releasing its recorded conversations with officials at Planned Parenthood and tissue procurement companies, Congress and several states launched investigations into Planned Parenthood to find out whether it broke the law in the fetal tissue trade.

A final report from a House select investigative panel released in January detailed various abuses in the abortion industry in the fetal body parts trade.

Consent forms required by law were not obtained from mothers to have the fetal tissue of their aborted child used for research. Private medical information may have been shared between abortion clinics and tissue procurement companies in a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

In another case, the University of New Mexico established a possibly illegal relationship with a local abortion clinic where students and fellows performed abortions at the clinic and the clinic’s abortionists were reportedly granted “volunteer faculty” status at the university where they received benefits like insurance coverage and access to university facilities.

'A saint for our times' – the inspiring story of Chiara Corbella Petrillo

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 11:05

Manchester, N.H., Jun 22, 2017 / 09:05 am (CNA).- Chiara Corbella Petrillo lived a short life.    She met her husband Enrico Petrillo at age 18, became the mother of three children, and died at the age 28.    But what happened within those 10 years has touched the hearts of thousands across the globe. Chiara's sainthood cause was opened last week, five years after her death. Her story is told in the 2015 book, “Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy,” published by Sophia Institute Press.    “In the story of the Petrillo couple, many people recognize a providential consolation from heaven,” said Simone Troisi and Christiana Paccini, close friends of the Petrillo's who wrote the biography of Chiara's life.    “They discover that in any situation, there is no real reason to be sad. This is because Chiara shows that if you have God as your guide, misfortunes do not exist,” they told CNA.     Chiara and Enrico married in Italy on September 21, 2008 after having met at Medjugorje in 2002. During the early years of their marriage, the young Italian couple faced many hardships together, including the death of two children, who both died only 30 minutes after birth.    Chiara became pregnant a third time with their son, Francesco. However, the joyful news of their pregnancy also came with a fatal diagnosis of cancer for Chiara. Her cancer was an unusual lesion of the tongue, which was later discovered to be a carcinoma.    Chiara rejected any treatment that could have saved her life during pregnancy because it would have risked the life of her unborn son. As the cancer progressed, it became difficult for Chiara to speak and see clearly, eventually making her final days on earth particularly excruciating.    “Her [Chiara's] suffering became a holy place because it was the place where she encountered God,” Troisi and Paccini recalled.   Although many couples face hardships, Troisi and Paccini remembered something different about the Petrillos - they leaned on God’s grace which made their family particularly serene. They made peace with the reality that Chiara would never grow old with Enrico or watch Francesco grow up.    During Chiara’s last days, Enrico embraced God’s grace just as Chiara did, saying, “If she is going to be with Someone who loves her more than I, why should I be upset?”     Chiara died on June 13, 2012 at home in her wedding gown, surrounded by her family and friends. Although her earthly life was over, Chiara would continue to be a witness to joy.   Troisi and Paccini believe that Chiara’s legacy is still living on because she gave witness to the truth that “love exists.” Neither she nor Enrico were afraid of love, marriage, or of committing themselves to their family.    According to the authors, the young couple showed how “the purpose of our life is to love... to be married is a wonderful thing, an adventure that opens you up to Heaven in the home.”    Chiara and Enrico's remarkable story is “a story of salvation in which God shows himself as a faithful God: they trust in Him and are not disappointed,” they stated.    However, they were quick to note that Chiara was not “an extraordinary young woman, in a way that makes her different from us.” Rather, she struggled with many human fears and anxieties, especially with thoughts of pain, vomiting, and purgatory.    “She had the same questions that we have, the same objections and struggles, the same fears,” Troisi and Paccini noted, saying what made her different was her “capacity to cast everything on the Father, to welcome the grace needed for whatever step she had to make.”   With Chiara, the ordinary always became the extraordinary. Troisi and Paccini have fond memories of everyday life with the Petrillos, when a conversation about cooking chicken would end in talking about heaven.    “We would share simple things like dinner, chatting, games on the rug with little Francesco... always very simple, without masks,” they remembered.   “But when we were together, there was no difficulty in believing that eternal life was here and now!”    Chiara has been called “a saint for our times.” Although her death was only five years ago, her legacy lives on and has inspired others around the world to be the same witness to joy.   “Today, this joy is visible in those that lived alongside her: even if they miss her, they experience a mysterious and profound joy,” Troisi and Paccini stated.   “We cannot insist enough on the fact that Chiara did what she did, not trusting in her own strength, but trusting in the grace and the consolation of God... She never doubted God's faithfulness to His promise of happiness for her story.”   An earlier version of this article was originally published on CNA Dec. 2, 2015.  

This pro-life talk at Google's headquarters was a hit

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 07:52

Mountain View, Calif., Jun 22, 2017 / 05:52 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A pro-life activist walks into Google’s headquarters and delivers a speech so compelling that within 24 hours, the online video of it surpassed a similar speech given by the head of Planned Parenthood.

It may sound like the start to a far-fetched joke, but on April 20th, pro-life speaker and activist Stephanie Gray did just that.

Gray was the co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform and served as its executive director for several year before starting the ministry which she now runs, Love Unleashes Life.

She spoke in April as a part of the Talks at Google series, a program that brings a variety of speakers to the company’s headquarters to discuss their work. Gray has participated in more than 800 talks and debates on abortion.

Gray’s talk centered around the idea that there are three qualities that lead us to call someone “inspiring:” They place others ahead of themselves, have “perspective” on their sufferings and situation in life, and do the right thing even in difficult situations. She linked these criteria to the process of dialoguing with others about abortion, emphasizing question asking.

She began by contrasting two stories, that of the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy in 2012 and the “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency plane landing in 2009. In the first story, she explained, the captain had jumped ship along with the rest of the crew. In the second, the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, had been the last off the flooding vessel, ensuring his passengers all exited safely.

