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US bishops: Equality Act will hurt more than help

Washington D.C., Mar 20, 2019 / 02:16 pm (CNA).- In a March 20 letter to members of the U.S. Senate, three bishops warned that while the proposed Equality Act purports to address issues of discrimination, it would actually create new problems and threaten fundamental freedoms.

“This proposed legislation does not accomplish what its supporters assert, but rather creates new difficulties and will hurt more people than its designers want to help,” the bishops said, urging Senators to oppose the bill.

The Equality Act, reintroduced in Congress this month, would add anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing protections for race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion.

It would apply not just to employment, but other areas like housing, jury duty, credit, and education, as well as at retail stores, emergency shelters, banks, transit and pharmacies, among others. It would also specify facility access for self-identified transgender persons, such as access to male and female bathrooms.

David Cicilline, D-R.I., is the bill’s main sponsor in the House, NBC News reports. As of March 13, the bill had 239 co-sponsors in the House.

The March letter to the U.S. Senate was signed by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, head of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“As a nation we have a laudable history of confronting and overcoming unjust discrimination and attempting to balance the rights of various groups,” the bishops said.

“As Catholics, we share in this work of justice. It is our firm belief that each and every person should be treated with dignity and respect,” including the right to gainful employment with discrimination and the right to services necessary to maintain health and safety, they said. “In this, we whole-heartedly support nondiscrimination to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected.”

But instead of providing these protections, the Equality Act would create broad regulations that would harm society, they warned.

“The Act’s definitions alone would remove women and girls from protected legal existence. Furthermore, the Act also fails to recognize the difference between the person – who has dignity and is entitled to recognition of it – and the actions of a person, which have ethical and social ramifications. Conflating the two will introduce a plethora of further legal complications.”

The legislation would threaten the right to free speech, conscience and exercise of religion by making illegal certain beliefs about the human person - held by many individuals and groups, the bishops said. It would particularly threaten religious freedom, a foundational principle of the American founding, by exempting itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a move that the bishops noted is “unprecedented.”

Also dangerous, they said, is the lack of criteria for “gender identity,” which could open the door for abuses in restrooms and locker rooms.

“This risk arises not so much from those who experience gender incongruence, but from others who would take malicious advantage of open-door policies in these private spaces,” they stated.

The Equality Act would also put many charitable organizations at risk, requiring that homeless shelters place biological men with vulnerable women and adoption agencies place children with same-sex couples, even if this violates their beliefs and the birth mother’s wishes, the bishops said.

“The resulting closures of such charitable services would be unconscionable – especially when the opioid crisis is leaving more and more children in need of foster care.”

The legislation could threaten professionals in the wedding industry, such as cake bakers, photographers, and florists, who will serve all customers but cannot express messages to which they object. It would require health professionals to provide “gender transition” treatments and surgeries in violation of their medical and ethical judgments.

“Given all of these effects, we strongly oppose the Equality Act and respectfully urge you to oppose it as well,” the bishops wrote to the Senate. “We pray that wisdom will inform your deliberations on these matters and we readily stand with you, and are willing to assist you, in developing compassionate and just means to eradicate unjust discrimination and harassment from our country.”

Colombian diocese has served 1 million meals to Venezuelan migrants

Cucuta, Colombia, Mar 20, 2019 / 12:11 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Cúcuta in Colombia reported this week that it has provided 1 million meals to Venezuelan migrants affected by the humanitarian crisis in their country.

In a statement released March 18, the diocese thanked the volunteers and donors who since June 5, 2017, have provided support to those affected by the emergency at the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

“As the Holy Father Francis has well reminded us, the Church is like a field hospital where wounded people come seeking the goodness and closeness of God,” Bishop Víctor Manuel Ochoa Cadavid said in the statement.

Since Nicolas Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 2013, the country has been marred by violence and social upheaval. Under the socialist government, the country has seen hyperinflation and severe shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, and millions have emigrated.

