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ACI Prensa's latest initiative is the Catholic News Agency (CNA), aimed at serving the English-speaking Catholic audience. ACI Prensa (www.aciprensa.com) is currently the largest provider of Catholic news in Spanish and Portuguese.
Updated: 1 hour 56 min ago

Maryland county drops second order to keep Catholic schools closed

Fri, 08/07/2020 - 16:15

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 02:15 pm (CNA).- Catholic schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, can reopen for the coming semester after the county rescinded a second controversial order preventing all non-public schools from welcoming students for in-person learning until at least October 1. 

“Reemphasizing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents as well as parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today announced that he has rescinded his health order that prohibited nonpublic schools from opening for in-person instruction until after Oct. 1, 2020,” said a statement from the county published on August 7. 

An updated executive order published on August 7 rescinds the earlier order, although it “strongly advises schools against in-person learning.” 

Gayles said that he “strongly believes that based on the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.” 

The executive order also requests that the Maryland Department of Health provide “articulable criteria” that would be used to determine if a school should be having in-person learning. 

The order was rescinded by Gayles after a Thursday memorandum from the Maryland Department of Health banning the blanket closure of all non-public schools in a county. 

“At this time, it is the health policy of the State of Maryland that non-public schools not be closed in a blanket manner,” said the Department of Health’s memorandum.

“The State of Maryland’s position is that all schools, including public school systems and non-public schools, be provided with the individualized opportunity to determine how they are able to comply with the federal and state COVID-19 guidance to reopen safely and protect students and staff,” said the department memo. 

“Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance,” they added. 

The developments of August 7 cap off a week of controversy regarding the safety of opening non-public schools in Montgomery County, the most populated county in Maryland.  

On the evening of July 31, Gayles issued an order banning non-public schools from reopening for inperson tuition before Oct. 1, carrying a punishment of a $5,000 fine or a year in jail for failure to comply. This order came as a surprise to non-public schools in the county, many of whom had already invested in safe reopening plans in accordance with state guidelines. 

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) dismissed the blanket ban on reopening on Monday, August 2, saying that non-public schools should have the same opportunities afforded to public schools in choosing whether or not to open for in-person classes. 

Montgomery County Public Schools were never ordered to have virtual-only learning, and initially planned on having a hybrid model of in-person and online classes. Those plans were scrapped in late July, following pushback from teachers unions throughout the state. Montgomery County Public Schools will be online-only until January 31, the entirety of the first semester. 

Since the announcement to online-only learning, Montgomery County Public Schools have seen steep declines in new student registration as parents have opted for non-public schools or homeschool programs. 

Six Montgomery County families, including four Catholic school families, who were joined by two Catholic schools, filed a federal lawsuit against the county for the forced school closures. 

Despite Hogan’s intervention, on August 5 Gayles once again issued an executive order saying non-public schools must remain closed to in-person classes until October 1. Unlike the previous executive order, non-public daycares and preschools were exempted, and would have been permitted to operate. Additionally, the previous punishments of $5,000 and up to a year in jail were no longer included in the order, which carried no enforcement mechanism. 

The August 7 order goes into effect immediately, and notes that there have been no binding metrics put forward by the state for the safe reopening of schools. Many leading epidemiologists have pointed to a positivity rate of 5% as a standard to be met to shift to in-person learning. The second-largest teacher’s union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers, also is in favor of reopening schools in areas with a sub-5% positivity rate. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that every school in New York would be permitted to re-open in the fall as positivity rates in every state region had dropped below the 5% benchmark and stayed below that level for a set period. Individual districts will have to submit approved reopening safety plans, but they can in theory have in-person classes.  

Montgomery County’s three-day average positivity rate has been below 5% since July 16. It has been declining for 14 days. This drop in positivity has come amid increases in testing.

Help Catholic schools to help at-risk families, US bishops tell Congress

Fri, 08/07/2020 - 12:30

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Several leading U.S. Catholic cardinals and bishops urged congressional leaders to provide emergency private school tuition aid to low-middle income families, in a letter on Thursday.  

