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Washington DC clears out homeless camp, breaking up community

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 08:01 am (CNA).- A homeless encampment in Washington, DC, was permanently dismantled on Thursday, in a move the city said was designed to better improve the safety of the city’s sidewalks.

One former resident told CNA that he believes the dismantling was necessary, and he blames the city for letting the encampment escalate to the point of being out of control.

The encampment, located beneath the K Street NE train bridge, is one of three located on the city’s K, L, and M streets in the northeast quadrant of the city. It was cleared out at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

That afternoon, just one tent--belonging to a woman who was placed in a psychiatric hold earlier that morning out of fear she was going to harm herself--remained, along with scattered litter. 

Most of the former K Street residents have migrated to one of the other encampments nearby. One of those residents, Mike Harris, spoke to CNA about why he chose to move to L Street and why he thought it was “necessary” for the city to clean out his former street.

Harris said that he had lived for about eight months on K Street, and during that time, the conditions in the area had gotten continuously worse. Harris, who uses a wheelchair, said that he had been unable to navigate the sidewalks due to the size, placement, and number of tents, as well as the presence of lawn chairs in front of the tents.

He said he empathized with the people who complained about being unable to push strollers or even walk on the sidewalks due to the presence of tents. 

Harris said that while he was not sure it was necessary to permanently shut down the encampment, he did think it needed to be addressed, as the situation had deteriorated in recent months. 

Harris laid blame at the city for how K Street had changed. He told CNA that when he first moved to K Street, the city had been enforcing various regulations and laws regarding the placement and size of tents. That changed over time.

“I was there for two days and my tent got a warning,” said Harris. “I wasn’t even that far over.” He said that his neighbors, whose tents were blocking pedestrians from using the sidewalk, never received similar warnings, even though their tents were in violation. 

“[Now] 26 to 40 people who lived under the K Street bridge got displaced because approximately five or six people didn’t want to abide by the rules,” said Harris. “Everybody had to suffer the consequences of the actions of a few.” 

Harris told CNA that he thinks the city of Washington wanted the encampment to become a “red flag situation” that would “justify the removal” of the tents. Hence, they stopped enforcing rules. 

Fr. Bill Carloni, the pastor at the nearby Holy Name of Jesus Parish, told CNA that he has been ministering to the homeless populations for about three years. His parish runs a food pantry and also distributes lunches to the homeless on a weekly basis. Carloni told CNA he was concerned about what the future would hold for the former K Street residents. 

“Unfortunately, I still don’t know what happens now,” Carloni told CNA. He said that over the last eight months, he had noticed a “significant increase” in the number of people living under the bridge. 

“I think that more people are getting priced out of DC,” said Carloni. “I mean, we see another element of it where more people are coming looking for emergency rental assistance because they can no longer afford the rents and they are on the verge of becoming homeless.” 

Carloni said there is no “typical” resident of the homeless encampments, and that they ranged in age, health, and reasons for homelessness. Many suffer from mental illness. He said that while there was a reputation for danger and crime in the encampment, Carloni said he’d “never felt threatened” or been mistreated. 

As a pastor, Fr. Carloni said that he worries about the people he ministers to on the streets, and when the encampments are cleaned out, he has to work hard to track everyone down to ensure they are doing okay. While Carloni was concerned that there would be conflict due to the melding of the various encampments, Harris said that there was none of that thus far. 

“I’ve found [the homeless population on K Street] to be amicable and kind of community oriented, like I know a lot of them, that they care for each other,” Carloni said. 

“They like to eat together as a community and they like to share.” 

Harris confirmed this. As he spoke to CNA, other residents of L Street were helping him to move his belongings into his tent. He said there were plans to construct a community table on the street, where the residents would gather for meals and fellowship. 

There are imminent plans to install a generator on the street corner to provide electricity to charge phones--something that Harris said is crucial in the job search that might lead to getting off the street. This generator was purchased with money that was crowdfunded.

