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Kentucky Supreme Court hears religious freedom case over LGBT shirts

Frankfort, Ky., Aug 24, 2019 / 07:00 am (CNA).- The Kentucky Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Friday in the case of a Christian business owner who is facing punishment for declining to print shirts for a LGBT Pride festival because of his faith.

“The right to decide which ideas to express is core to human freedom. The Commission violated that freedom by ordering Blaine Adamson to print messages that violate his religious beliefs,” Jim Campbell, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case before the Kentucky Supreme Court, stated after oral arguments in the case on Friday.

Blaine Adamson, owner of the Lexington, Kentucky-based print shop Hands On Originals, was sued for declining to print T-shirts promoting a Lexington Pride festival in 2012. His business had been requested by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, but Adamson declined to print the shirts because he believed that to do so would violate his Christian faith. He did refer the group to other companies.

In 2014, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission ruled that Adamson violated an anti-discrimination ordinance, and ordered him to print the shirts and undergo diversity training.

Adamson challenged the decision and won in a Kentucky court in 2017; the case has since been appealed to the state supreme court, and oral arguments before the court were heard Aug. 23.

Speaking to reporters and supporters after oral arguments, Adamson said that “I will work with any person, no matter who they are, and no matter what their belief systems are. But when I’m presented with a message that conflicts with my faith, that’s just something I cannot print.”

“I don’t walk into my business every morning and leave my faith at the door,” he said. “For the last seven years, the government has tried to punish me for declining to print a message that went against my conscience.”

In oral arguments, Campbell emphasized to the court that Adamson’s company Hands On Originals “serves everyone,” but reserves the right not to print certain messages it deems inappropriate or that would otherwise conflict with Adamson’s Christian faith.

Campbell said that Adamson, in his initial conversation with representatives of the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization who were looking for a shirt promoting the Lexington Pride Festival, only declined to print the shirts after he asked and learned what would be printed on the shirt.  

Campbell argued that this constituted a “substantial burden” on Adamson’s religious beliefs, as defined by the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs.

The Commission required Mr. Adamson to violate his religious beliefs, and its mandate that he attend diversity training says that it’s “wrong” for him to operate his business according to his religious beliefs, Campbell argued.

Opposing Adamson, and representing the Commission, attorney Edward Dove said that Hands On Originals “practices censorship” according to Campbell’s admission.

“That’s why we have a public accommodation ordinance,” he said, to protect against people enduring discrimination as they seek to enjoy goods.

“They can do anything they want in the name of religion and censor any message they don’t like, which would affect the free speech argument in the country,” he said of Hands On.

Justice Michelle Keller asked Campbell how far the government could go to mandate that the shirts for the Pride festival be printed, asking if a disclaimer could be put on shirts saying the messages do not reflect the views of Hands On.

Adamson and other business owners have a constitutionally-protected “individual freedom of mind,” Campbell said, with an “individual dignity” to protect free expression.

HHS conscience rule essential for freedom say Catholic healthcare groups

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2019 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- Medical professionals do not give up their right to conscience protections upon accepting a job, Catholic healthcare organizations have argued in support of new rules issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

In legal briefs filed Aug. 21 on behalf of four non-profit organizations, including the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Catholic Medical Association, the groups argue that medical professionals should not be forced to perform procedures or refer patients for procedures to which they are morally opposed. 

The cases concern the Conscience Rights in Health Care Rule, first announced in May. The rule mandates that institutions receiving federal money be certified that they comply with more than two dozen laws protecting conscience and religious freedom rights, including a doctor’s right to refuse to participate in abortion or so-called gender reassignment surgery. 

State attorneys general have filed several suits against the rule, with California AG Xavier Becerra calling it dangerous to American lives and part of “a war being waged on access to health care across our country.”  

Dennis Herrera, city attorney for San Francisco, wrote that “hospitals are no place to put personal beliefs above patient care,” and that “refusing treatment to vulnerable patients should not leave anyone with a clear conscience.”    

After the “significant litigation,” HHS announced last month that the rule would not come into effect until November 22. 

Roger Severino, the director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, said in a statement last July that the rule is simply an enforcement mechanism for policies that have existed for years. 

“The rule gives life and enforcement tools to conscience protection laws that have been on the books for decades,” he said in a statement provided to CNA. 