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, signed the letter to House and Senate leaders, along with USCCB education chair Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland.

They argued that many Catholic schools which serve low-income families are at risk of closing due to economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“The economic devastation that has hit so many of America’s families has made it impossible for many struggling families to continue paying tuition,” they wrote, adding that school closures in urban areas “are disproportionately harmful to low-income and black children” who attend.

Other U.S. metropolitans with large Catholic school districts signed on to the letter, including Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

They addressed the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Congressional and White House leaders are currently in the middle of negotiations on another coronavirus relief package. Associated Press reported on Wednesday that parties were still debating provisions for food stamps, and renters and jobless assistance.

On Thursday, the bishops said that education aid in the relief package should be “robust,” and should grant “equal consideration” to private school children.

Economic shock from the pandemic has already resulted in the closure of 140 Catholic schools around the country, the bishops said, and with many schools unable to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, there could be a resulting drop in tuition revenue and the closure of more schools.

The Boston archdiocese superintendent told NPR recently that nine of its Catholic schools would be closing, and that 24 more schools were on a “watch list.” The New York archdiocese announced in July that 20 schools would close and three would merge, due to the pandemic.

The bishops asked that non-public schools receive 10% of the emergency education aid given to public schools, noting that emergency tuition scholarships would be “the most effective way to help struggling families stay attached to their schools.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced in July that schools would be reopening in the fall, but then a state public health order required all schools in certain high-risk districts to remain closed for in-person learning. Archdiocesan schools in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties are set to begin the school year with virtual learning.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), there are currently more than 1.7 million students enrolled at 6,183 Catholic schools this year; more that 21% of the students are racial minorities, NCEA says, and 19% are non-Catholic.

“By equally supporting children in the non-public school community, you will maintain the integrity of those strong communities, while helping sustain the positive legacy of Catholic schools and their benefit to the common good for generations to come,” the bishops’ letter said.

Christmas comes early in Indiana with nativity scene court case

Fri, 08/07/2020 - 12:00

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- An Indiana town is defending its Christmas display in court this summer, after a traveller through the area claimed she was offended by the sight of a nativity scene on public land in 2018. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on August 3, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said that a Supreme Court ruling last year meant the display should stay.

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association purchased a light-up nativity scene in 2003 and began to display it in front of the Jackson County Courthouse during Christmastime. The display is part of a town-wide “Hometown Christmas” event that is sponsored in part by several local businesses, including the Brownstown Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson County Historical Center, and the town’s McDonald’s. 

In 2018, Jackson County was sued by a woman who was traveling through the town, spotted the nativity scene, and claimed she was offended by its presence and that its location amounted to the promotion of Christianity by the county. The nativity scene features both religious and secular figures, including the Holy Family, Santa Claus, and reindeer. 

“The annual nativity isn’t just a beloved holiday tradition, it’s a symbol of unity and God’s ‘goodwill to all men’ during the Christmas season,” Doug Pogue, president of the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association was quoted saying in a press release.

“In a time of such fear and uncertainty in our country, it’s heartbreaking to think that our town could lose this important symbol of hope,” said Pogue. 

On May 1 this year, Judge Tanya Wilton Pratt of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against the county in the case Woodring v. Jackson County and said that the nativity scene was an unconstitutional display. The county has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Becket, which is representing the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association, disagrees, and noted in the brief that the Supreme Court had regularly permitted religious-themed monuments on public land. 

In June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that a war memorial containing a cross was constitutional, even though it was on publicly-maintained land. In that case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the court ruled 7-2 that the Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and could remain on public land and be maintained by public funds.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that “a government that roams the land tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

“The Supreme Court has already protected religion in the public square,” Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket told CNA in a statement Wednesday. “This is a no brainer. The Seventh Circuit should follow suit and protect this nativity scene.”

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