In comparing the two stories, she noted that Sullenberger was lauded as a hero, and the captain of the Concordia internationally shamed.

“If you agree that it was correct for the pilot to put the passengers ahead of himself, to prioritize the needs of his dependents,” she said, “then wouldn’t it follow, that when it comes to the topic of abortion and an unplanned pregnancy, that a pregnant woman ought to prioritize the needs of her dependent?”

However, she noted that the comparison was only valid “depending on, indeed, whether embryos and fetuses are human beings, like the passengers on the airplane.”

To determine whether or not a fetus is a human being, Gray displayed an image of a human fetus and posed the question, “What are her parents?” It would logically follow that two human parents’ offspring must be the same species, she said.

Despite the ambiguity around the origin point of human life when it comes to abortion, she said, in discussing other topics “we have great clarity.” For example, an IVF specialist or dog breeder would agree that the life they attempt to create begins at fertilization.

Taking a look at what qualifies as “personhood,” Gray considered the terms used by pro-infanticide philosopher Peter Singer, that a person is a being which is “rational, conscious, and self-aware.” She contrasted a human embryo with an amoeba: the embryo lacks these qualities “because of how old she is,” where the amoeba lacks them “because of what it is.”

 “Should personhood be grounded in how old we are, or should personhood be grounded in what we are?” she asked.

“The quality of age shouldn’t be the basis for which someone has personhood status,” she answered, noting that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the rights of “all members of the human family.”

She then addressed the question of the fetus’ dependence, arguing that the fetus’ greater dependent status as a weaker entity than a baby entitles it to greater, not less, protection. She related this to the story of a friend’s husband who, faced with the choice between rescuing a mother or her baby first from the roof of a sinking car, made the “obvious” choice to take the baby.

“Since you believe that we should prioritize weaker and more vulnerable people ahead of stronger people, then shouldn’t we actually prioritize the needs of the pre-born child?” she said.

She recalled meeting a Rwandan genocide survivor who, seeing a picture of a child killed in the conflict next to an aborted fetus, pointed to the image of the fetus and said, “That’s worse, because at least my family could try to run away.”

Considering the concept of perspective, she posed another question: “How can we change our perspective in an unplanned, crisis situation?” She recalled dialoguing with a college student whose stepmother had an abortion upon learning her baby was expected to die at birth. Responding with a thought experiment involving a terminal cancer diagnosis, she answered the student, “Why would we cut short the already short time we have left? Instead, wouldn’t we want to savor every moment of every day of the next 20 weeks (of the pregnancy)?”

Moving to her final criterion for what makes a person inspirational – “do the right thing” – she listed a number of circumstances that make pregnancy hard and often lead to abortion, including poverty or rape. But when we look at parents raising an already-born child in the same circumstances, she said, we can see that we ought to have the same attitude towards carrying an unborn child as towards parenting a child in the same situation.

Gray closed with a number of stories from people she knows personally, including a woman who was raped and had a child at age 12, a woman who cared for her baby daughter with respiratory issues, and a woman who regretted her own abortion and ended up counseling another woman to carry her baby to term.

“They’re inspiring because they put others ahead of themselves, because they had perspective, and because they did the right thing, even when it was hard,” she said of all the stories she had told throughout the talk. “And that’s the challenge that I leave all of you with today.”

In a question-and-answer session after her talk, she recommended that audience members seek to start dialogue on the difficult topic of abortion with open-ended questions, and to “seek to understand where (another) person is coming from.” She also used the analogy of a person choosing rape to address the thought that pro-life views cannot be “forced on” pregnant women, saying that just as it is illegal to make the choice to rape someone, it ought to be illegal to choose to end the life of a fetus.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards also gave a Talk at Google, in a video published March 7. Gray’s talk, published June 19, had surpassed Richards in views within 24 hours of being uploaded.

 

We must speak, act more on criminal justice reform, Christian leaders insist

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 02:04

Washington D.C., Jun 22, 2017 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With the justice system rife with abuse, there is still much work to be done to call the faithful to minister to prisoners, victims, and their families, Christian leaders maintained on Tuesday.

“We need to raise this as a priority within the Church,” Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty, told CNA of criminal justice reform and ministries to prisoners and their victims.

“Our Pope has been very outspoken about that, and spoken numerous times about our need to visit those imprisoned, and then accompany and journey with those that are affected by crime, all aspects, the perpetrators family, and the victims’ families,” she continued.

Clifton was one of a number of Christian leaders who spoke out against injustice in the justice system during a June 20 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The panel included Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as Harry Jackson of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches. They unveiled the “Justice Declaration,” which calls for “a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all.”

It also calls for Christians to be more active in advocating for more humane conditions in prisons, “proportional punishment” for offenders, better educational and economic opportunities for poor people as crime prevention, and to “invest in the discipleship” of prisoners.

Christians must “treat every human being as a person made in God’s own image, with a life worthy of respect, protection, and care,” they stated.

“The Church has both the unique ability and unparalleled capacity to confront the staggering crisis of crime and incarceration in America and to respond with restorative solutions for communities, victims, and individuals responsible for crime,” the declaration said.

Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, is among the signatories, along with Karen Clifton.

Over-incarceration, racial disparity, and disproportionate sentencing are only some of the injustices that underscore the urgency for reform of the justice system, panel members insisted.

The U.S. is home to five percent of the world’s population, but holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. 2.2 million are behind bars, leaving 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites, according to the NAACP. 65 million Americans suffer from the collateral consequences of a conviction, which include difficulty in finding a job or renting a home even after they serve their prison sentence.