“Protecting conscience and religious freedom fosters greater diversity in the healthcare space. We will defend the rule vigorously.”

The briefs were filed by Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the four organizations in the cases City and County of San Francisco v. Azar, and State of New York v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Conscience rights are not limited based on one’s professional status. The argument that too many health care workers’ consciences would be protected under the HHS Conscience Rule shows a misunderstanding of the fundamental rights we have historically protected—beginning with the guarantees of the First Amendment,” the submissions argue. 

These conscience rights are “paramount,” they said, no matter what a person’s job may be, and that “decades of Supreme Court caselaw teach that complicity in an act creates an unconstitutional conscience burden.” 

Removing conscience rights from medical professionals would force them to sacrifice their “core convictions,” said ADF Legal Counsel Denise Harle.

“That’s why protecting the freedom to live and work consistent with one’s conscience is critical: It is at the heart of what motivates many who enter the medical field, a profession full of individuals who dedicate their lives to healing and doing no harm,” she said. 

Harle said she believes the rule is “constitutionally sound” as well as “consistent with related federal laws.” 

ADF also observed that Congress has passed multiple laws, with the support of both major political parties, that protect health care professionals from being forced to violate their consciences. These protections, however, are not often supported on the state level— as evidenced by the lawsuits and the 13 state attorneys general who previously denounced conscience protection regulations. 

Kevin Theriot, vice president of the ADF Center for Life, said in a statement that the rule was “commonsense” and simply worked to enforce existing conscience protections. 

“Despite clear constitutional principles assuring respect for conscience, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and health care providers have faced discrimination and even have lost their jobs because of their commitment to saving life,” said Theriot. 

“The government may not pick and choose which views deserve protection.”

New West Virginia bishop addresses scandals head-on at installation Mass

Wheeling, W.V., Aug 23, 2019 / 04:43 pm (CNA).- After nearly a year without a bishop, due to the scandal-ridden former Bishop Michael Bransfield, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia has a new shepherd, who was installed at a Mass yesterday on the feast of the Queenship of Mary.

Hundreds of Catholics, hopeful for a fresh start, came from throughout the diocese to fill the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling for the 2+ hour Mass and glimpse their new leader, Bishop Mark Brennan. Thousands more tuned in to the event via a Facebook live stream posted by the diocese.

“It's a new beginning. We hope it's a new beginning,” Joe Herrick, a Catholic who attended the Mass, told a local Fox News affiliate.

“We're very hopeful for the future. I'm really praying Bishop Brennan will be able to lead us and mend the flock together so we can be one.”

Brennan, who gave the homily, did not hesitate to address the tumultuous year that both the diocese and the universal Church have experienced.

“My friends, the ‘people walked in darkness’ and ‘dwelt in the land of gloom’. Those words of Isaiah, referring to enemy armies oppressing the kingdom of Israel, are an apt description for how many Catholics in this country have felt over the past year and how many West Virginia Catholics have felt for even longer,” Brennan said on Thursday, Aug. 22 at his installation Mass.

While he did not specifically name Bransfield, Brennan spoke of the diocese’s “painful past” and the “crisis” it now faces as a result of the scandals.

“The scandals we have learned about have caused painful disappointment, confusion, anger and distrust of Church leaders,” he said.

In September 2018, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston while an investigation was launched regarding allegations of financial and sexual misconduct against him. Archbishop William E. Lori was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese in the interim.

Bransfield, who had been bishop of the diocese since 2004, reportedly sexually harassed, assaulted and coerced seminarians, priests, and other adults during his time there. He is also reported to have used diocesan funds to make large financial gifts to other bishops and to pay for personal luxuries. According to a report from the Washington Post, concerns about Bransfield’s finances were raised as early as 2012 and were evidently ignored for years by some bishops who were the recipients of these gifts.

In July 2019, after assessing the investigation into Bransfield by Lori, the Vatican announced sanctions against Bransfield, including that he is no longer allowed to participate in public Masses or to live within his former diocese. He is also expected to “make personal amends” for his wrongs, Pope Francis said in a communique.

“Behavior has consequences, and there are consequences to bad behavior in the past that will have to be dealt with,” Brennan said in his homily. “That is one of my responsibilities and I assure you that I will meet it.”