Harris said that he had been homeless for about a year, and had lived in the city’s homeless shelters before making the move to K Street. He told CNA that he much preferred life on the streets to life in the shelters.

Life in the shelters, said Harris, was over-regulated and no safer than living in a tent. 

“[The shelters] are nothing to write home about,” he said. “There’s violence, there’s germs, there’s disease, physical altercations, and a lot of stuff that you have to deal with living in such close proximity.”

On the street, he said, there are no set times to check in or leave, and there is more privacy and divided up space amongst residents. In the DC shelters, people sleep on cots or bunk beds. 

“There are benefits of being out here. There’s some shortfalls, too,” he said, noting that he recently had a tent stolen from him when it was packed up. “And I’ve had a backpack stolen too, but I’ve had stuff stolen at shelters too.”

“Yeah, it’s bearable. It’s much more bearable than an institutionalized shelter-type situation,” said Harris. 

Harris will not be spending much more time on the streets. He received a housing voucher, and had there not been a “signature snafu,” he would already have moved into an apartment by now. He told CNA that he has a “great support team,” and that he regularly attends Bible study, church services, and a men’s group. 

It was these influences which helped him to keep his faith during his time being homeless, and he hopes to one day to help others in his situation, as “some of the people out here who are chronically homeless, they lose hope, drive, motivation, courage and faith.” 

“I’ve got a network of positive-minded individuals that’s helping me weather the storm, and I’m going to try to encourage other people who are currently homeless to do the same thing,” he said.

He urges his associates on the streets to “develop a network, a support group, a support team. Someone that can call and check in on, come by, see if you’re doing alright.”

“Just to let you know that someone cares [about you] means a lot.”

Report: Around the world, 260 million Christians face persecution 

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 02:45 am (CNA).- Christian persecution around the world is a growing problem, says a new report from an agency that documents abuses against Christians across the globe.

Worldwide, the report states, 260 million Christians are facing persecution. This marks a 6% increase from the previous year.

The annual report from Open Doors, released Jan. 15, ranked North Korea first on its list of 50 most dangerous countries in which to be Christian, the 18th straight year that the country has received that designation.

There are an estimated 300,000 Christians amidst the total population of 25.4 million in North Korea. Open Doors reports that if North Korean Christians are discovered, the government will deport them to labor camps as political criminals or even kill them on the spot. Meeting other Christians to worship is nearly impossible unless it is done in complete secrecy.

Following North Korea on the World Watch List Top 10 are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and India.

“Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While persecution of Christians takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, rape, and even death as a result of their faith,” Open Doors said in a release accompanying the report.

China featured four spots higher on the list than last year, up from number 27 in 2019 to number 23 in 2020, due in large part to the Communist government’s efforts to preserve its rule.

Christians in China experienced, among other things, an increase in attacks on churches in the past year. Open Doors reports that 793 churches were attacked within the reporting period for the 2018 World Watch List, compared with 1,847 attacks reported on churches worldwide in 2019. In 2020, the number is conservatively estimated to be at least 5,576 in China alone, the report states.

According to Open Doors, there are at least 97 million Christians in China. Policies enacted by the Communist Party in 2018 to “sinicize” the church - or adapt it to their way of thinking - have been enforced in more and more territories, resulting in the dramatic increase of persecution against Christians, the group reports.

People of faith also suffer from continual surveillance by the government. Open Doors cites a CNBC report that says there are nearly half a billion surveillance cameras in China, a number only expected to grow.

Additionally, Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending church, places of worship are monitored, and pastors are increasingly being asked to register with the Communist government, risking church closure and arrest if they refuse, the report continues. More than 5,500 churches in China have been closed down, and churches in at least 23 provinces have been harassed or shuttered.

There were at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes against Christians in India in the 2020 World Watch List reporting period, the report states. Many attacks on Christians in India are perpetrated by radical Hindus and often take the form of mob violence.