All this has produced a “crisis” to which the Christian community must respond, the leaders insisted.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2266 states that “punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”

Pope Francis has also advocated for the eventual reintegration of prisoners into society, warning against only focusing on justice as an “instrument of punishment.”

Criminal justice reform measures had been gaining bipartisan momentum at the federal level as members of Congress in both parties supported various policies like ending mandatory minimum sentencing and limiting the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

However, with the advent of the new administration that momentum has slowed.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions dropped the Obama administration’s “Smart on Crime” initiative and has directed prosecutors to pursue stricter mandatory minimum sentences, which reform advocates say gives judges less flexibility to adjust one’s sentence based on the details of their case.

“We believe that it removes from the judge the ability to do his or her job,” James Ackerman, CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said on Tuesday.

Christians are be on board with certain aspects of criminal justice reform, but for many there still remains a “disconnect” between their views on justice and reform of the justice system, Prison Fellowship claims in its report “Responding to Crime & Incarceration: a Call to the Church.”

In a recent poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship, 88 percent of practicing Christians answered that the primary goal of the justice system should be “restoration for all involved: the victim, the community, and the person responsible for the crime.”

However, in the same poll, 53 percent of practicing Christians answered that “it’s important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes” even if that entailed punishing them more harshly than they deserved.

“Disproportional punishment is not consistent with our values,” Ackerman stated.

How can the Church better bridge this “disconnect” in polling answers?

The Church must educate laypeople on the importance of the issue, and mobilize them to act through parish ministries, Clifton insisted.

“I want to say, ‘where are our resources?’” she asked. “There is so little funding for prison ministry, for care for victims, for programs for victims,” she said, and for incarceration prevention programs.

There is a “challenge to the churches to bring the stories to the pulpit,” she said, “to convert those in the pews, and know that this is the Gospel message, to be a voice to the voiceless and to go to the margins and the peripheries and be present in accompanying those back into society.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, agreed.

“Our criminal justice system exists in order to restrain evil, and in order to rehabilitate and to reform those who have committed crimes,” he said.

If, however, the system “doesn’t stop crime, but in many cases actually furthers crime, making criminals out of those who are not yet criminals, ignoring those who have been victims of crime, not dealing with issues of addiction,” he continued, “then we have a criminal justice system that doesn’t work and ought to be fixed.”

“When we have family members who are left behind, waiting for those who are incarcerated and wondering if anyone remembers them, the church of Jesus Christ needs to be at the forefront of that,” he said.

Harry Jackson maintained that Christians must be actively fighting the racial disparity in the justice system.

“In this hour of racial tension, the most important step of healing that we could take at this point is to deal with the fact that there is an increasing, permanent underclass that’s coming out of black and Hispanic people being incarcerated,” he said, “and their lives being in a sense marked off the list of potential, or the list of achievers in our culture.”

“We have the opportunity now to make a difference,” he added. “I believe this is the most important civil rights step that we will take in our lifetimes.”

US bishops launch 2017 Fortnight for Freedom

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 23:08

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2017 / 09:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. bishops have launched a website and video to mark the beginning of this year’s Fortnight for Freedom, focusing on religious freedom issues both at home and abroad.

The video, about ten minutes long and viewable on the Fortnight for Freedom website, features a number of legal, religious, and other personalities discussing the importance of religious liberty. The Fortnight for Freedom takes place June 21 - July 4.

“Religious freedom is one of the basic freedoms of the human person because without religious freedom, the freedom of conscience, all other freedoms are without foundation,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami says at the beginning of the video.

“A government that doesn’t acknowledge limits on its own power to regulate religious institutions is probably going to come after other institutions as well,” said Professor Rick Garnett of the Notre Dame Law School.

The video chronicles the struggle between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s over three now that this issue has been pursuing us,” says Sr. Constance, L.S.P.

Testimonies from beneficiaries of the Sisters’ work are showcased in the video.

“There is a spiritual component in the way that they live their lives that adds to not only enrichment of the residents’ lives but to those who are in contact with them, who work with them, who just hear about them,” says Carmel Kang.

“When religious freedom goes away, and there is no transcendent authority, then the law is the only norm, and the people in power now are always the only power,” says Professor Helen Alvare of George Mason University Law School.

The video emphasizes the United States’ historical connection to freedom of religion.

“The United States is the greatest country in the history of the world precisely because of the exceptional character of its relationship to faith which permeates every dimension of its evolution,” says Eugene Rivers II, an activist and Pentecostal pastor.

The video also highlighted the struggle of religious peoples in other parts of the world.

“Tragically, we see the killings, the martyrdom of Christians in Iraq, and Libya, and Egypt, Syria,” says Archbishop Wenski. The video then showed clips from the video of 21 Coptic Christians being martyred by the Islamic State in early 2015.

Professor Thomas Farr of Georgetown University noted the increased threat since the Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court decision in June 2015, and also observed that viewpoints motivated by religion are being silenced.

The video also summarized Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, as well as noting Pope Francis’ concern for persecuted Christians around the world.

“We have to bring not just optimism, but genuine Christian hope,” says Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, head of the USCCB’s Committee on Religious Liberty, which was made a permanent structure of the conference at their annual spring meeting last week.

The video closed with a montage of scenes and figures including the Selma to Montgomery March, St. John Paul II, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
 
The USCCB’s Fortnight for Freedom website provides a host of prayer and practical resources on the topic of religious freedom.

The prayer resources are based in Scripture as well as the examples of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and are available in both English and Spanish.

Among the practical resources is a brief guide to the issue, which seeks to defend and clarify the bishop’s views, responding to concerns that defense of liberty is an affront to treating people “with equal dignity.”

Also included are summaries of religious liberty concerns in the United States and internationally. Domestically, issues listed include the HHS mandate, the right to practice faith in business, and religious institutes’ right to aid undocumented immigrants. Internationally, concerns are presented from the Central African Republic, Myanmar, and Mexico.