Currently, thousands of Venezuelan citizens live on the remittances that relatives send them from abroad. However, only a maximum of 6,000 bolivars a day can be withdrawn from the bank, the equivalent of about $2.00.

Colombia has been a major destination for Venezuelans fleeing their home.

The Diocese of Cúcuta is serving the migrants through the Divine Providence House of Transit in addition to eight parish soup kitchens.

Speaking on RCN Radio March 19, Fr. David Cañas, the coordinator of the Divine Providence House, said that between 3,800 and 4,200 people arrive daily, starting very early, in search of food.

“Previously between 3,000 and 3,500 used to come (…) despite the blockades on the international bridges” that join Colombia and Venezuela, the priest said.

Bishop Ochoa voiced gratitude for “the 800 Catholic volunteers, men and women religious, priests and deacons, donors, coordinated by Fr. José David Caña Pérez, [who] make it possible for the Diocese of Cúcuta to become a prophetic witness of the charity of the Church.”

“The Lord in his infinite goodness blesses the families of Cucuta through the generosity and availability which they have had since the beginning of the border crisis in order to serve their neighbor with love,” he said.

He also thanked the institutions that have donated food, money, and resources to make the program possible: the World Food Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Caritas International, Adveniat, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On March 19, in a meeting with migrants and volunteers at the Divine Providence House, Bishop Ochoa praised the 800 volunteers who have given their time to serve those in need.

“It’s the work of the Catholic Church…it’s the work of the Church for the beloved people of Venezuela… we ask you to pray for the people that help us help others.”

Blessed John of Parma

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Blessed John of Parma

Saint of the Day for March 21

(1209–1289)

 

Blessed John of Parma’s Story

The seventh general minister of the Franciscan Order, John was known for his attempts to bring back the earlier spirit of the Order after the death of Saint Francis of Assisi.

He was born in Parma, Italy, in 1209. It was when he was a young philosophy professor known for his piety and learning that God called him to bid good-bye to the world he was used to and enter the new world of the Franciscan Order. After his profession, John was sent to Paris to complete his theological studies. Ordained to the priesthood, he was appointed to teach theology at Bologna, then Naples, and finally Rome.

In 1245, Pope Innocent IV called a general council in the city of Lyons, France. Crescentius, the Franciscan minister general at the time, was ailing and unable to attend. In his place he sent Friar John, who made a deep impression on the Church leaders gathered there. Two years later, when the same pope presided at the election of a minister general of the Franciscans, he remembered Friar John well and held him up as the man best qualified for the office.

And so in 1247, John of Parma was elected to be minister general. The surviving disciples of St. Francis rejoiced in his election, expecting a return to the spirit of poverty and humility of the early days of the Order. And they were not disappointed. As general of the Order, John traveled on foot, accompanied by one or two companions, to practically all of the Franciscan convents in existence. Sometimes he would arrive and not be recognized, remaining there for a number of days to test the true spirit of the brothers.

The pope called on John to serve as legate to Constantinople, where he was most successful in winning back the schismatic Greeks. Upon his return, he asked that someone else take his place to govern the Order. At John’s urging, Saint Bonaventure was chosen to succeed him. John took up a life of prayer in the hermitage at Greccio.

Many years later, John learned that the Greeks who had been reconciled with the Church for a time, had relapsed into schism. Though 80 years old by then, John received permission from Pope Nicholas IV to return to the East in an effort to restore unity once again. On his way, John fell sick and died.

He was beatified in 1781.


Reflection

In the 13th century, people in their 30s were middle-aged; hardly anyone lived to the ripe old age of 80. John did, but he didn’t ease into retirement. Instead he was on his way to try to heal a schism in the Church when he died. Our society today boasts a lot of folks in their later decades. Like John, many of them lead active lives. But some aren’t so fortunate. Weakness or ill health keeps them confined and lonely—waiting to hear from us.


The Liturgical Feast Day for Blessed John of Parma is March 20.