Muslim extremist groups were responsible for significant violence against Christians worldwide in the past year. For example, in Sri Lanka, 250 people died and more than 500 were injured in attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, the report notes. In Pakistan, radical Islamist groups often are given free rein by the government, the report says.

In Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of Christians— as much as 87% of the Christian population in Iraq— have been forced to flee due to civil war and the presence of militant groups such as the Islamic State.

Outside of Asia, the report took note of the plight of Christians in the African nation of Burkina Faso, which has risen 33 spots in the past year. Dozens of Catholic priests have been killed in the past year, and Protestant pastors and their families have been killed or kidnapped by violent Islamist militants.

Notably, a spate of violence in churches in Burkina Faso last summer and continuing throughout the year led to Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya saying in December that the Western world has been ignoring the plight of Christians in West Africa and has even been selling militants the weapons that they are using to kill Christians.

In total, nearly half a million people were forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso in the last five years, and more than 60 Christians were murdered by militants in the country in 2019.

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram also maintains a presence in such countries as northern Nigeria and Cameroon.

Churches critical in fighting human trafficking, members of Congress told

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 05:15 pm (CNA).- Faith-based groups play a critical role in the global fight against human trafficking—one which merits a closer partnership with the U.S., one Catholic leader told members of Congress Wednesday.

“Churches are safe havens for individuals and oftentimes the first place that victims seek protection and support,” said Limnyuy Konglim, head of the International Catholic Migration Commission’s U.S. Liaison Office in Washington, DC., to commissioners of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Jan. 15. The hearing before the bipartisan body in the House of Representatives marked the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

She added that “it is critical that faith-based actors receive greater consideration as implementing partners, in addition to suppliers of information for reporting.”

Almost 25 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking, an industry which is estimated to be worth $150 billion.

The TVPA, enacted in 2000 and authored by commission co-chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), set up punishments for traffickers, victim assistance, and prevention programs, making changes to the criminal code such as classifying that a minor exploited by a commercial sex act was a victim and not a perpetrator.

It also established a tier ratings system for countries at the State Department, based upon their efforts and success in curbing trafficking.

“Though it is hard to believe it now, when I first introduced the TVPA, the legislation was met with a wall of skepticism and opposition—dismissed by many as a solution in search of a problem,” Smith said Wednesday. “Reports of vulnerable persons—especially women and children—being reduced to commodities for sale were often met with surprise, incredulity or indifference.”

On Tuesday the Justice Department hosted a Summit on Combating Human Trafficking, during which Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen credited the law with spurring an increase in trafficking charges and convictions, but noted that “we have so much left to do.”

“The TVPA responded to the fact that the ability of one person to control, exploit, abuse and profit from another person’s labor and commercial sex acts has not yet been fully eradicated.  And it needs to be,” he said.

Also testifying on Wednesday were two Trump administration officials: the State Department’s trafficking ambassador John Cotton Richmond, and Katherine Chon, director of the Office of Trafficking in Persons at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Konglim’s group, the ICMC, helps build a global network of national bishops’ conferences and Catholic institutions to serve migrants, refugees, and trafficking victims.

“The work of ICMC is inspired by the Holy Bible, as well as by the ongoing Teaching and
Tradition of the Catholic Church; and we are deeply inspired and guided by Pope Francis, who
has prioritized the Church response to human trafficking,” Konglim said Wednesday.

“As he [Pope Francis] has so eloquently said, ‘We are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country,’ and therefore, ‘we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.’”

She was formerly an advisor on humanitarian protection at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and advised the U.S. bishops’ conference on refugee policy and coordinated anti-trafficking efforts for the conference.

On Wednesday, she emphasized the need for the U.S. to work more closely with faith-based aid groups that are working with local actors on the ground around the world.

She noted that “considering the deep presence and trust of grassroot Catholic organizations within vulnerable communities, there has been a concerted effort to build their capacity,” and that “Organizations such as ICMC, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Caritas International to name a few—have provided both organizational and technical assistance to enhance the response of local actors.”

