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Maryland county bans Eucharist in church reopening order

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- An executive order issued Tuesday in Maryland’s Howard County outlines public health rules under which churches may reopen. The order prohibits the distribution and consumption of any food or drink as part of any religious service, effectively outlawing the distribution of Communion and the celebration of the Mass. 

Howard County Executive Order #2020-09 outlines the conditions and regulations that must be met for non-essential businesses--which in Maryland includes churches and other houses of worship--to resume operations. The order was released by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“There shall be no consumption of food or beverage of any kind before, during, or after religious services, including food or beverage that would typically be consumed as part of a religious service,” the order says in a section delineating norms and restrictions on religious services. 

The consumption of the consecrated species at Mass, at least by the celebrant, is an integral part of the Eucharistic rite. Rules prohibiting even the celebrating priest from receiving the Eucharist would ban the licit celebration of Mass by any priest.

The Howard County public affairs office has not yet responded to questions from CNA regarding how the rule aligns with First Amendment religious freedom and free exercise rights.

The executive order also limits attendance at indoor worship spaces to 10 people or fewer, limits outdoor services to 250 socially-distanced people wearing masks, forbids the passing of collection plates, and bans handshakes and physical contact between worshippers. 

 

Beginning at 7am on May 29th, religious institutions may resume services assuming the following guidelines are met. The guidelines refer to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, interfaith centers, and any other space where faith gatherings are held.https://t.co/XE0soDdV3l pic.twitter.com/NieG0MavCv

— Calvin Ball (@HoCoGovExec) May 26, 2020  

In contrast to the 10-person limit for churches, establishments listed in the order that do not host religious services are permitted to operate at 50% capacity. 

The order also states that “singing is permitted, but not recommended,” and that only the person leading the service or a choir may sing. Those who are singing without masks should, per the order, “maintain a 12-foot distance from other persons, including religious leaders, other singers, or the congregation.” 

The sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel contains the well-known “Bread of Life” discourse, in which Jesus teaches at a Capernum synagogue that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Catholics believe that teaching constitutes part of Christ's revelation of the Eucharist.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, whose territory includes Howard County, did not respond to requests for comment on the Howard County executive order by the time of posting.

The archdiocese announced its own phased reopening plans on Tuesday. While some of the policies outlined in the archdiocese’s plans are in line with Executive Order 2020-09, there is no prohibition on the distribution of food or beverages before, after, or during Mass. 

The Archdiocese of Baltimore's reopening plans require that communicants observe social distancing while in line for communion, and is discouraging reception on the tongue--but the archdiocese has not instructed parishes to place any other restrictions on the reception of communion, apart from ordinary canonical norms.

In Phase I of the archdiocese’s reopening plan, churches will be open for private prayer, but Mass will still be celebrated without a congregation. In Phase II, which is expected to begin in some areas the weekend of May 30-31, churches may open to socially-distanced congregations up to one-third of the seating capacity, if local public restrictions permit the attendance of more than 10 people at Mass.

The Department of Justice has recently issued a number of letters concerning cases of state and local public health orders which affect churches and houses of worship. In the last week, the department sent letters to the governors of California and Nevada, emphasizing the need to respect religious freedoms while working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Eric S. Dreiband, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in a May 19 letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom. 

The DOJ has also filed statements of interest in cases involving conflicts between churches and local authorities, including a lawsuit against the Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, after members of the Temple Baptist Church were fined $500 for attending a service in their cars in the church's parking lot. The mayor later rescinded the fines and amended the city’s stay at home order.

LA archdiocese announces reopening plan

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 10:35 am (CNA).- After California relaxed public health restrictions on churches on Monday, the nation’s largest diocese announced its plan on Tuesday to resume public Masses.

In a two-step plan for parishes to reopen and offer the sacraments, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on Tuesday provided a checklist for each parish to observe. The state’s dioceses and archdioceses have all curtailed public Masses since March, but starting June 3 the archdiocese will allow for public Masses.