But still, there is hope, the new bishop added. “...Isaiah’s message to an oppressed people does not end in the darkness. Hear it again: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone,’” he said.

“My friends, it takes no humility on my part to admit that I am not the light,” Brennan said, provoking laughter from the congregation. Instead, he said, it is the light of Christ that will lead the diocese out of these “dark times” and into a future of hope.

“The light of Christ beckons us to move now from the painful past toward him, not in denial but in confidence that the Lord will supply us with the wisdom and strength to do things better, to live our faith with greater integrity and to reflect more brightly, as far as our human weakness and limitations will permit, his own enduring light,” he said.

Brennan acknowledged numerous groups of people whom he said have already been lights in the darkness, including parents who continue to catechize their children, Catholic school and religious education teachers who do the same, parish priests who faithfully administer the sacraments, as well as diocesan chancery workers and faithful young people.

“Christ’s light has been shining in the darkness through all of them and, as St. John says in his Gospel, the darkness has not overcome it. I thank God for these faithful West Virginia Catholics,” he said.

The scandals may also have driven some people away from the Church, Brennan said, but he encouraged Catholics in the diocese to look to their roots circa the Civil War - when West Virginia seceded from Virginia in order to remain in the Union - for inspiration to remain united in faith.

“When the dark clouds of secession were rolling over the State of Virginia in the spring of 1861, the people of these western mountains chose to remain in the United States of America. They would not break their unity with Ohio and Pennsylvania, Michigan and Kentucky. They petitioned Congress to admit them as the State of West Virginia, which Congress did in 1863,” he said.

“Many of their sons—the ancestors of some here present — fought to maintain the integrity of the Union.”

He urged Catholics of today to fight for that same unity in the Church.

“Unity with one another and with God is what the Lord wants for us— and what, in our hearts, we truly desire,” he said.

“One man told me not long ago that he stopped going to Mass in his parish because of the recent scandals but then he asked himself: who was he helping by doing that? No one. Who was he hurting? Himself. He has since returned to Mass, still eager to see the Church address its failings and bring about lasting reform but conscious that walking away doesn’t help,” he added.

“As Simon Peter said to the Lord when some disciples were leaving Jesus because of hard teachings, ‘Lord to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.’” The Blessed Virgin Mary is another example of someone who said “yes” to the Lord despite difficult circumstances, Brennan said.

“...like Mary, we can let God fulfill his purpose in us and not let the darkness return to cover the earth. We can right the wrongs of the past and move on to make Christ known, helping our neighbor in need and remaining united in faith and love,” he said.

“West Virginia Catholics: cherish your faith and the holy Church that has nurtured it,” he added.

“Make Mary’s ‘yes’ to God your own and work with me and your brothers and sisters to let the light of Christ be a light brightly visible in the mountains and valleys, the city streets and country roads of this beautiful part of God’s creation: West Virginia.”

Cincinnati Catholic raised 'red flags' about priest over a year before rape indictment

Cincinnati, Ohio, Aug 23, 2019 / 02:45 pm (CNA).- A Cincinnati news station is reporting on the contents of a letter, sent to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Binzer in August 2018, accusing them of ignoring “red flags” related to a priest now indicted on nine counts of rape.

"What are we to do with these 'red flags' about Father [Geoff] Drew?" the parishioner wrote, addressing auxiliary Bishop Binzer.

"They were brought to your attention on many occasions and your response was to place Fr. Drew in a parish with the largest Catholic grade school in the state! I can't be the only one to see the irony in this."

Fr. Geoff Drew was arrested Aug. 19 on allegations dating back 20 years, which concern Drew’s time as music minister at St. Jude parish, prior to his ordination as a priest. The accusations concern abuse said to have taken place over two years, when the reported victim was 10 and 11 years old. If convicted, the priest could face life in prison.

The priest entered a “not guilty” plea at his Aug. 21 arraignment.

Because she considers the priest a flight risk, Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Ghiz set Drew’s bond at $5 million. He remains incarcerated.

Local news station WCPO reported that in the letter in question, a longtime lay leader at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish told Schnurr he had failed to deliver on his promise of being "unequivocally committed" to children and that the church had ignored "red flags" about Father Drew.

WCPO reported that the author of the letter is a mother of three children who attended St. Maximilian Kolbe in Liberty Township, where Drew was pastor from 2009 to mid-2018.