Smith noted the “long-standing” work of faith-based groups around the world “providing an enormous amount of support for people who have been horribly mistreated.”

He said he had witnessed faith play a critical role in the recovery process for trafficking survivors.

“I have actually been in trafficking shelters all over the world,” he said, “but I was struck … how women who had been so horribly mistreated and raped and assaulted, it was their faith and the nourishment that came from that, the sense of reconciliation, that was helping them to get their lives back together.”

Konglim vouched for the work of faith-based groups in fighting trafficking. “If they can serve, they will serve,” she said, noting the work done by Vatican conferences on trafficking prevention which gathered actors from all over the globe.

In February 2018, the Vatican hosted a conference on human trafficking with Church leaders and law enforcement officers from more than 30 countries.

Trafficking survivors need “holistic,” long-term assistance to get back on their feet, such as shelter and vocational training, she said, and faith-based groups “are looking at the holistic restoration of the person, and they do their best to serve them from beginning to end.”

These groups also have a global network to help better reunify trafficking survivors with their families on other continents.

Asked by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of the state of trafficking in the U.S., Konglim said that her group, through the USCCB, has observed, “there is definitely a challenge with labor trafficking, and how that’s being recognized.”

“Irregular migration does impact the occurrence of the trafficking, and that migrant populations are more vulnerable,” she said. “And so we are definitely concerned with there being increased border screening, to ensure that people that are coming in are not victims of trafficking, and if they are, they are receiving the appropriate services that they deserve.”

US Senate bill would abolish tax-deductibility of abortions

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:18 pm (CNA).- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Abortion is Not Healthcare Act Jan. 9, a bill that would reclassify abortions in the tax code and end their tax deductibility.

Currently, abortions are eligible for tax deductions with the Internal Revenue Service because they are considered out-of-pocket medical care.

According to the IRS, Section 213(a) of the tax code “allows a deduction for expenses paid during the taxable year, not compensated for by insurance or otherwise, for medical care of the taxpayer, spouse, or dependent, to the extent the expenses exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income.”

The Abortion is Not Healthcare Act would amend section 213 of the IRS tax code to disqualify abortions from being classified as medical care, and thus disqualify them from contributing to the total medical expenses for the year.

Lee said in a statement that to classify abortion as health care is misleading.

“The government should not offer tax benefits for a procedure that kills hundreds of thousands of unborn children each year, nor should taxpayers subsidize such a practice. This undermines the truth that all human beings have dignity and worth, and that the purpose of healthcare is to heal and care for them - not kill them,” Lee said.

“Our bill would end the preferential tax treatment of abortion and clarify that this gruesome practice is not healthcare,” he added.

The bill was co-sponsored by 16 other Republican Senators: Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Scott (R-FL), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Steve Daines (R-MO), Ben Sasse (R-NE), David Purdue (R-GA), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Scott (R-SC), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Jerry Moran (R-KS).

In May, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz, introduced a corresponding bill to the House, which was endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other pro-life organizations.

Bishop calls Americans to build 'culture of religious freedom'

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:10 pm (CNA).- The head of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee called on Americans to build a “culture of religious freedom” that respects the ability of all people to live out their beliefs in peace.

Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, issued a statement for Religious Freedom Day, observed nationally on Jan. 16.

“The establishment of a culture of religious freedom is always an ongoing task,” he said. “A culture of religious freedom consists of respect for the dignity of others as they seek to live in accordance with the truth about God.”

Such a culture, he said, allows all people to thrive. Yet today, many religious communities continue to face obstacles in practicing their faith freely.

“Even today, many Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other communities, all in different ways, face challenges to their religious freedom,” Murry said. “A culture of freedom means that all people of faith and all religious groups are able to freely worship and participate in the life of our society, without fear of intimidation or coercion.”

In his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump said religious liberty is a building block of the United States, attracting the pilgrims and many other early settlers in the country.

“More than 230 years ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was authored and championed by Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “This statute served as the catalyst for the First Amendment, which enshrined in law our conviction to prevent government interference in religion.”