Ave Maria MF SAINT PAGE FOOTER Mar 15-21

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'Living Lent': Thursday of the Second Week of Lent - Day 16

PRAY: "Such a one is like a tree planted near streams; it bears fruit in season and its leaves never wither, and every project succeeds." (Psalm 1:3)

Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi before the Blessed Sacrament: Prayer of the Day for Thursday, March 21, 2019

We adore You, O Lord Jesus Christ, in this Church and all the Churches of the world, and we bless You, because, by Your holy Cross You have redeemed ...

Daily Readings for Thursday, March 21, 2019

Reading 1: Jeremiah 17:5-10, Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 1:1-6, Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Amid continued Midwest flooding, Catholic groups step up to help

Omaha, Neb., Mar 20, 2019 / 05:06 am (CNA).- As devastating flood waters continue to rise in parts of the Midwest, Catholics are working to raise funds for both short-term aid and long-term rebuilding efforts.

“Please join Archbishop [George] Lucas in praying for all those displaced or otherwise affected by the ongoing flooding,” said the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.

A special collection in Omaha this weekend will help fund recovery efforts. Parishes have been asked to evaluate needs in their communities and request funds for both immediate recovery needs and long-term rebuilding.

“Grants may be distributed to purchase water, food, shelter, cleaning supplies, tools, building materials, and tuition assistance for displaced employees,” said archdiocesan spokesman Deacon Tim McNeil said.

He added that funds can go not only to the immediate needs of parishes, but to help with broader community assistance.

Nebraska has been among the hardest-hit states by severe flooding in recent days, although several other Midwestern states have also been affected as a “bomb cyclone” tore through the region last week, bringing with it strong winds and heavy rain. The floods that have resulted have washed out roads, destroyed homes, and burst dams, compounding the damage throughout the area.

The majority of counties in Nebraska are currently under a state of emergency, as are nearly half of the counties in Iowa.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said the storm has already caused “the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced.” Repairing damaged infrastructure could take months, and agricultural losses in ranching and growing crops could reach nearly $1 billion.

As residents scramble to evacuate, watching their livelihoods wash away in front of their eyes, their neighbors are doing what they can to offer support.

Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska is currently holding a bottled water drive to help students at Peru State College, who have been displaced for several days and are facing contaminated water for the foreseeable future.

The organization is also accepting donations to aid those who are suffering from the flooding.

“It is at times like these that we are all called to help our friends, relatives and neighbors who are suffering,” Catholic Social Services said in a statement. “Please help us help those who have lost so much.”

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Elkhorn, Nebraska, is teaming up with Bethany Lutheran, Brookside, Peace Presbyterian and COPE to help with long-term rebuilding support for flood victims.

Proceeds from the March 15 Lenten Fish Fry at St. Patrick’s were donated to flood relief efforts.

Meanwhile, northwestern counties in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are in the path of the flood waters.

“The towns are preparing,” said Kevin Murphy, executive director of marketing and communications for Catholic Charities in the diocese.

He told CNA that the major highway in the area has been closed, as the Missouri River is expected to reach near-record flooding levels.

Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph could also be feeling the effects of the flooding in a very direct way - the organization's satellite office in Buchanan County sits just about 5000 feet from the river.

“We are monitoring the situation closely,” Murphy said.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, offered his prayers as the floods continue, while also calling Catholics to participate in relief efforts.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of life and the damage caused by the flooding throughout the Midwest these past few days,” he said in a March 19 statement.

The bishop prayed “that those affected by the floods will find the strength to rebuild.”

“We trust that the Lord will console them in their suffering,” he said. “Let us answer the Lord’s call to love one another and generously support our neighbors in this time of need.”

He noted that Catholic Charities USA is collecting funds to help flood victims throughout the entire region.
 

Federal court reaffirms tax exempt clergy housing allowances

Chicago, Ill., Mar 19, 2019 / 05:02 pm (CNA).- The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld tax-free housing allowances for clergy, a decision welcomed by pastors, religious organizations, and others who say the allowances make their ministries affordable and strengthen limits on the ability of government policy to interfere with clergy.
 