On May 4, the National Day of Prayer, President Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty while surrounded by faith leaders, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of D.C. and the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order called for agencies to consider different enforcement of the mandate and looser enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. It was modified from an earlier, leaked version which critics claimed would have allowed for unjust discrimination of LGBT people.

On May 31, a draft rule providing blanket protection from the mandate was leaked.

The bishops’ website does not include the Johnson Amendment among its concerns.

Pro-lifers claim victory in Georgia House vote

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 18:33

Atlanta, Ga., Jun 21, 2017 / 04:33 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Abortion rights groups invested heavily and lost in Tuesday night’s runoff special election for a Georgia House seat, and pro-lifers maintain the outcome proves the futility of the pro-abortion agenda.

In the June 20 special election to replace former congressman and now HHS Secretary Tom Price in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional district, Republican candidate Karen Handel was victorious, holding off Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff with 52 percent of the vote to his 48 percent.

“I think that this is really encouraging for pro-life candidates,” Mallory Quigley, communications director for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told CNA Wednesday of the race in the Atlanta suburbs. “Planned Parenthood has just suffered another humiliating loss.”

Ossoff ran on arguably a moderate fiscal platform with ostensibly mild rhetoric, promising to fight wasteful spending and bring more tech jobs to the Atlanta metropolitan area, and vowing to work with Republicans on areas of agreement.

However, from the start of the abbreviated campaign he did zero in on Handel's opposition to taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, stating that “with all due respect to Karen, I think her record on women's health issues is lacking,” according to WXIA local news.

On the matter of abortion, he cast himself as a defender of a woman’s right to choose. “I would never disparage anyone who has differing views on the issue,” he said, as reported by WXIA, adding that “it's precisely that complexity at the ethical and medical level that makes it unacceptable for federal bureaucrats to be getting between women and families and their doctors.”

Handel, meanwhile, was vocally pro-life. She was previously the vice president of Susan G. Komen For the Cure, an organization that raises breast cancer awareness and funds research and which is also a prominent funder of Planned Parenthood.

In 2011, the foundation temporarily cut its grants to Planned Parenthood citing Congress’s investigation into the organization. The investigation was launched over concerns that Planned Parenthood’s federal funding might be used for abortions, and that it allegedly did not report suspicious cases of sexual abuse of minors.

After a widespread backlash in the media, Susan G. Komen quickly backtracked and promised to continue funding Planned Parenthood. Handel then resigned from the foundation.

Ossoff focused on this in a campaign ad, attacking Handel for trying to cut off Planned Parenthood funding and falsely claiming that Planned Parenthood provides breast cancer screenings. A moderator corrected Ossoff on this claim in a recent debate; Planned Parenthood provides referrals for screenings, not the screenings themselves.

Planned Parenthood’s political arm bragged of Ossoff’s strong support on its website. He had promised to be “an unyielding defender of Planned Parenthood,” and had insisted that “my commitment to reproductive health and family planning, as essential to the health of this community, is very strong.”

Abortion rights groups poured cash into the race. Planned Parenthood was the second-largest contributor to Ossoff’s campaign, with $820,000, behind only the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The National Abortion Rights Action League ran a six-figure onslaught of video ads, phone calls, and mail outreach in the last days before the election, hoping that accusations of Handel being “extreme” in her opposition to Planned Parenthood would resonate with voters.

Susan B. Anthony List was also active in the race, reaching “65,000 inconsistent voters who are pro-life through mail, phone calls, and digital advertising” and pointing to Ossoff’s “extreme pro-abortion agenda.”

Ultimately, Handel won the day by four percentage points, in a district that Price won by 23 percentage points last election cycle. The seat has not been held by a Democrat since 1979.

The race was the single most expensive House race in history, with spending at $56 million.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, insisted that promoting abortion rights continues to be a losing issue for Democrats in states outside of the Northeast and the West Coast.

“Any time you do that in a pro-life district, you risk alienating voters who might otherwise vote for you,” she told CNA.

“We need to be helping people, not spending $25 million on an election that we’ll lose,” she added, referring to the record-setting level of campaign spending for a single House race.

“What are we doing to promote helping those in need?” she asked. “We’ve lost our focus on the little guy.”

The outcome of the election proves that “extreme pro-abortion positions” are losing, Quigley said. She pointed to a recent Susan B. Anthony List poll of voters in states that are considered to be battlegrounds for 2018 Senate races, saying that a majority of voters in select states opposed taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

The little-known final interview of Ted Bundy: Porn motivated me

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 18:15

Raiford, Florida, Jun 21, 2017 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- Editor’s note: The following content may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

He was one of the worst serial killers in U.S. history. An infamous murderer, rapist and necrophile in the 1970s, Ted Bundy’s life continues to attract the interest of psychologists today, who speculate about what drove the promising young law student to commit such horrific crimes.

Bundy admitted to committing 30 homicides of young women and girls in the 1970s, though he may have been guilty of many more. He appeared charming and approachable, which allowed him to lure his victims into brutal and often fatal assaults. Many of his victims were young, attractive, college women in the Pacific Northwest.

But what exactly led Bundy to commit these heinous acts? According to the serial killer himself, violent pornography was a huge motivating factor.

While the testimony of a serial killer – widely believed to be a psychopath – is clearly suspect, his account aligns with numerous other instances of violent criminals having strong connections to pornography.  

On the day before he was put to death by electric chair in 1989, Bundy received hundreds of interview requests from media outlets nationwide. He declined these requests and granted his final interview to Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, to whom he said he believed he had something to say.  

In their exclusive interview, Bundy discussed pornography as a possible explanation for what drove his behavior.