While Governor Gavin Newsom’s four-step reopening plan for the state had initially placed churches in stage 3 of reopening, that of “higher-risk workplaces,” on Monday the state announced that churches could begin reopening subject to county restrictions. The state is currently in stage 2 of Newsom’s reopening plan, where manufacturing and some retail businesses have been allowed to reopen.

Now, California has allowed churches to open at 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 people.

The state’s Catholic Conference called the new state guidelines “positive, constructive and fundamentally in alignment” with the diocesan reopening plans, and expressed gratitude for being “a part of the consultation.”

Individual dioceses and archdioceses would make the decisions on reopening parishes in consultation with local authorities, the conference said.

“We look forward to collaborating even further with Governor Newsom and our county leaders in the coming weeks to make social distancing the determining criterion for attendance for public worship so that our communities can undertake a pattern of worship that is both sustainable and safe,” their statement read.

For the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, “Step 1” of its reopening plan for parishes allows for silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and individual confessions heard upon request inside a church, with social distancing measures in place.

Churches must be deep cleaned before reopening and cleaned again after each use, and volunteers should be present to open the doors, keep count of the number of those inside the church, usher the faithful to designated seating, and help clean the church.

Parishes can “advance” to Step 2 of the archdiocese’s plan starting June 3, when public Masses, sacraments of initiation, scheduled confessions, and weddings, funerals and quinceañeras can resume. Choirs at Masses will be replaced by a cantor and accompanist, and Holy Communion can be received in the hand only.

For infant baptisms, “[t]he use of the Oil of Catechumens and the ‘Ephphatha’ rite are to be omitted,” the archdiocesan guidelines state.

While the state’s Catholic Conference offered a positive commendation of the state’s reopening plan, one Pentecostal church is still challenging the plan in court, saying it arbitrarily subjects churches to stricter limits than businesses are subject to.

The Thomas More Society, representing South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego, sent a letter to Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Tuesday stating that the state’s reopening plan was still unacceptable for churches.

Justice Kagan handles emergency requests from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to SCOTUSBlog.com.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it certainly doesn’t go far enough for the simple reason that they’re placing arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions on churches that they’re not placing on secular organizations,” attorney Charles LiMandri told CNA on Wednesday.

South Bay church had already filed for an emergency injunction on the state’s order requiring churches to remain closed—Newsom’s original plan that placed churches in “stage 3” of the reopening. The church had asked for relief by Pentecost Sunday, May 31.

Then on Monday, May 25, the state’s health department announced that churches could resume religious services at a maximum of 25% capacity or 100 people.

The allowance is still not acceptable, the church argued in its letter to Kagan, as individual counties can still maintain stricter regulations than the state’s “ceiling” that was announced on Monday.

Furthermore, for larger churches such as South Bay which seats 600 congregants in its sanctuary, the 100-person limit is an “arbitrary cap,” the church argued.

“Some of these churches will seat over 1,000 people, so it makes no sense to have an arbitrary minimum cutoff” of 100 people, LiMandri said.

“They’re not doing that in any other organization or facility,” he added, noting that shopping malls are allowed to open at 50% capacity and warehouse stores like Costco do not have a customer limit.

The state’s allowance for churches is also legally suspect, the Thomas More Society argued, as it did not move churches to stage 2 of the original reopening plan “but has created an entirely new regime to regulate them alone.”

As various federal circuit courts have disagreed on the extent to which states may restrict religious practice during the pandemic, the Thomas More Society asked the Supreme Court to intervene and offer clarity.

“In light of these continued exigencies, it is imperative that states receive consistent and uniform guidance on this matter of utmost importance from Your Honor or the entire Court,” the letter stated.

“The deepening conflict between and among the various Circuit Courts of Appeal has triggered serious uncertainty as to what legal standard applies when citizens consider whether and under what circumstances they may freely exercise their religious faith by attending services at their church, temple, mosque or other place of worship.”

The U.S. Department of Justice warned California in a May 19 letter that it could not single out churches for burdensome restrictions during the pandemic. 

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not,” stated a letter by Eric S. Dreiband, head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, joined by four U.S. attorneys for California.

That letter is one of several recent interventions by the DOJ, warning state and local authorities of the need to respect religious freedoms while making efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus.