CNA reported earlier this month that complaints were raised to at least one archdiocesan official about Drew’s inappropriate behavior with teenage and pre-teenage boys as early as 2013. Complaints were made to auxiliary bishop Joseph Binzer, who is the archdiocesan vicar general, in 2013 and 2015.

Binzer referred the complaints to law enforcement, who found no evidence of criminal activity. Binzer did not, however, notify the archdiocesan personnel board or Archbishop Dennis Schnurr about the multiple complaints he had received against Drew. The allegations were also reportedly not recorded by Binzer in the priest’s personnel file.

In early 2018, Drew applied for a transfer to St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Green Township, which is attached to the largest Catholic school in the archdiocese. As head of priest personnel, Bishop Binzer was in charge of the process that considers requests and proposals for reassignment, in conjunction with the priest personnel board. Neither the board nor the archbishop were made aware of the multiple complaints against Drew, and the transfer was approved.

Archbishop Schnurr released a public letter Aug. 17, 2018, following the announcement of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which detailed hundreds of cases of historical clerical sexual abuse. Schnurr wrote that there were no active cases of clerical abuse of minors anywhere in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and that the archdiocese is “committed to transparency."

Schnurr’s letter— as well as Drew’s successful transfer— prompted the St. Maximilian Kolbe parishioner to write hers, WCPO reported.

The archdiocese referred the letter to the Butler County Prosecutor's Office, which determined that Drew’s behavior was inappropriate but not criminal, WCPO reported.

One month after Drew’s arrival at his new parish, a parishioner at his previous church resubmitted a 2015 complaint made about the priest. The complaint was again reported to Butler County officials, but this time it was also brought to the attention of Archbishop Schnurr.

The priest was asked to restrict his involvement with the school and was assigned to meet regularly with a “monitor,” but school faculty and administration were not told about these restrictions, or the reasons for them.

The archdiocese removed Drew from ministry last month, after allegations surfaced that he had sent a series of inappropriate text messages to a 17-year-old boy. The archdiocese then confirmed a history of similar allegations against Drew.

Drew worked as music minister at the parish of St. Jude in Bridgetown, Ohio, from 1984-1999. During that time he was also a music teacher at Elder High School until 1991. He entered seminary in 1999, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2004.

The archdiocesan statement, issued Aug. 19, emphasized that neither the archdiocese, nor Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr were aware of the rape allegations at the time of Drew’s removal last month.

Despite the long history of allegations made against the priest, Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman Mike Schafer told local reporters that archdiocesan officials were “stunned” by the rape charges.

“We were stunned," Schafer said Aug. 21. “Just stunned.”

Following the initial reports of Drew's removal from ministry, Bishop Binzer resigned from the USCCB’s committee on child and youth protection, which advises the bishops’ conference on all matters related to safe environment policy and child protection. Binzer was removed from some of his responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and could face an internal Church investigation for his handling of the allegations.

 

Christian filmmakers win right to sue against Minnesota human rights law

Minneapolis, Minn., Aug 23, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A federal court has reversed a decision dismissing a lawsuit brought against the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In a decision issued Friday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims that the law violates free speech and freedom of religion in a case brought by two Christian filmmakers who refused to make same-sex wedding videos.

The case was brought by Carl and Angel Larsen, the owners Telescope Media Group, both of whom are devout Christians. The Larsen’s intended to expand their business by filming weddings, but were told by state officials that if they produced films celebrating marriages in accord with their own beliefs, they would also have to create films promoting same-sex marriage.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Larsens, called the decision a “significant win.”

“The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs. Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages,” Tedesco said in a statement.

“All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”

The initial suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and appealed to the 8th Circuit in October, 2018. The Larson’s told the court that they “gladly work with all people—regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other classification.” 

Because they are Christians, the Larsons said they only decline requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs, including any that, in their view, “promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.”

The 2018 Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits vendors from “to intentionally refusing to do business with, to refuse to contract with, or to discriminate in the basic terms, conditions, or performance of the contract because of a person’s . . . sexual orientation.”

According to the state’s argument, the law regulates the Larsen’s business conduct and not their speech, and they would need to make both traditional marriage and same-sex wedding films, or none at all in order to comply, otherwise they could face tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and up to 90 days in jail.