“I was essentially a normal person, I had good friends, I led a normal life except for this one small but very potent, very destructive segment of it that I kept very secret and very close to myself and I didn’t let anybody know about it,” he said.

Bundy said he first discovered “soft core pornography” in grocery stores, and was compelled to consume more, and increasingly violent, forms.

“...like an addiction, you keep craving something harder, which gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach a point where the pornography only goes so far.”

It was an “indispensable link in the chain of behavior” that led to the assaults and murders that he carried out on dozens of victims, he said. It also was a common factor among other violent offenders that he encountered during his stays in prison.  

“I’ve lived in prison for a long time now and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence just like me and without exception, every one of them was deeply involved with pornography. Without question, without exception, deeply influenced and consumed by addiction to pornography,” he added.

When asked about his fate, he said: “I think society deserves to be protected from me and from others like me. That’s for sure.”

However, “well-meaning people will condemn the behavior of a Ted Bundy while they’re walking past a magazine rack full of the very kinds of things that send young kids down the road to being Ted Bundys. That’s the irony,” he added.

While causation has been difficult to prove, a strong relationship with pornography exists for many violent offenders including numerous high profile murderers.

Brian Mitchell, who kidnapped and assaulted 14 year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002, also had a pornography addiction. In 2016, after her release, Smart spoke to anti-pornography group Fight the New Drug about the effect that pornography had on her captor.

“Looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. Having sex with his wife, after looking at pornography, it wasn’t enough for him,” Smart said. “And then it led him to finally going out and kidnapping me. He just always wanted more.”

She recalled one time when her captor “was just really excited and really kind of amped up about something.”

It turned out his excitement was over hard-core pornography, which he forced her to watch and reenact.

“I remember he would just sit and look at it and stare at it,” Smart said. “And he would just talk about these women. And then when he was done, he would turn and he would look at me, and he would be like, ‘Now we’re going to do this’.”

“It just led to him raping me more. More than he already did, which was a lot.”

Smart said she doesn’t know whether Mitchell would have kidnapped her had pornography not been involved.

“All I know is that pornography made my living hell worse.”

Studies show a correlation between pornography viewing and violent crimes. A 1995 analysis of 33 different studies showed that viewing pornography increases aggressive behavior, including having violent fantasies and even actually committing violent assaults. A University of New Hampshire study showed that states with the highest readership of pornographic magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, also have the highest rape rates.

Other violent criminals who frequently watched pornography and became violent offenders include Mark Bridger, who abducted, sexually assaulted and killed five-year-old April Jones, and kept explicit images of child sex abuse on his laptop.

In addition, U.K. serial killer Stuart Hazell amassed images of child abuse and bestiality, and took naked, sexual photographs of one 12-year-old victim. There is evidence he sexually assaulted her before killing her.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer also once said in an interview that part of his routine before searching for his next victim included viewing pornography.

Online pornography is one of the fastest growing addictions in the United States, on par with cocaine and gambling.

Once confined to the pages of a smuggled Playboy magazine, pornography can now be in the hands of anyone with a smartphone, and is more prolific and anonymous than ever. PornHub, one of the world’s largest sites with porn video streaming, reports that it averages 75 million viewers per day, or about 2.4 million visitors per hour.

With growing access has come growing awareness of pornography addictions, however, with several celebrities speaking out against it, numerous states declaring it a public health crisis, and grassroots anti-pornography groups sprouting up to help the addicted quit pornography.

Resources to fight pornography addictions include the online Fortify video program, Covenant eyes internet accountability and filtering software, and websites with information and support for individuals, spouses and communities facing addiction.
 
 

 

Religious freedom advocates to receive papal honor

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 02:08

Phoenix, Ariz., Jun 21, 2017 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In recognition of their promotion of religious freedom, the founder of Alliance Defending Freedom and his wife will be inducted next week into the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Alan and Paula Sears will receive the honor, granted to individuals for extraordinary service to the Church, at a June 29 service led by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix at St. Bernadette parish in Scottsdale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.

Bestowing the honor on the Sears “is a well-deserved recognition of their many years of defending religious freedom, standing up for the true meaning of marriage and family life, defending the dignity and right to life of every human person, and faithfully living their lay vocation in their home, their parish, and the public square,” Bishop Olmsted has said.

The Order of St. Gregory the Great is granted to individuals for extraordinary service to the Catholic Church. It is one of several orders of pontifical knighthood, which the Church bestows to continue chivalric traditions and recognize merit and service. It can be given to both Catholics and non-Catholics, and was established in 1831 by Gregory XVI.

Previous recipients include Leo Nester, professor emeritus of choral and sacred music at the Catholic University of America; Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics; Chen Chien-jen, vice president of Taiwan; Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; and Polish composer Henryk Gorécki.

Alan Sears founded Alliance Defending Freedom in 1994. The non-profit legal organization advocates for religious liberty, and has defended the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family, and has upheld the rights to free speech and conscientious objection.

“Paula and I are more than humbled by this honor. Christians and people of goodwill everywhere should have the freedom to live what they believe and to follow their conscience, what James Madison called ‘the most sacred of all property,’” Sears said in a June 15 statement.

“We have counted it a privilege, with God’s grace, to do our part to protect these freedoms. Pope Francis repeatedly has spoken strongly about religious liberty, marriage and family, and the sanctity of life, so it is a distinct honor to be recognized by him for our work in those areas.”

Paula added that “the world benefits when the Gospel is freely preached and lived … We are blessed to have had the opportunity to support and encourage those who have sacrificially shared that message and their lives with others. We are very humbled and grateful to Pope Francis for this honor and additionally thank him for his leadership in these areas.”