On Monday, Nevada U.S. Attorney Nicholas A. Trutanich and U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Deibrand wrote to Governor Steve Sisolak regarding the standing prohibition on gathering of more than 10 people for religious purposes.

"We understand these directives were issued in the midst of an uncertain situation, which may have required quick decisions based on changing information," the DOJ lawyers said. 

"We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against ten or more persons gathering for in person worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally."

The letter asked Sisolak “to balance competing interests and make your best judgments” in drafting guidelines which accommodate both public health and religious freedom concerns.

After leukemia returns, Bishop Murry of Youngstown resigns

CNA Staff, May 27, 2020 / 09:19 am (CNA).- Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, due to a recurrence of leukemia, the diocese has announced. The bishop is 71 years old, four years younger than standard retirement age for bishops.

In April 2018, Bishop Murry was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent a month of intensive chemotherapy treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, and was released in late May of that year. He doctors said he responded well to the treatment, and the leukemia cells had been suppressed, although he would need to return to the clinic weekly for monitoring.

“In July of 2019 he reentered the Cleveland Clinic for a reoccurrence of leukemia. At that time tests confirmed that he was in remission and that doctors were not recommending a bone marrow transplant,” the Diocese of Youngstown said in a statement this week.

“This past April, his leukemia retuned and he resumed treatment. With this third bout of leukemia, his present state of health leaves him less able to fulfill the tasks entrusted to him as bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown,” the statement said.

Following his initial leukemia diagnosis, the bishop stepped down from his role as chair of the U.S. bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, as well as his role as chair of the conference’s Committee on Catholic Education.

Bishop Murry was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1948. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1972, and was ordained to the priesthood seven years later. Murry holds a M.Div. degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, and a Ph.D. in American Cultural History from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He served in administrative roles in two Washington, D.C., high schools, as well as serving as a professor of American Studies at Georgetown University and as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Detroit-Mercy.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago. In 1998, the pope appointed him Coadjutor Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and on June 30, 1999, appointed him bishop of the diocese.

Bishop Murry has led the Youngstown diocese since 2007.

 

Holy water and Super Soakers don't mix, priests say

Denver Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 03:12 am (CNA).- After photos appearing to depict blessings or baptisms by water gun went viral online, several priests cautioned that Catholics should take care to treat sacred objects and rites with a proper sense of reverence.

“Putting holy water into a squirt gun and treating it as if it were a comedy sketch on SNL is treating both the sacrament and the blessed water unworthily,” said Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, assistant professor of canon law at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

He noted that the Catechism teaches that profaning sacred objects or treating them unworthily is a sin – the sin of sacrilege.

Pietrzyk spoke to CNA about a number of photos online appearing to depict priests holding water guns at people, purportedly to meet “social distancing” guidelines during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In one photo, a priest points a water gun at a baby in a baptism gown from several yards away.

The priest, Fr. Stephen Klasek, pastor of two parishes in the diocese of Nashville: St. Mark in Manchester, Tennessee, and Saint Paul the Apostle in nearby Tullahoma, took to Facebook Tuesday to explain his intentions.

Saint Mark Catholic Church said in a Tuesday Facebook post that the photo was intended to be humorous. According to the social media parish’s post, the family had asked the priest to pose for the photo in imitation of similar pictures on the internet. It said the gun did not contain holy water and was not squirted at the baby.

The parish said it felt a need to “clarify the photo that has gone viral as we have been receiving inquiries about it. It has garnered almost a million views in Twitter, has been in the news in several websites and memes. It had good and controversial comments.”

While Klasek’s photo was apparently staged, other photos have also been circulating the internet, including pictures of a priest purporting to bless parishioners with a water gun in Detroit. Fr. Tim Pelc told Buzzfeed News he had shot parishioners with holy water in a water gun as something “for the kids of the parish.”

Pietrzyk cautioned against assuming that the intention in a specific instance was to mock the sacraments. “I think we ought to proceed from the premise that it involves individuals who were attempting to make light of the difficulties of the coronavirus situation,” he told CNA.

Still, the priest said, while the intent may have been lighthearted, the photos raise serious concerns.