In the decision published Aug. 23, the 8th Circuit held that the First Amendment prevented the Larsons from being compelled to “mouth support for views they find objectionable,” and that their film productions are a form of free speech protected by the Bill of Rights, saying that “the videos they do wish to produce will convey a message designed to affect public attitudes and behavior.” 

The judges also cited the Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a Christian baker refused to create custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

“If Minnesota were correct,” the judges wrote, “it could use the MHRA to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe ‘My religion is the only true religion’ on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service.” 

The decision orders the District Court to review the case again, and to consider if the Larson’s case merits a preliminary injunction against the state law.

Arizona bishops welcome tuition break for undocumented students

Albuquerque, N.M., Aug 23, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Arizona’s Catholic bishops issued a statement Thursday in support of a change in policy that will offer a discounted college tuition rate to resident high school students who are undocumented immigrants. 

“We are glad that these undocumented students, who were brought here through no fault of their own, will now have more opportunities to better their lives after they graduate from our high schools and eventually become productive members of our society,” said the statement, which was co-signed by the state’s four bishops. 

The new policy, announced Aug. 22, sets the state college tuition rate for non-legal resident students at $16,000, which is $5,000 more than the in-state rate for legal Arizona residents. The tuition rate for out-of-state students is $30,000. Previously, undocumented students had to pay the out-of-state rate. 

“Today's action allows these students, as well as other Arizona high school graduates who have left the state, to join immigrant students who are in the DACA program and pay a much lower tuition rate that reflects the actual costs at our public universities,” the bishops said. 

Several states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduated from a high school in the state. 

The announcement came on the same day that Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, who chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement condemning a newly-published Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security rule that concerns the care and custody of immigrant children. 

That new rule allows for families, including minors, to be detained for longer than the previous 20-day limit allowed under the Flores settlement. 

Vasquez said the rule is “unlawful and inhumane” and will harm “countless children.” 

“This rule will have heartbreaking consequences for immigrant children – those whom Pope Francis has deemed ‘the most vulnerable group’ among migrants,” said Vásquez in the statement, which was published on the USCCB’s website. 

“It is an attempt by the [Trump] Administration to circumvent existing obligations and undermine critical protections for these children. This rule will jeopardize the well-being and humane treatment of immigrant children in federal custody and will result in children suffering long-lasting consequences of being held for prolonged periods in family detention.”

The new rule will take effect 60 days after its publication.

Children before politics say parents as Catholic adoption agency heads to court

Lansing, Mich., Aug 22, 2019 / 05:30 pm (CNA).- Parents of five adoptive children were present in court on Thursday in support of a Catholic adoption agency in Michigan that is threatened with closure by a new state policy.

“Political grandstanding should never come at the expense of vulnerable children,” stated Melissa Buck, who with her husband Chad has adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Michigan.

Buck was speaking out against a new state requirement that adoption agencies match children with same-sex couples—regardless of the agencies’ religious mission—in order to receive state funding.

“No one has ever been kept from adopting or fostering a child in need because of St. Vincent’s religious beliefs,” Buck stated on Aug. 22 after oral arguments in Buck v. Gordon, the challenge to Michigan’s new policy, at the Western District Court of Michigan in Grand Rapids.

Kristy and Dana Dumont, a same-sex couple seeking to adopt a child out of foster care, said they were referred elsewhere by St. Vincent Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services in 2016 and 2017 when they tried to adopt children through them. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the two organizations on their behalf.

St. Vincent is one of the oldest adoption and foster care agencies in the state, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the agency.

The State’s health department opened investigations into the complaints. Then on March 22, 2019, the state’s new Attorney General, Dana Nessel, settled with the ACLU and required all adoption agencies to match children with qualified same-sex couples in order to receive state funding.

Nessel, a self-identified lesbian, once represented a same-sex couple April DeBoer and Jane Rowse in their fight to marry and adopt children; the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court as part of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 decision that mandated the legal recognition of same-sex unions as civil marriages nationwide.

The settlement reversed a 2015 state law that protected religious-based adoption agencies from having to match children with same-sex couples if they were morally opposed to doing so.

Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities as well as people who have benefitted from their work—Shamber Flore, a former foster child placed with a family by St. Vincent, and Melissa and Chad Buck, a married couple who adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent.

After oral arguments on Thursday, Buck shared her personal story of working with St. Vincent to adopt five children with special needs.