Since founding Alliance Defending Freedom alongside several other Christian leaders, Alan Sears served as the organization's president, CEO, and general counsel until the beginning of 2017. He has since transitioned into a founder's role at the non-profit.

He was succeeded as president, CEO, and general counsel in January by Michael Farris.

Farris commented that “I am personally grateful for Alan and Paula’s 23 years of sacrificial service to ADF and, therefore, also grateful to Pope Francis for bestowing them with this incredible honor. It’s amazing to be part of an organization that would not be where it is today without their tireless efforts and service to the body of Christ and beyond.”

Alan Sears served in several positions under the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations in the Departments of Justice and the Interior. He earned his doctorate in law from the University of Louisville School of Law, and had previously graduated from the University of Kentucky.

He is a member in good standing with the American, Arizona, California, District of Columbia (inactive), and Kentucky bar associations.

Newark archdiocese defends welcoming of LGBT pilgrimage

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 08:04

Newark, N.J., Jun 20, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Last month Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark welcomed a pilgrimage of self-identified LGBT pilgrims, with an archdiocesan spokesman saying it should be seen in the context of welcoming everyone, not as archdiocese sponsorship of the event.

“I think that the central point that is missing from the majority of the media coverage and blog postings about this pilgrimage is that the cardinal was asked whether he might welcome a group of pilgrims who identify as LGBT. He said yes, we welcome all in the name of Christ,” James Goodness, communications director for the Archdiocese of Newark, told CNA.

“This was not an event sponsored by the archdiocese, and we did not promote or advertise it,” Goodness said. “It was a purely private event.”

Some news coverage of the pilgrimage depicted it as a shift within the Church.

Cardinal Tobin did not concelebrate Mass or preach at the pilgrimage, which Goodness described as a private event.

“He simply offered a word of welcome as he would do for other groups of pilgrims,” the spokesman said. “It is important to note that the cardinal feels very strongly that welcoming people is a first step in any relationship, and that, as Pope Francis says, we have to meet people and minister to them where they are.”

The group included self-identified LGBT Catholics from around New York and New Jersey. The May 21 visit included a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart and a tour of the cathedral.

The cardinal greeted the group at the Newark cathedral. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”

“The word I use is ‘welcome’,” Cardinal Tobin said in an interview before the Mass, the New York Times reports. “These are people that have not felt welcome in other places. My prayer for them is that they do. Today in the Catholic Church, we read a passage that says you have to be able to give a reason for your hope. And I’m praying that this pilgrimage for them, and really for the whole Church, is a reason for hope.”

The cardinal said it was appropriate “to welcome people to come and pray and call them who they were. And later on, we can talk.”

Goodness told CNA there is a chapter of Courage in the Newark archdiocese, which has been active “for many years.”

Courage ministers to Catholics with same-sex attraction and their friends and family who want to live according to Catholic teaching.

US bishops call for engagement amid Trump's policy change on Cuba

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 05:09

Washington D.C., Jun 20, 2017 / 03:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- President Donald Trump’s changes to U.S. policy on Cuba will end up weakening human rights in the island country, the United States bishops have said.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in solidarity with the bishops of Cuba and the Holy See, has long held that human rights and religious freedom will be strengthened through more engagement between the Cuban and American people, not less,” said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

“For decades, we have called for the U.S. travel ban and embargo against Cuba to be lifted,” he continued in a June 19 statement.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops objected that the move would affect U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba and would hinder U.S. commerce with entities controlled by the Cuban government.

Last week, President Donald Trump delivered a speech on Cuba policy announcing the changes.

“I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” the president said, charging that President Barack Obama’s policy ignored human rights violations and the Cuban government’s role in fostering instability in other countries.

CNN characterized the changes as only partial. U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations will continue, and the governments’ respective embassies in Washington and Cuba will remain open. There will be no restrictions on Americans bringing Cuba-produced products like rum and cigars out of the country.

At the same time, there will be strict enforcement of authorized exemptions that allow travel between the U.S. and Cuba. The Trump administration will bar commerce with businesses owned by Cuba’s military and intelligence services.

President Trump’s move asks the U.S. Secretary of State to launch a task force concerning the expansion of internet access in Cuba and to repeat the U.S. opposition to U.N. efforts to lift the embargo on Cuba until more is done to address human rights concerns.

Bishop Cantu, speaking in his role with the U.S. bishops, urged that President Trump consider the ramifications that his order’s implementing regulations will have for “many ordinary Cubans who have taken advantage of new opportunities to support their families.”

He said the president is correct that serious human rights concerns remain.

“The Cuban government must be urged to respect religious freedoms and to extend greater social, political and economic rights to all Cubans,” he said. “The fruits of investment in Cuba should benefit individuals and families, and not the security forces.”

At the same time, Bishop Cantu suggested the president look to Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis helped our nations to come together in dialogue,” Bishop Cantu said. “It is important to continue to promote dialogue and encounter between our neighboring nations and peoples.”

Bishop Cantu is about to depart for a pastoral visit to Cuba at the invitation of the Cuban bishops.

Oregon offers 'third-gender' option on driver's licenses

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 02:06

Portland, Maine, Jun 20, 2017 / 12:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Starting next month, Oregon will be the first state to offer a non-binary option on forms of DMV identification for residents who do not identify as male or female.

Oregon residents will have the option to mark “X” instead of female or male on state IDs, driver’s licenses, and learner’s permits.

The X is for non-binary, meaning the individual identifies as something other than either sex. This may include non-gender or some combination of both sexes.

The state’s Transportation Commission approved the option on Thursday, and it will officially go into effect on July 3. It follows an Oregon judge’s decision last year to recognize an army veteran’s legal change to non-binary sex; the first state in the U.S. to do so.

Jamie Shupe, who won the decision to change recognized genders last June, provoked the state’s transportation department to decide how to officially recognize and record “third-gender” residents.  