Holy water is a sacramental, a material object meant to help us sanctify our lives and dispose us to better receive the graces of the sacraments, he explained. Holy water reminds us of the purifying power of baptism, and of Christ, who referred to himself as living water.

“[B]lessed objects, including holy water, should be treated with respect and reverence as things set aside to build up the life of faith,” Pietrzyk said.

Fr. Daniel Cardo, who holds the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, noted that there is a liturgical instrument specifically intended for the sprinkling of water - the aspergilium – which is used during the Easter Season and in other ceremonies when holy water is sprinkled.

“We do this all the time. We bless people at a distance with holy water. We have a beautiful thing that we can use [the aspergilium]. We don’t need toys to do that,” he told CNA.

Both Cardo and Pietrzyk suggested that an actual baptism performed with a water gun would be illicit.

But even a staged photo raises the possibility of the sin of scandal, which the Church defines as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” Pietrzyk said.

Staging such a photo, he said, may lead others “to treat the things of God and of Divine Worship as mere objects of derision, stripping them of their sacral import and infusing them with a sense of the slap-stick.”

“It especially leads non-believers into concluding that people of faith do not take their beliefs seriously and, in extreme cases, can lead people to conclude that the priests involved think that such acts of religion are no more than superstitious nonsense.”

Cardo agreed. He said the photo, while perhaps intended to be funny, could lead to confusion about the Sacrament of Baptism and how it is conducted.

“There is definitely a risk of trivializing” the sacrament, he said, and of undermining the sacredness of the rite that the Church views as opening the door to eternal life.

Ultimately, Cardo said, it is a question of whether we believe what the Church professes about holy water – and what it means to act accordingly.

“Do we believe that this water that has been blessed is actually different than what it was before? In other words, do we believe that through the prayers instituted by the Church, that water is not the same – there is something that changed in that water, that therefore makes it capable of doing something in the object or person that receives it?”

If so, he said, “then the consequence of treating that water with the utmost love and devotion and respect would be the most natural thing.”

Research aims to quantify and explain drop in US religiosity

CNA Staff, May 27, 2020 / 12:09 am (CNA).- The current drop in the number of people in the United States identifying with a religion may not be permanent, but it is in some ways unprecedented, according to a new research study aiming to quantify the drop in religiosity the United States has experienced over the past several decades.

“Fewer people claim to be or identify as part of a religious community of any kind,” researcher Lyman Stone wrote in an April 2020 study by the American Enterprise Institute.

“From 95 percent or higher just after World War II to around 75 percent today, there has been a seismic change in Americans’ self-identified religiosity.”

For the past 50 years or so, religious membership has been in a decline “striking in its speed and uniformity across different measures of religiosity,” he said.

One of the biggest factors on decreasing religiosity has been secularized, public education, Stone argued.

“The decline in religiosity in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past,” he said.

Stone argued that the present decline in the percentage of “religious” people in the U.S. is not all that different in pace and severity from the decline experienced post-1700— around the time period identified as The Enlightenment, when many anti-religious ideas started to gain traction in Europe and elsewhere. 

Despite the decline in numbers, the total number of religious adherents in what would become the United States actually increased post-1700— thanks largely to massive population growth— even as the share of the population declined.

Today, in contrast, the total number of “religious” people in the U.S. as a share of the population has remained flat since 2005. Just 35% of the population attends religious services weekly— nevertheless, a high percentage compared to most countries in Europe.

After that post-1700 decline, religiosity in the U.S. “rose persistently” between 1776 and the mid-20th century.

The Second Great Awakening, a wave of religious revivalism generally dated between 1790 and 1830, however, did see growth in membership, Stone wrote.

Church membership also rose between the 1850s and 1940s, thanks in large part to immigration. Data from 1906 show that at least a quarter of religious people were worshipping in languages other than English— not counting Latin— at least occasionally.

According to membership data, Stone wrote, religiosity in America peaked sometime between 1940 and 1970, with religious membership rising dramatically during and after World War II in particular. By 1960, half of all Americans attended religious services weekly.

In his research, Stone highlighted the importance of distinguishing between religious membership— or even religious attendance— and religious belief. He warns that church attendance is not the best predictor of “religiosity.”