“It’s the best and the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and there were challenges that we weren’t equipped to face on our own—but we were never alone. St. Vincent was there for us every step of the way, at all hours of the day or night, for anything we needed, even if it was for just a shoulder to cry on,” Buck said.

“We chose to foster and adopt through St. Vincent because the faith and values that motivate their ministry make them the very best at what they do, particularly finding homes for the children who need it most.”

There are currently more than 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system, and more than 600 children “age out” of the foster care system each year without having been adopted.

Becket said that in 2017, St. Vincent “recruited more adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.”

Lori Windham, senior counsel for Becket, wrote in an op-ed for The Detroit News that “already, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, and the state of Illinois have forced faith-based adoption agencies to close, and several more agencies are entangled in court battles, all amid a nationwide adoption and foster care crisis.”

“That crisis is only growing worse as with children flooding into the system, their lives the collateral damage of an opioid epidemic,” Windham wrote.

Bishops praise proposal to clarify religious exemptions for federal contractors

Washington D.C., Aug 22, 2019 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- Leaders at the U.S. bishops’ conference have praised a U.S. Labor Department proposal to clarify protections for religious employers seeking federal contracts.

“Faith-based groups should have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field as they seek to partner with the federal government to provide critical social services,” said the heads of three committees for the U.S. bishops.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, FL, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, signed an Aug. 21 statement about the proposed changes.

“These proposed rules protect religious liberty, a core constitutional right, by clarifying existing religious exemptions consistent with federal law and recent Supreme Court precedent. We are grateful to the Administration for taking this step, and we look forward to filing more detailed public comments with [the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs],” they said.

The Labor Department announced the proposed rule changes Aug. 15 in the federal register and asked for public comment.

Under existing law, religious nonprofit organizations that enter into contracts with the federal government are exempt from the requirement that federal contractors not discriminate on the basis of religion in employment decisions.

The Labor Department wrote that some organizations, including for-profit companies that have a religious mission, have provided feedback saying they are reluctant to participate as federal contractors because of uncertainty regarding the scope of existing religious exemptions.

In light of recent Supreme Court decisions such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Trinity Lutheran, the department proposed to clarify that the religious exemption “allows religious contractors not only to prefer in employment individuals who share their religion, but also to condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor.”

Among other changes, the department wrote, the proposal is intended to make clear that the existing religious exemption covers not just churches, but also employers that are “organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.”

It is also intended, the department said, to make clear that religious employers can “condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets without sanction by the federal government,” provided that they do not discriminate based on other protected bases such as race, sex, or national origin. Companies will also still be bound by the state laws of the jurisdictions in which they are located.

Secular groups such as Lambda Legal reacted to the proposed changes with concern, fearing that the rules would allow companies to “opt-out” of civil rights laws and discriminate against religious minorities and the LGBT community.

But Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Fund, told The Washington Post that the new rules give religious groups greater clarity on what exemptions they can legally seek in their hiring practices after the Obama administration expanded protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When a religious group says ‘Hey, we need you to be a Christian and adhere to Christian teachings,' federal law has recognized that’s not discrimination,” he said.

Ex-Philly pastor arrested for charges of embezzling roughly $100,000 of church funds

Philadelphia, Pa., Aug 22, 2019 / 02:50 pm (CNA).- A priest in Downingtown, Penn., a suburb west of Philadelphia, was arrested yesterday for stealing roughly $100,000 in church funds over six years to fund his New Jersey beach house and sexual encounters with men among other personal expenses, authorities have reported.

Rev. Joseph McLoone, 56, was removed as pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Downingtown and placed on administrative leave in early 2018, shortly after his secret account of stolen funds, which he had named the “St. Joseph Activity Account”, was discovered by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“Monsignor McLoone was the only signer on this account and he acted alone with respect to all of the account’s activity,” the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said in a statement released Wednesday.

“Off book accounts are in violation of standard Archdiocesan financial control practices and procedures. This bank account was frozen in February 2018 and a review of parish financial records was then undertaken by personnel from the Archdiocesan Office for Parish Services and Support,” the statement added.