Shupe had entered the army as a man and was discharged as a woman, but, according to the Guardian, he claimed to have continued struggling with his identity until he believed he was something other than male or female.

There are nearly 20,000 Oregon residents who recognize themselves as transgender, making it one of the top 10 per capita transgender states in the U.S., according to the Williams Institute, a sexual orientation and gender identity think tank at UCLA law.

Oregon’s new policy has joined it with countries like Germany, Pakistan, India, Australia, and Canada who also offer a “third-gender” option, according to the BBC.

California is close behind with a similar proposed policy, which would not only offer a third binary option on driver’s licenses but birth certificates as well. The bill recently passed California’s senate in May and has been sent to the state assembly.

 

 

US Supreme Court death penalty decision could be victory for due process

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:26

Washington D.C., Jun 19, 2017 / 03:26 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a defendant has a right to a mental health evaluation independent of the prosecution, which could have wide-ranging implications for the justice system.

“This is a very important decision,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNA of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in McWilliams v. Dunn.

“A mental health expert helps the defense investigate mental health defenses in the case,” he explained June 19. “Although most states already routinely provide independent mental health experts for the defense, this decision makes clear that this type of expert has always been required by due process,” he said.

The defendant in the case, James Edmond McWilliams, was convicted in 1985 in Alabama of robbing, raping, and murdering a store clerk. He was sentenced to death the following year.

A three-member “lunacy commission” was organized by the state to evaluate his condition, and they concluded that McWilliams had not been significantly impaired by mental illness at the time of his crime. McWilliams was convicted of capital murder.

Before his sentencing hearing, his defense had requested a mental health expert to conduct neurological and neuropsychological tests, as he had previously suffered serious head trauma.

However, the mental health expert was provided by the state. The neuropsychologist Dr. John Goff concluded that McWilliams had exaggerated his condition but nevertheless showed signs of neuropsychological problems.

However, the results of McWilliams’ evaluation were not given to his lawyers until two days before the sentencing hearing. They reportedly did not receive his mental health records until the day of the hearing.

At the hearing, his lawyers requested more time to review the report and the records, as well as a mental health expert to help interpret those records, but their request was denied by the judge, who promptly sentenced McWilliams to death.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the decision did not manifest the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required for relief in the case, and denied McWilliams’ request for relief.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and sent it back to the circuit court. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion, wrote that Ake v. Oklahoma, a 1985 Supreme Court decision, “does not require just an examination”  of a defendant’s competency.

“Rather, it requires the State to provide the defense with ‘access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate [1] examination and assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the defense’,” he continued.

Alabama failed to meet this standard in McWilliams’ case, he said, as “petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.”

The availability of a mental health expert independent of the prosecution was critical to the case, Dunham argued.

“An independent mental health expert would have been able to explain that McWilliams had brain damage and other serious mental health impairments,” Dunham said, “but without an independent mental health expert, the Alabama trial judge who imposed the sentence found no mitigating evidence at all.”

“It’s not unusual that the prosecution will present a mental health expert or a forensic expert who offers unscientific or even junk science testimony,” he added. “We’ve had dozens of cases where prosecutors have presented junk science testimony about bite marks” or “microscopic hair comparison.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Neil Gorsuch. The question at hand, he argued, was whether the defense is entitled to a mental health expert that it can select.

“We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U. S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the defense,” he wrote.

“The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team,” he stated.

Ultimately, the decision will have wide-ranging effects in the justice system, Dunham said, affecting more inmates than McWilliams.

Two inmates in Arkansas, Bruce Ward and Don Davis, recently received stays of execution based on the outcome of the McWilliams case. Their scheduled executions were two of eight that were planned by the state in the span of 10 days in April, and because of Monday’s decision they now have “an opportunity to get relief,” Dunham said.

Monday’s decision is also significant because the Supreme Court found precedent in the case. Thus, it was able to apply the 1985 Ake decision to McWilliams’ case, which began shortly after that decision was issued.

Dozens of inmates have been executed, Dunham said, because “the courts have not applied the Constitution to their cases.” Now, this precedent can apply to all cases dating back to 1985.

McWilliams’ counsel of record Stephen Bright stated that the decision is ultimately “about fairness.”

“The adversarial process cannot function properly if the prosecution can retain mental health experts, but the defense is not even allowed to consult with an expert,” he stated.

“James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court. He was denied such assistance.”

Immigration in the spotlight with LA Mass, resource website

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:11

Los Angeles, Calif., Jun 19, 2017 / 03:11 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles stressed the importance of unity at a Mass recognizing immigrants, as the archdiocese launched a new website with information and resources on the subject of immigration.

Some 3,000 people attended the Mass in Recognition of All Immigrants, celebrate on June 18, the Feast of Corpus Christi, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

“Let us dedicate ourselves – all of us – to the beautiful promise of America!” the archbishop said in his homily. “Out of many – we can be one! We will be one!”

The Mass marks the end of a novena throughout Los Angeles, as well as the end of a “three-day, 50-mile walking pilgrimage by a group of faithful from Orange County to the Cathedral for all those impacted by the broken immigration system,” according to an archdiocesan press release.

One day following the Mass, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles launched a new bilingual resource website, TheNextAmerica.org (FuturoEstadosUnidos.org). The goal of the website is “to raise awareness, provide resources and share the Christian perspective on immigration.”

The website offers information on the topic of immigration and current laws surrounding the issue, as well as the principles outlined by Archbishop Gomez for comprehensive immigration reform. It also offers opportunities to attend events and workshops, contact lawmakers, present prayer requests and seek immigration help.

The June 18 Mass and subsequent launch of the resource website took place just days after Archbishop Gomez spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the efforts of the immigration working group which he helped direct.