Trump said that during his time in office, he has been committed to defending religious freedom at home and promoting it abroad.

He noted the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Last month, three civilians and a police detective were killed in a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two weeks later, a stabbing left five people injured during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in New York.

“To fight the rise of anti-Semitism in our country, I signed an Executive Order last month to ensure that Federal agencies are using nondiscrimination authorities to combat this venomous bigotry,” he said. “I have also made clear that my Administration will not tolerate the violation of any American’s ability to worship freely and openly and to live as his or her faith commands.”

Bishop Murry applauded the actions taken by the Trump administration, which late last year proposed a rule change to ensure that religious social service providers would not be refused federal funding from the Department of Health and Human Services based on their belief in marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The proposal would particularly shield religious adoption and foster agencies that only place children in homes with a mother and a father.

“On this Religious Freedom Day, we are grateful that the right of religious liberty is cherished in this country,” the bishop said. “I appreciate concrete actions the Administration has undertaken, such as recent steps to protect faith-based social service providers.”

“May we Catholics in America resolve to build on our inheritance for the good of all,” he concluded.

 

Trump admin announces rules to allow equal access to grants for religious groups

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 03:55 pm (CNA).- The White House announced new rules from nine federal agencies Thursday to help ensure that religious groups have equal access to public benefit programs.

On Jan. 16, Religious Freedom Day, President Donald Trump announced the rules “to protect religious freedom” throughout his administration. Nine federal agencies issued proposed regulations to allow religious institutions equal access to government grants.

The agencies were the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans’ Affairs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“From its opening pages, the story of America has been rooted in the truth that all men and women are endowed with the right to follow their conscience, worship freely, and live in accordance with their convictions,” President Trump stated in his Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, 2020.
 
“On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country and reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans.”

The regulations seek to ensure that federal government social service programs are administered in line with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, so that religious groups are not barred simply on account of their religious status.

The rules were issued in light of the Supreme Court’s 2017 Trinity Lutheran decision, which decided that a church property couldn’t be barred from a state renovation program simply on account of its religious affiliation.

In addition, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget states that the federal agencies themselves would be required to ensure that state recipients are also respecting the First Amendment and not discriminating against religious organizations when administering federal grants.

Currently, 37 states have some form of “Blaine Amendments,” many of them passed during a time of anti-Catholic vitriol to forbid public funding of “sectarian” institutions. The law at the heart of the Trinity Lutheran case was an amendment to Missouri’s Constitution modeled after the Blaine Amendment. The amendments are currently supported as a means of strict separation of church and state.

The president of Alliance Defending Freedom, Michael Farris, stated Thursday that “We affirm the administration’s proposed rules designed to ensure that the government doesn’t treat religious individuals and organizations as second-class to secular institutions.”

One of the nine agencies to issue regulations on Thursday, the Education Department also said it would publish new guidance on prayer in public schools, to improve the reporting process of any violations of a student’s right to prayer at the state and local levels.

“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“The Department’s efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions.”

Trump held an event in the Oval Office Thursday afternoon to mark the release of the updated prayer guidance.

Critics: Utah bill on confession would criminalize priests, not counter sex abuse

Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan 16, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- A Utah legislator’s proposal to remove protections for priests and other clergy who hear confessions of the sexual abuse of minors has drawn significant criticism from Catholics and other commentators.

“The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children, but H.B. 90 will not have this intended effect,” said Jean Hill, director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace and Justice Commission.

Removing the clergy exemption would be “making it a crime for the priest to maintain the Seal of Confession,” Hill said in a column for the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of the Intermountain Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. The proposal “could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation.”

The proposed legislation “places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating canon law and facing excommunication,” Hill added.

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” she said. “In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion.”

Under Utah law, certain professionals must report allegations of child abuse to authorities. These professionals include clergy, teachers, medical professionals, and law enforcement. At present state law exempts clergy if a perpetrator confesses directly to a religious leader and cannot report “without the consent of the individual making the confession.”