According to the Reading Eagle, investigators reported after a year-long investigation that McLoone used his secret account to siphon off the entire collection taken up at the parish each year on the feast day of All Soul’s Day in November, for a total of $39,543 over six years.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the rest of the money came from McLoone doubling his stipends for weddings, funerals and other special Masses. Authorities report that he spent at least $3,000 of the money on men with whom he had sexual relationships, including one New York prison inmate.

“Those expenses were related to relationships with adults that represented a violation of ‘The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries’ established by the Archdiocese. None of this activity involved other members of the Saint Joseph Parish community,” the archdiocesen statement noted.

McLoone made “regular withdrawals” from the account and spent “thousands” of dollars in New Jersey, where he has a beach house, the Eagle Reader reported.

Money from regular Sunday collections, donations to the parish capital campaign, and school and PREP tuition fees do not seem to have been stolen by McLoone, the archdiocese said.

In total, McLoone is charged with embezzling between $98,000-$125,000 in funds from the parish during his time there.

“Father McLoone held a position of leadership, and his parishioners trusted him to properly handle their generous donations to the church,” District Attorney Chief of Staff Charles Gaza said in a statement, reported by the Inquirer. “Father McLoone violated the trust of the members of St. Joseph’s for his own personal gain.”

The charges against McLoone include dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property and other related counts, the Reading Eagle reported.

The priest maintains his innocence.

“The Chester County District Attorney’s Office is overreaching,” Melissa McCafferty, McLoone’s attorney, told the Inquirer. “They filed these charges based off speculation, conjecture, and innuendo.... They won’t be able to prove them.”

The archdiocese said it has pledged to “pursue full financial restitution” to the parish for the reportedly stolen funds, and said that it shared this information along with other updates on the case throughout the past year with the parish during the investigation.

“These charges are serious and disturbing,” the archdiocesan statement said. “The Archdiocese and the parish will continue to cooperate with law enforcement as the criminal matter enters its next phase. Pending the outcome, Monsignor McLoone remains on administrative leave. Information regarding his arrest will be shared with the Saint Joseph Parish community.”

McLoone now awaits a hearing before a district court judge for the charges.

In first-ever event, UN commemorates religious victims of violence

New York City, N.Y., Aug 22, 2019 / 11:01 am (CNA).- The United Nations General Assembly has designated Aug. 22 as the first-ever International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

“On this Day, we reaffirm our unwavering support for the victims of violence based on religion and belief. And we demonstrate that support by doing all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement.

The General Assembly condemned acts of violence against religious minorities and reiterated its support for the right to freedom of religion, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Over the past few months, we have seen increasing numbers of attacks against individuals and groups targeted simply because of their religion or belief,” Guterres said. “Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched.”

He particularly noted the worrying trend of attacks targeting places of worship, and minority religious communities being attacked because of their faith.

“We must resist and reject those who falsely and maliciously invoke religion to build misconceptions, fuel division and spread fear and hatred,” he said.

The United Nations is working on a new initiative to counter hate speech as well as a new action plan to safeguard religious sites, Guterres said.

In recent years, observers have voiced alarm at ongoing religious-based persecution in countries around the world.

In its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded that “despite two decades of tireless work to bring an end to religious-based discrimination, violence, and persecution, innumerable believers and nonbelievers across the globe continued in 2018 to experience manifold suffering due to their beliefs.”

A report earlier this year commissioned by the British Foreign Office found that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world and that persecution against them is on the rise.

Religious freedom advocates applauded the UN for recognizing the serious threat posed by contemporary religious persecution, while highlighting the need for further action.

“All people have the right to peacefully live out their faith, and we can never forget those who have faced persecution for doing so,” said Kelsey Zorzi, president of the United Nations’ NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and international director of advocacy for global religious freedom at ADF International.

She welcomed the UN’s decision to create a day commemorate victims of religious persecution, while adding that “remembrance alone is not enough.”

“Religious persecution is on the rise around the world. We therefore urge all countries to ensure that their laws and policies are in line with their commitments to protect religious freedom under international law,” she said.

Tony Perkins, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Family Research Council, also called for additional action to prevent religious persecution across the globe.

“Commemorating victims of violence based on religion or belief is critical, but that’s only the beginning of the world’s work to achieve justice for the survivors of past tragedies, like the genocide of Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq by ISIS,” he said.

“We must also recognize and work together to halt the continuing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and Christians in Burma and violence against Christians in Nigeria by Boko Haram.”