Although over 80% of Americans will say they believe in God, only a third will actually attend church, he said.

Similarly, though not a large number of people regularly went to church before 1930, almost all would say they believed in God, Stone argued.

Stone also pointed out that church membership— the kind that is officially recorded— also is not always the best predictor of “religiosity,” though it is helpful to observe as a “minimum level of behavior.”

“A person baptized, married, and eulogized in a church is properly counted as part of a religious community, but nonetheless their experience of religion is different than someone who attends every week,” Stone noted.

Stone pointed to several U.S. policy decisions that he believes have had an effect on the post-1960 decline in church attendance.

Among the policies he identified are Blaine Amendments, which grew out of 19th-century anti-Catholic sentiment and sought to prohibit direct government aid to religious schools. Today, 39 states formally restrict using any taxpayer money for religious instruction.

It was not until the mid-20th century that public education began to become as thoroughly secularized as it is today, Stone said. The rise of secular, public schools and the decline of religious schools in the U.S. meant that students who attended public schools after the 1940s “spent much of their life in schools that were far more secularized, and these are the generations during which religiosity has declined.”

Changing family dynamics, including an increase in the average age of marriage, also have had an effect on religiosity, Stone said.

He contended that a greater emphasis on higher education— which takes years to complete— has led to more people delaying marriage or choosing not to get married at all, meaning they are less likely to form religious habits such as attending church.

Additionally, a rise in interfaith marriages plays a role, Stone said. The children of interfaith marriages are less likely to adhere to either of their parents’ religions, or any religion, than children whose parents share the same religion.

 

Briefing shows ACLU has abandoned religious freedom for 'culture wars,' critic says

Denver Newsroom, May 26, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- Longtime critics of religious freedom protections, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, have formed a partnership to oppose the Trump administration policies and actions that aim to protect several Catholic institutions.

But for Matthew Franck, a Princeton University politics lecturer and senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, this course will advance conflict and coercion, not freedom.

“The American Civil Liberties Union used to take an active interest in protecting everyone’s religious freedom, as well as the other protections of the Bill of Rights. But no longer,” Franck told CNA May 26. “In the culture wars generated by the sexual revolution, the ACLU now ranges itself against the constitutional right of religious freedom and on the side of coercion.”

Franck said the ACLU is supporting claims to civil rights not grounded in the U.S. Constitution. When those claims come into conflict with the religious freedom of individuals, religious associations, religious schools and religious charities, he suggested, the result is sometimes government coercion.

Those claims include “women seeking employer-provided contraceptives and abortifacients, or same-sex couples that want to compel church-sponsored adoption agencies to place children with them, or gay teachers who marry their partners and want to keep on working for Catholic schools that consider their teachers bound by the Church’s moral teachings, or same-sex couples who want a Christian baker to make them a custom wedding cake,” Franck said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress have launched a joint project, with material titled “Connecting the Dots.” The ACLU produced a legal briefing while the Center for American Progress released a short video May 19 linking to the briefing.

The advocacy is the product of a partnership between the two groups and the Movement Advancement Project, a strategic communications and development organization in LGBT advocacy founded by the influential millionaire Tim Gill.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value—but that freedom does not give institutions or individuals the right to harm others,” the Center for American Progress said May 19. “Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, his administration has expanded religious exemptions in an attempt to gut civil rights protections and codify discrimination against people of minority faiths, women, and people who are LGBTQ.”

The ACLU’s May 2020 briefing paper “Connecting the Dots,” argued that the Trump administration was working to “create a license to discriminate across the country.”

“In the name of religious liberty, Trump and his allies have pursued a strategy to legalize discrimination based on religion and sex — including sexual orientation and gender identity — and other personal characteristics,” the briefing said.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value, so fundamental that it is protected by the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution. But that freedom does not give institutions or individuals the right to harm others, including by discriminating and especially with taxpayer dollars,” it continued.

The ACLU said that the Trump administration authorized or expanded religious exemptions “that enable institutions, businesses, and individuals to refuse to comply with laws they assert interfere with their religious beliefs.” Such laws, in the legal group’s view, include non-discrimination laws, health care laws, and adoption and foster care laws.