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was raised Catholic. She said she “understands our sacraments and it’s not my intent to go against them,” the Deseret News reports. She said her bill doesn’t target any religion specifically.

“This isn’t about the Catholic Church,” she said. “This is about religious institutions ensuring that people aren’t hiding under the guise of confession to get away with hurting children... Because the trauma they experience from sexual assault doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the entire community, it impacts our families. For me, that’s more important than protecting a perpetrator who will likely hurt other children.”

The legislation could affect the confidentiality of confessions to clergy in the predominant religious group in Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as Mormons. The Mormon church, whose global headquarters is in Salt Lake City, has not taken a position on the legislation, the Deseret News reports. It has faced criticisms and lawsuits for various leaders’ handling of sexual abuse of minors.

A woman in Oregon is suing the Mormon church for more than $10 million, after her husband was arrested for child sex abuse. He had confessed to his bishop, following the religion's doctrine, and believed the converation to be confidential. The clergyman reported the acts to law enforcement. The lawsuit claims the religion violated a privileged conversation between clergy and a member of the community.

Hill noted that Catholics are not alone “in viewing the private disclosure of wrongdoing as a path to God.” She cited the Orthodox Churches' use of the sacrament of confession, and wrote that the Church of England also “recognizes the inviolability of an act of confession.”

She added that the Mormon church “views confidential admissions of wrongdoing as an essential part of the repentance process,” and that the Presbyterian Church USA and Baptist and Lutheran ecclesial communities “all recognize the pastoral imperative of confidentiality when congregants seek counseling and care from their spiritual leaders.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, does not support the bill.

“I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation,” he said in an email to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “I do not support this bill in its current form, and unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties, I will be voting against this bill.”

Wilson had received hundreds of emails critical of the bill. CNA sought comment from Wilson but legislative staff said he had nothing to add at present.

The House Speaker’s opposition to the bill could prevent it from a committee hearing. Romero said she looked forward to discussing the bill with the speaker.

“I’m hoping my colleagues will give this bill a fair hearing and they understand why this is an important piece of policy,” Romero said. “I hope we can follow the lead of other states who have placed the best interests of children over religious institutions.”

Several groups are calling for an end to the exemption, including the Truth and Transparency Foundation, which runs the controversial site MormonLeaks. The site publishes internal LDS documents relating to budgets, international relations and responses to sex abuse, among other topics.

The group said the exemption is “an affront to the safety and well-being of abuse survivors” that “provides an environment where predators are enabled,” it said in a November 2018 email to state legislators.

Sam Young, a former LDS bishop who founded the group Protect Every Child, is also in favor of eliminating the exemption.

Young, who lives in Texas, was excommunicated from the religion after he advocated for an end to the practice of leaders having one-on-one interviews with children that sometimes included sexually explicit questions, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Mandatory reporting exemptions for clergy have been removed by North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia, the Deseret News reports. A California proposal to remove these exemptions was pulled from consideration.

Eric Kniffin, a Colorado lawyer and First Amendment attorney who followed the bill in California, told the Salt Lake Tribune that such proposals to remove clergy exemptions would “damage religious liberties.” He cited the Catholic prohibition on clergy revealing anything said in confession on pain of excommunication.

In Kniffin’s view, protecting clergy exemptions may provide greater benefits in the effort to address sexual abuse.

“The confessional is not just a black hole,” he said. “If a priest hears something in confession, they may urge the person to get help, talk to police or say ‘talk to me outside of the confessional’.”

Like Kniffin, Hill suggested removing legal protections for clergy would be counter-productive.

“There is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose cases of abuse learned of in the confessional would have prevented a single case of child abuse,” she said in her Intermountain Catholic column. “On the other hand, there is every reason to believe the elimination of the privilege would mean that perpetrators would simply not bring it to confession.”