The law’s effect is “neither to endorse nor to inhibit religion, and it does not cause excessive government entanglement,” the March 15 decision said, adding that Congress has provided federal tax exemptions for religious organizations since 1802.
 
The federal law challenged in court is the Administrative Procedure Act of 1954. It provides that a “minister of the gospel” does not pay income taxes on compensation designated as a housing allowance. Religious leaders save about $800 million in taxes a year due to the benefit, the Associated Press said.
 
Among those who benefit are Pastor Chris Butler of Chicago Embassy Church, on the south side of Chicago, Ill.
 
“This ruling is a victory not just for my church but for the needy south side Chicago community we serve — our youth, our single mothers, our homeless, our addicted, and our victims of gang violence,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful that I can continue serving them and living side by side with them to make our neighborhood a safer, more peaceful place.”
 
The religious freedom legal group Becket had intervened on behalf of Butler’s and several other congregations. His church cannot afford a full salary for him, so the housing allowance makes it possible to live near his church.
 
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has been challenging the law for a decade, the Associated Press reports. It argued that the law discriminates against secular employees. It argued that clergy can used untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on mortgage and property taxes, which constitutes “double dipping.”
 
The group is deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
 
Its leadership saw the decision as a significant defeat.
 
“It’s a blow,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Associated Press.
 
In 2013 comments on the case, Gaylor criticized “some of these mega-church pastors with huge mansions” who can be paid “an enormous amount in housing allowances.”
 
In 2017 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the exemption is an unconstitutional benefit to religious persons and no one else, thus violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
The three appeals court judges who upheld the law are Republican appointees.
 
The Becket legal group’s arguments in favor of the exception cited treatment of other employers.
 
For the past century, both Congress and the IRS have recognized the convenience-of-the-employer doctrine, which upholds that employees may exclude housing benefits from their income if the benefits contribute to the convenience of the employer. This doctrine has been applied to religious and non-religious groups alike.
 
Becket argued that if the housing allowance is ended, then the IRS would be discriminating particularly against religious leaders, since other secular workers receive a similar exemption.
 
Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia were among Becket’s other clients in the case.
 
Other backers of the law include the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
 
“The power to tax is the power to destroy, and so refusing to tax a minister’s housing expenses is simply the best way to ensure the free exercise of religion and prevent the excessive entanglement of government with religion,” Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in response to Friday’s ruling.
 
Stanley, who is also director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, backed the court decision on the grounds that “declining to tax the housing support money that congregations provide to their ministers is not in any way a government establishment of a particular religion or any religion.”
 
Its amicus brief in the case, Gaylor v. Mnuchin, was submitted on behalf of nearly 8,900 ministers and churches.
 
The ADF amicus brief “demonstrated just how many ministers would be directly and negatively affected if those attacking the housing allowance were to prevail,” said Stanley.
 
“The 7th Circuit was certainly right to recognize ‘that the survival of many congregations hangs in the balance’,” he said.
 
The legal group noted that the court decision said a tax exemption does not “connote sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity.”
 
“Congressional action to minimize governmental interference with the decision-making process in religions…does not violate the Establishment Clause,” the ruling said.

Maryland House votes to remove statute of limitations for child sexual abuse

Annapolis, Md., Mar 19, 2019 / 04:02 pm (CNA).- The Maryland House of Delegates has approved a bill to entirely remove the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits related to child sexual abuse.

The House voted 136-2 to advance bipartisan House Bill 687 on to the Senate, the Baltimore Sun reports. The bill would allow victims of child sexual abuse to file a lawsuit at any time, and those previously barred from filing lawsuits would be given a two-year window to do so.

Maryland had already increased the age limit whereon a victim could file a lawsuit from 25 to 38 years old. The change was made two years ago.