For his part, Franck rejected the legal group’s claims.

“What the ACLU calls ’discrimination’ is not, under federal statutes as currently interpreted, unlawful,” Franck told CNA. “That may change if the Supreme Court willfully misreads Title VII in two pending cases. But whatever happens in these cases, the fact that the ACLU and the Center for American Progress call the defense of personal and institutional conscience an ’abuse’ of the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment says more about those organizations’ abandonment of the traditions of American freedom than it does about the Trump administration.”

“The Obama administration, sadly, ’normalized’ all these attacks on religious freedom as administration policies. The Trump administration deserves credit for working to reverse such policies,” Franck said.

Several topics in the ACLU briefing concern cases where Catholic institutions are involved.

The legal group opposed accommodations for employers with religious or moral objections to providing health care plans that cover contraception, including drugs that can cause abortion. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious congregation that provides care for the indigent elderly, are still tied up in court over the coverage mandate, which dates back to the middle of the Obama administration.

The briefing objected to the Trump administration’s September 2019 statement of interest in a fired high school teacher’s lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The archdiocese had ruled that the teacher violated archdiocesan policy and Catholic teaching by contracting a same-sex civil marriage and said that the Catholic high school must terminate his job to maintain its Catholic affiliation.

The ACLU characterized the Trump administration’s action as “arguing against employees who are fired for being gay.”

Regarding a California legal case against a Sacramento-area Catholic hospital, the ACLU briefing claims its client, Evan Minton, was “turned away from a religious hospital for being transgender.”

Minton, who presents as a transgender man, filed a lawsuit against the Dignity Health Catholic health system after a Catholic hospital refused to perform a planned elective hysterectomy. Health system officials arranged for Minton to be transferred to a hospital not affiliated with Catholicism. In September 2019, a California court allowed Minton’s lawsuit to proceed, overturning a lower court’s decision that the transfer of Milton was sufficient to avoid charges under state anti-discrimination law.

“Catholic hospitals do not perform sterilizing procedures such as hysterectomies for any patient regardless of their gender identity, unless there is a serious threat to the life or health of the patient,” Dignity Health said in September 2019.

A 2016 letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services signed by the general counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with other groups, affirmed that the denial of surgery to someone seeking to change their gender would not be discriminatory. The letter rejected claims that it is discriminatory to decline to perform a mastectomy or a hysterectomy on a healthy woman who is “seeking to have the appearance of a man.”

The ACLU’s briefing criticized the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services, and objected that this new division is better funded than divisions related to information privacy and civil rights.

The legal group objected to religious freedom protections for prospective foster and adoptive parents and for adoption agencies that receive federal funds. Several Catholic and other Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close by law or by denial of funds because they could not in good conscience place children with same-sex couples.

The ACLU also objected to the Trump administration’s amicus brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case. The case concerned a Colorado bakery that declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony on the grounds of religious objections. The briefing charged that the Trump administration argued “on behalf of a business’ right to discriminate.”

The briefing claimed the Trump administration required departments and agencies to implement “a distorted interpretation of religious liberty” that in the ACLU’s view excessively favors religious claims. It criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to implement federal guidance, claiming this could “open the door to widespread discrimination in employment and government-funded services.” The ACLU said the government has denied requests seeking to determine who is on the task force.

The May 2019 action of the Housing and Urban Development on gender identity also drew criticism from the ACLU. The group said this action this allows shelters “to exclude transgender and gender nonconforming people from appropriate shelters, including on the basis of the shelter’s religious beliefs.” The group said that self-identified transgender women should be able to have shelter that “conforms with their gender identity.”

The Department of Labor’s rules allowing religious associations to obtain federal contracts also drew criticism, as did a May 2018 executive order allowing faith-based and community organizations to receive federal funds in grants, contracts and program funding “to the fullest opportunity permitted by law.”