The knowledge that confession is “a sacred conversation with God” would encourage Catholics to seek to make amends to both society and their victims. A priest who hears a criminal’s confession can encourage the penitent to self-report to law enforcement or to seek counseling, or can offer to accompany him or her to report their crime.

“H.B. 90 is a bad law that does nothing to protect children and undermines the very real possibility that a sex offender might repent,” she said.

While legislative counsel that reviewed Romero’s bill said it did not violate any religious freedom, Hill invoked the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Trammel v. United States, which cited the longstanding precedent of protecting confessions to clergy in its ruling on whether spouses enjoy privileges to refuse to testify against a spouse.

“The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return,” that decision said.

Hill told the Deseret News that the bill is “trying to regulate a sacrament of our religion in a way that we believe violates our free exercise rights.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession in a July 1, 2019 note signed by its head, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza.

“Should the trust in the seal fail, the faithful would be discouraged from accessing the sacrament of Reconciliation, and this, obviously, with serious harm to souls,” Piacenza wrote. Defending this seal, he added, “can never constitute some form of connivance with evil,” but represents “the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world.”

Some court rulings have indicated that legal protections apply not only to religious groups with a formal confession rite.

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a $35 million sex abuse judgement against the Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that a lower court wrongly ruled that the elders involved in hearing abuse allegations did not enjoy religious confidentiality protections guaranteed by state law.

Mike Pence to meet Pope Francis in Vatican next week

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Vatican next week to meet with Pope Francis.

Pence’s office confirmed with CNA on Thursday that the Vice President is scheduled to be received by the Pope during his overseas trip next week. No details have yet been released about the topics that might be discussed at the meeting.

The Vice President’s visit comes immediately after the U.S. religious freedom ambassador traveled to Vatican City for the launch of the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative, held on Tuesday at the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich.

Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, was present at Tuesday’s opening session of the initiative, which was described by Ambassador Gingrich as “a dialogue designed to promote peace, religious freedom, and interreligious harmony” between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

It was inspired, she said, by the 2019 document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi that was signed in the United Arab Emirates.

That document, in part, stated that “[t]he pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.”

Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was present at the gathering, according to Gingrich’s remarks.

“It’s fitting that your discussions should take place at the Pontifical Gregorian University,” Gingrich said, citing St. John Henry Newman that a Catholic university should “aid in the discernment of truth.”

Quoting Pope Francis, Gingrich stated the questions that could be considered by the initiative: “‘How do we look after each other?  ‘How do we nourish a fraternity which is not theoretical, but translates into authentic fraternity?’ And ‘how can religions be channels of fraternity, rather than barriers of separation?’”

In her remarks at the launch, Gingrich thanked Pastor Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, Imam Mohammad Magid of All Dulles Area Muslim Society, and Rabbi David Saperstein, the former U.S. religious freedom ambassador from 2014 to 2017, “for making this gathering possible.”

During Brownback’s trip, he and Ambassador Gingrich also met with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See Secretary for Relations with States.

School threatens suspension for student's 'Virginity Rocks' sweatshirt

Kansas City, Mo., Jan 16, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- School administrators in Wentzville, Missouri, threatened to suspend a seventh grade student if he returned to school wearing a sweatshirt printed with the slogan “Virginity Rocks.” 

The student, 13-year-old Londyn Piglowski, received the sweatshirt as a birthday gift from a classmate. 

Local news station KMOV4 reported Thursday that Piglowski  was pulled out of social studies class and taken to the principal’s office after wearing the shirt to school. The principal instructed him to either remove the shirt or turn it inside out.

“He said it was a little bit borderline for the school and he told me to take it off or flip it inside or else they would have to take action," said Piglowski to KMOV4.

“I didn’t think this was bad so whenever they told me to take it off I was like, ‘why am I taking this off because it’s a positive message?’”

Piglowski removed the shirt, and his parents say the Wentzville School District threatened to suspend him from class if he showed up to school wearing the shirt again. He says his friend, who owns the same shirt, did not get in trouble when he wore it to school. 