The sponsor of the bill, Maryland delegate C.T. Wilson, cited his own sexual abuse as a child by his foster father, as well as the Grand Jury report that detailed cases of clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, as reasons he supports removing the time limit for when victims can file suits. He told the Washington Post that he thinks the bill is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.

Lawmakers are considering bills that would extend statutes of limitations in several other states.

On March 7, North Carolina’s Attorney General Josh Stein unveiled legislation called the SAFE Child Act, which has gained bipartisan support in the state legislature. The bill would extend the statute of limitations for misdemeanor child abuse from its current two years to 10 years. It would allow victims of child abuse to pursue a civil lawsuit against the abuser until age 50, rather than the current limit of age 21, and would ban high-risk sex offenders from contacting minors on social media.

A New Jersey bill, which the state’s Senate passed March 14, would allow child victims of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits until they turn 55 or until seven years from the time they become aware of the injury, whichever comes later. Adult victims of sexual assault would have a seven-year time frame after the incident to file a civil lawsuit, or until seven years after they become aware of the abuse, the Wall Street Journal reports. The bill would also create a one-time two-year legal window for civil complaints for anyone previously barred from filing civil actions.

New York recently extended its statute of limitations and created a one-year period during which those who were previously barred to bring their case to court may file lawsuits.

 

Lawsuit says West Virginia diocese knowingly hired sex abusers as teachers

Charleston, W.Va., Mar 19, 2019 / 03:58 pm (CNA).- The attorney general of West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop knowingly employed sex abusers in roles that worked with children and failed to disclose their backgrounds to parents.

The lawsuit alleges that the diocese advertised a safe learning environment in its schools while employing personnel who had been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.

It says the diocese and retired Bishop Michael Bransfield covered up potentially criminal behavior, failing to be transparent with parents while allowing abusers to work around children.

In a March 19 statement, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said that it “strongly and unconditionally rejects” the assertion that it “is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse.”

“The Program employs mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children,” it said.

The complaint draws attention to the case of Fr. Victor Forbas, saying the diocese knew of a credible abuse allegation against the priest but still placed him in charge of a children’s camp, and later assigned him as a high school chaplain after undergoing treatment for further accusations. The priest eventually pled guilty to sexual abuse of children in Missouri and went to prison.

It also highlights claims that Fr. Patrick Condron admitted to sexually abusing a student but was assigned to a Catholic elementary school after receiving treatment, without parents being notified of his history.

The suit also says that the diocese failed to conduct thorough background checks in hiring employees, and when the diocese became aware of employees’ histories – which included, in at least one case, a conviction for statutory rape –  it failed to notify parents about them.

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a March 19 statement.

“Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said some of the information in the lawsuit is based on the diocesan public disclosure of accusations of clerical abuse against minors from last November, as well as other information given to the attorney general by the diocese in recent months.

Some of the alleged misconduct described in the lawsuit took place over half a century ago, and some “are not accurately described,” the diocese said, noting that in some cases, reports of alleged occurrences were not made until decades later.

The diocese added that the allegations do not fairly depict the overall contribution of Catholic schools and their employees “who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia.”

Bishop Bransfield, who is named in the lawsuit, was restricted from ministry last week, following an investigation by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, at the request of Pope Francis last September. The pope had accepted Bransfield’s resignation and asked Lori to look into allegations of sexual harassment of adults against the bishop.

On March 11, Lori announced that the results of that investigation have been sent to the Holy See, where a final decision about Bransfield will be made. Pending that decision, Lori said, restrictions are being placed on Bransfield’s exercise of ministry.

Bransfield had led the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston since 2005. During the 2012 criminal trial of two other priests in Philadelphia, he was accused of covering up sexual misconduct by other priests, as well as molesting a minor.

Two witnesses and a prosecutor alleged that Bishop Bransfield “may have known about sexual misconduct by [another priest] or abused minors himself,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Bransfield denied these allegations, calling them “completely false,” and the alleged victim later came forward to say that he was never abused by Bransfield.