The ACLU, the Center for American Progress, and the Movement Advancement Project are part of a multi-million dollar social and political change advocacy network aiming to limit religious freedom protections. Major funders of this network include the Ford Foundation, the Proteus Fund, and the Arcus Foundation. The Arcus Foundation, founded by billionaire Jon Stryker, also funds Christian groups which reject traditional Christian teaching on LGBT issues and abortion.

The Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta, a former chief-of-staff for President Bill Clinton and campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential run. In 2016, Podesta drew attention after leaked emails implied he had backed several political Catholic groups for a “Catholic Spring” revolt against the bishops.

 

COVID relief efforts should remember the poor, bishop says

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 03:52 pm (CNA).- As Congress considers additional COVID relief efforts in the coming weeks, it should focus especially on the needs of the poor and vulnerable, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“As Congress turns once more to considering additional relief related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus should be on those most in need - the poor, the vulnerable, and people on the margins - to offer them some hope and assistance in desperate circumstances,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City in a May 22 statement.

As many states begin the process of reopening following widespread quarantine restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, members of Congress have discussed the possibility of an additional COVID-19 relief bill, although details of a potential bill are not yet clear.

Since March, the U.S. bishops have advocated for bills that would help the poor and unemployed with food security, affordable health care, housing, and education. They have also pushed for assistance to migrants, protections for the unborn, efforts to address ethnic disparities in health outcomes, the well-being of the incarcerated, debt relief, and support for charities during the pandemic.

“Additional needs have emerged such as sufficient protective equipment for all essential workers, protection of familial well-being and integrity, additional research on the link between air pollution and coronavirus health outcomes, and the need to address disruptions to the food supply chain and its impact on farmers and farmworkers, food waste and public health,” Coakley said.

The archbishop welcomed the Vatican’s new commission on COVID-19, which was created by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The commission is made up of the dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal Peter Turkson; secretary, Mons. Bruno-Marie Duffé; and adjunct secretary, Fr. Augusto Zampini.

The Vatican COVID-19 Commission will analyze the virus’ potential socio-economic-cultural impact and propose appropriate solutions for the future. According to the dicastery’s website, it will focus on five major points: “acting now for the future; looking to the future with creativity; communicating hope; seeking common dialogue and reflections; and supporting to care.”

Coakley echoed the words of Pope Francis, who on Easter Sunday prayed for the gift of hope and encouraged solidarity in the face of this crisis.

“Let us proceed in this hope, asking the Lord for wisdom on how best to respond, drawing close to our brothers and sisters in need, and finding our peace in the Lord’s promise to be with us ‘until the end of the age,’” Coakley said.

 

Minnesota bishops: Death of black man in police custody a ‘tragedy’

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 26, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The Minnesota Catholic Conference on Tuesday called the death of a black man while he was in police custody a “tragedy,” and welcomed an investigation.

A video circulated online on Tuesday of a May 25 arrest in Minneapolis. In the video an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department can be seen kneeling on the neck of a man laying on the street as he is taken into custody. The man was later identified as George Floyd.

“I cannot breathe,” Floyd said multiple times, groaning as the knee of a police officer was on his neck. A second police officer stood by watching.

The video appears to skip several minutes to a later shot, where Floyd’s eyes appear closed and onlookers exclaim that he was not moving and shouted at the officers to “get off of his neck.”

According to the Minneapolis Police Department’s account of the arrest, officers had handcuffed Floyd and “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” They called for an ambulance, and Floyd was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center “where he died a short time later.”

The state’s Catholic conference, which speaks on behalf of the bishops of Minnesota’s six dioceses, called Floyd’s death “a tragedy” and welcomed an investigation.

“This is a tragedy. It is good that state and federal investigators are already looking into the incident to determine what happened,” stated Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

“People need to feel safe in their communities and have trust in law enforcement, who should exercise their power in a spirit of service,” Adkins said. “If there was misconduct, hopefully justice will be done.”

According to the police department, officers had initially responded to a “forgery in progress” on the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South.

“Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence,” the department said.

When officers arrived on the scene, the department said that Floyd was ordered “to step from his car,” and physically resisted arrest once he got out of his car; the officers handcuffed him and then noted “he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

Both the FBI and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will be investigating the incident.