The archbishop spoke in both English and Spanish as he delivered his homily. In addition to the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, he said, “(t)oday, we are also celebrating the immigrant spirit that makes America wonderful.”

Reflecting on immigration in the country, Archbishop Gomez said that “America has always been a beautiful collection of immigrant peoples. And the immigrant spirit is still renewing the soul of America.”

He gave advice for confronting the challenges behind immigration, saying, “In our lives, we need prayer and action. But, as the saints remind us – prayer should always come first.”

“The promise of America is that this land will be a home for all peoples – no matter the color of their skin, or what nation they come from, or what language they speak, or what religion they believe,” he commented on the history of the nation.

He indicated the relics of three saints by the altar – St. Junipero Serra, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, and St. Toribio Romo – and asked for their prayers.

“The saints, my brothers and sisters, are with you and the Church is with you. And our country needs you. America needs your gifts and talents,” he said.

“Out of many, we are one. This is the promise of America.”

Reflecting on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the archbishop noted that “In the Body of Christ, we are no longer strangers. We meet one another as friends.”

“The beautiful mystery of Corpus Christi means that we have a duty to care for others, to show compassion,” he said. “In Jesus Christ, we are one Body. And when one member of the Body is suffering, it means we all suffer.”

“Jesus told us that he would be present in the poor – just as he is present in the Eucharist.”

In closing his remarks, Archbishop Gomez called for prayers for the country’s leaders, and for “peace and security and freedom in our borders.” He invoked the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe to “help us build the next America, and renew the soul of our society.”

After Mass, the relics of the three saints were presented for veneration. The faithful also wrote prayer requests, which will be presented at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on July 8, during the Archdiocesan Pilgrimage with Archbishop Gomez.

 

Don't sideline human rights concerns, advocates tell State Department

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 16:59

Washington D.C., Jun 19, 2017 / 02:59 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As a new administration takes form, human rights advocates have showed concern over a possible de-emphasis on human rights and religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.

“Freedom of religion is the foundational freedom upon which our nation was founded. Because this is a core American value, the U.S. cannot simply ignore the cries of oppressed sufferers abroad,” Dr. Randel Everett, president and founder of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, stated May 23.

“Our foreign policy must reflect this essential component of global security,” he continued.

In a May 3 speech to State Department employees by new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he said that U.S. foreign policy cannot always be contingent on “values” like religious freedom and human rights.  

“Now, I think it’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated,” Tillerson said.

“Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values,” he continued, explaining that “policies can change,” while “our values never change. They’re constant throughout all of this.”

Yet Tillerson went on to say that “in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests.”

The U.S. took a long time to fundamentally adopt these “values,” he added, and cannot expect other countries to adopt them overnight.

“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) responded with a May 8 op-ed in the New York Times, insisting that “we are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it.”

“To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize,” he continued. “Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in.”

Tillerson’s speech was not the only signal from the State Department that concerned human rights advocates.

Back in March, the agency held a somewhat muted release of its annual reports on human rights in foreign countries. Tillerson was not present at a public release of the report, something that reporters pointed out was a break with long-standing precedent.

Instead, the report was discussed in an on-background conference call with reporters by a “senior administration official.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted this in his April statement on the administration’s record in promoting human rights.

“I am concerned at the muted attention the administration has given so far on human rights,” he said, noting “the downplayed release of the State Department’s human rights report.”

“Promoting trade and economic and military cooperation are all essential to America's future – but these mean little if we ignore the people in countries around the world who are suffering at the hands of their own governments and their rights are being abused,” he continued, in a statement made weeks before Tillerson’s May 4 speech.

The concerns come at a time when some are trying to ratchet up international attention on human rights abuses. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for instance, launched its Prisoners of Conscience Project earlier this spring, drawing attention to the plight of those detained, tortured, or killed by foreign governments because of their religious beliefs.

The commission hopes that the project will attract the attention of the public, but also of lawmakers who can ask to visit these prisoners when they travel abroad. “Public inattention can often lead to more persecution,” the commission’s chair, Fr. Thomas Reese, stated at the launch of the project.

Yet religious freedom advocates are also worried about the direction of the State Department. Everett issued a response to Tillerson’s speech on May 23, explaining how important the promotion of international religious freedom is to U.S. national security interests.

“When we disregard the brutality of religious persecution, the world becomes more dangerous for all,” he said.

As an example of this, he pointed out that “fifteen of the nineteen terrorists on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. All were Islamist extremists who believed violence is an acceptable tool to achieve their goals of global adherence to their strict religious laws.”

“Is it a coincidence that these men came from a nation where there is no religious freedom?” he asked.

Not all State Department actions have received criticism from human rights advocates. On April 4, the administration announced it would stop supporting the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its support for China’s coercive two-child policy, which was for years a one-child policy until 2015.

China’s forced family-planning policy has resulted in massive human rights abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations of women. The UNFPA “gave China’s brutally enforced population control policies the international stamp of approval,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House panel on global human rights, stated.

Smith applauded the administration’s decision to stop funding the UNFPA.

“I am heartened by the Trump Administration’s early action to apply Kemp-Kasten and end U.S. support for this most egregious human rights violation,” Smith said of the action. The Kemp-Kasten Amendment allows the President to decide not to fund entities that engage in forced abortions or sterilizations.

Others are trying to inform and push the administration to recognize the importance of religious freedom to U.S. diplomacy. The Religious Freedom Institute released a March report with recommendations for the U.S. government.

“The President should state clearly and often that U.S. IRF policy will be a national security and minority rights priority for his administration,” the report stated.

It also asked the President to nominate an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom soon, and for Congress to support the new ambassador by making sure he or she has the proper resources and staff within the State Department.

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