His parents have said their son’s treatment for wearing a shirt that advocated virginity was inconsistent with other school policies.

“They teach sex ed," said Todd Piglowski, Londyn’s father. “How can you teach it but then say hey let’s not have it on a sweatshirt?"

The Wentzville School District has a dress code which prohibits clothing which advocates “immoral, sexual, or violent behavior.” 

The school defended the decision to make Piglowski change clothing. In a statement, the school said that the shirt was “potentially disruptive to the educational environment.” 

“We routinely have conversations with students around attire that may be inappropriate and by and large, our students and families work with our staff to address any concerns,” said the statement. 

Piglowski is not the first student who has been reprimanded over wearing a pro-virginity shirt. 

“Virginity rocks” shirts have been sold for over a decade by various Christian organizations to promote responsible sexual activity.

In 2008, students at Albemarle High School in Virginia reported that they were told by officials to stop wearing the shirts. The students were wearing them in an attempt to promote abstinence. The school district denied that the students were ever told what to wear.

Six years later, a student at Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville, Arkansas was asked to change out of her “virginity rocks” shirt. The student, Chloe Rubiano, an eighth grader, said it was one of her favorite shirts, and that she had bought it at a Christian festival. 

In Rubiano’s case, the school vice principal said that while she agreed with the message on the shirt, she did not think it was appropriate for school as “it opens up too many doors for conversations."

Piglowski’s shirt came via the website of YouTube personality Danny Duncan, who sells clothing items with the slogan on them. Duncan, who makes skateboard and prank videos, started selling the apparel in 2018, and has said he designed the shirts to be tongue-in-cheek, but also with a positive message.

Since Duncan, who has nearly 3.5 million subscribers, began selling merchandise with the phrase to a more secular audience, increasing numbers of students have reported punishments. 

In 2018, a 17-year-old at Roseburg High School in Oregon was forced to go home and change after he came to school wearing a Virginity Rocks shirt from Duncan’s apparel line. He went home and changed into another Duncan shirt--one that made a sexual innuendo. That shirt was allowed to be worn. 

The district superintendent defended the decision to prohibit the Virginity Rocks shirt, saying that the school “would have made the same decision if the student had been wearing a T-shirt that said sex rocks or smoke more pot.” 

In October 2019, a student at Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School in Chetek, Wisconsin, was suspended for a day after he came to school wearing one of Duncan’s virginity rocks sweatshirts. 

The student, sophomore Thorn Willsui, was suspended after he refused to take off the sweatshirt or turn it inside out.

Tenn governor to sign bill protecting faith-based adoption agencies

Nashville, Tenn., Jan 15, 2020 / 08:34 pm (CNA).- Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Jan. 15 that he intends to sign into law a bill to protect adoption organizations which place children based on the belief in marriage as a union between a man and woman.

The state Senate approved HB 836 on the first day of the 2020 legislative session, Jan. 15, after the House approved it last April. Tennessee has several Catholic Charities agencies that handle adoption cases.

The bill would protect adoption agencies that follow their religious convictions in declining to place children with same-sex couples. Declined applicants would be unable to sue an agency for damages in such a situation, the Associated Press reports.

Although religious adoption agencies in Tennessee have not been prevented from acting out of their moral convictions, the bill comes at a time when Catholic agencies in other states have been shut down or denied access to funding for declining to place children with same-sex couples.

The AP reports that to date, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, South Dakota, North Dakota, Virginia, Mississippi and Michigan have all enacted similar protections for adoption agencies to the one being considered in Tennessee. In March 2019, Michigan 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.

Senator Paul Rose, Republican sponsor of the bill in the Senate, noted that the Trump administration last year proposed a federal rule change to protect faith-based foster care agencies.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced during Nov. 2019 that it would change its enforcement of previous regulations and propose a new rule, allowing faith-based adoption agencies to continue receiving federal funding while not having to match children with same-sex couples against their religious mission.

The U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) praised the change at the time.