Minneapolis police authorities announced Tuesday afternoon that four officers were fired in response to the incident. There is not yet indication of whether the officers could face charges.

The mayor of St. Paul called the video “one of the most vile and heartbreaking images I’ve ever seen,” and that both officers “must be held fully accountable. This must stop now.”

 

This story is developing and has been updated.

Priest says water gun 'baptism' photo meant to be 'funny'

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 12:55 pm (CNA).- The Tennessee priest in a now-viral photograph that seemed to depict a baptism by water gun has told parishioners that the photo was staged, and was meant to be funny.

“This is what Fr. Steve said about this: 1) The family had requested for him to do this pose as copied from several posts of priests circulating around the internet. He agreed because he thought it was funny. 2) The water in the water gun is not holy water and was squirted towards the dad and not the baby for humor impact,” explained Saint Mark Catholic Church of Manchester, Tennessee in a Facebook post Tuesday.

“Bottom line, it was meant to be for fun,” the parish post added.

The priest in the photo is Fr. Stephen Klasek, who is pastor of two parishes: St. Mark, and Saint Paul the Apostle in nearby Tullahoma. Klasek, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, has been ordained 37 years.

The parish indicated it was posting to "clarify the photo that has gone viral as we have been receiving inquiries about it. It has garnered almost a million views in Twitter, has been in the news in several websites and memes. It had good and controversial comments.”

While Klasek’s photo was apparently staged, photos of a priest purporting to bless parishioners with a water gun in Detroit went viral earlier this month. Fr. Tim Pelc told Buzzfeed News he had shot parishioners with holy water in a water gun as something “for the kids of the parish.”

Klasek's photo spread like wildfire over social media this weekend. While some praised it, others criticized the photo, suggesting it seemed to make light of the solemnity of baptism or trivialize priestly ministry.

The Diocese of Nashville has not yet responded to questions from CNA regarding Klasek’s staged photo.

 

California churches can reopen at 25% capacity

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Churches in California can begin holding services again at a limited capacity, the state announced on Monday.

The California health department ruled that, subject to the approval of local authorities, churches in the state can begin reopening along with in-store retail shopping. The state had originally placed churches in a later reopening stage than some businesses which have already begun reopening.

Under the new 21-day policy, houses of worship can hold religious services at up to 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 attendees.

Churches have to implement virus prevention plans, recommend face coverings, set social distancing guidance, and “consider eliminating singing and group recitations.” Any singing or recitations “should be conducted outside,” the department said.

After 21 days, the state health department will reassess the policy, which is still subject to the approval of county health departments. According to KGO local news, some counties have progressed to later stages of reopening than others.

The state’s Catholic conference tweeted on Monday that the announcement was “welcome news,” asking Catholics to “continue to be careful and considerate” and to consult their diocese on reopening plans as “not all will be the same.”

The conference told CNA on May 14 that “the dioceses are working with all possible speed” to formulate their own plans and “working to match local conditions,” consulting with local authorities on how to safely reopen churches as the situation of the virus varied by county.

California remains in stage 2 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) four-stage reopening plan, where manufacturing, logistics, and some retail businesses are being allowed to reopen with some restrictions.

Churches were initially listed in stage 3 of the reopening plan, a later phase reserved for “higher-risk workplaces.”

The Thomas More Society had filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of a Pentecostal church in San Diego, saying that the state had violated First Amendment freedoms by forcing churches to remain closed while allowing some businesses to reopen during the pandemic. The church had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in its case.

Federal guidance for the resumption of in-person religious services was published on Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), after President Trump called on state governors to allow churches to reopen “right now.”

Public Masses in Californian dioceses have been suspended since March. In recent days, some of the state’s bishops had said that plans were underway to eventually resume public Masses.

On May 12, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced that he and other bishops had consulted with local leaders about safely resuming public Masses. Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said on May 20 that “My brother priests and I are preparing to resume the public celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass.” 

On May 23, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said he was “working really hard” with state and local officials “to help them to understand what is the importance of the presence of God in our lives and how beautiful it is for us to come to church,” and that “I think the officials are, little by little, understanding better what is that urgent reality.