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Enforcement is key in fight against human trafficking, report says

Washington D.C., Jun 28, 2017 / 04:51 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With an estimated 20 million victims of human trafficking today, all governments must step up their enforcement efforts, a new report by the State Department insists.

“We are all confronted with a choice: Do nothing or do something,” Ambassador Susan Coppedge of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said Tuesday at a press conference launching the 2017 Trafficking in Persons report.

“When it comes to human trafficking, everyone has a role to play and an obligation to act,” she added. “We must choose to do something to end modern slavery.”

The annual Trafficking in Persons report was released by the State Department on Wednesday, over 400 pages in length and detailing the state of human trafficking around the world.

There are an estimated 20 million persons being trafficked today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted on Tuesday at the launch of the report. This number includes children. Trafficking takes many forms, including sex slavery, debt bondage, forced marriage, and involuntary servitude.

“Human trafficking is as old as humankind. Regrettably, it’s been with us for centuries and centuries,” Secretary Tillerson stated. However, he added, “it is our hope that the 21st century will be the last century of human trafficking, and that’s what we are all committed to.”

Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump and senior advisor to the president, was present at the launch of the TIP report on Tuesday. “On a personal level, as a mother, this is much more than a policy priority. It is a clarion call to action in defense of the vulnerable, the abused, and the exploited,” she said.

“Last month, while in Rome, I had an opportunity to talk firsthand with human trafficking survivors,” she said, recalling her meeting with trafficking victims at the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome after President Trump met with Pope Francis on May 24.

“They told me their harrowing stories, how they were trapped in this ugly, dark web, how they survived, how they escaped, and how they are very slowly reconstructing their lives,” she said.

Pope Francis, during a November audience with RENATE, a network of European religious who fight trafficking and exploitation, emphasized that “much more needs to be done on the level of raising public consciousness and effecting a better coordination of efforts by governments, the judiciary, law enforcement officials and social workers.”

The TIP report is required to be compiled and released annually by the State Department to document how foreign governments are “prosecuting traffickers, protecting victims, and preventing the crime.” It was mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, of which Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the House global human rights subcommittee, was the prime author.

The 2000 law also set up a tier ranking system for foreign countries based on their commitment and success in fighting human trafficking. Tier 1 countries are those that are abiding by “the minimum standards” of fighting trafficking, which were set by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Meanwhile, Tier 2 countries do not meet those minimum standards “but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards,” the TIP report explained. A Tier 2 Watch List is for countries with more serious trafficking problems which are nonetheless making sufficient efforts to curb trafficking and meet the minimum standards of the TVPA.

Tier 3 countries are the worst trafficking offenders, because they have been determined to be not even working to meet the minimum standards for fighting trafficking.

To hold these countries accountable for their poor records on trafficking, the U.S. can take actions against these countries as allowed by the TVPA, like withholding non-humanitarian, non-trade related assistance or voting to bar them from loans by the International Monetary Fund.

China was downgraded to Tier 3 status in the most recent report, and Rep. Smith had “high praise” for the administration for recognizing China’s “shameful complicity in sex and labor trafficking.”

“They turn women into commodities for sale,” Smith said of trafficking of women from nearby Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam for commercial sex or forced marriages in China. Goods made from Chinese slave labor are also in the supply chains of U.S. businesses, he insisted.

During a Tuesday press conference at the State Department, Ambassador Coppedge outlined some other concerns with China’s record on trafficking. According to reports from NGOs, trafficking victims have not been cared for sufficiently.

Rep. Smith stated his desire for the designation to be utilized in the future to push China toward reform of its notorious trafficking record.

“Hopefully, the new tier ranking coupled with robust diplomacy – including the imposition of sanctions authorized under Tier 3 – will lead to systemic reforms that will save women and children’s lives and ensure that Chinese exports are not made with slave labor.”

Also, many North Koreans are also working in China in slavery, with their wages effectively going to the North Korean government, Smith noted.

“The North Korean regime receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the fruits of forced labor,” Secretary Tillerson stated on Tuesday. “Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on, and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced labor arrangement to send those people home.”

Of the 187 countries considered for the tier system, 40 were listed as Tier 1 countries, 80 as Tier 2, 45 were placed on the Tier 2 Watch List, and 23 were designated as Tier 3 countries, Coppedge said. Twenty-one of the countries were downgraded in status in the 2017 report, while 27 countries were upgraded.

Many countries do not prosecute trafficking as they should, Ambassador Coppedge noted, and this leads to greater impunity for traffickers to continue working. This was the theme of the 2017 TIP report, the need for governments to more strongly enforce laws against human trafficking.

“In addition to protecting victims from retribution or re-victimization, an effective criminal justice response brings traffickers to justice both to punish them for their crimes and to deter others,” the report stated.

Yet, at times, governments can be actively colluding with traffickers, Ambassador Coppedge said.

“We still see instances of government officials protecting brothels, taking bribes from traffickers, and obstructing investigations for profit, and while we still see governments criminalize and penalize victims for crimes their traffickers force them to commit,” she said.

“Trafficking in persons is a hidden crime rooted in deception,” she added. “Victims are coerced or intimidated into silence, and they often fear that if they do come forward they will be punished. When governments enact and enforce strong, comprehensive anti-trafficking laws, they send an unmistakable message to criminals: We will not tolerate this.”

The report also quoted Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, as saying that today, “wars and conflicts have become the prime driver of trafficking in persons.”

“They provide an enabling environment for traffickers to operate, as persons fleeing persecutions and conflicts are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked,” the archbishop said. “Conflicts have created conditions for terrorists, armed groups and transnational organized crime networks to thrive in exploiting individuals and populations reduced to extreme vulnerability by persecution and multiple forms of violence.”

 

Father Solanus Casey beatification set for November

Detroit, Mich., Jun 28, 2017 / 11:40 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Venerable Solanus Casey, an American-born Capuchin priest who died in 1957 known for his ability as a spiritual counselor, will be beatified at a Nov. 18 Mass in Detroit, the local archdiocese announced Tuesday.

“We are filled with joy at receiving the final date of the beatification of Father Solanus,” Father Michael Sullivan, OFM Cap. and Provincial Minister of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, said June 27. “It is a beautiful way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his passing.”

Venerable Casey was known for his great faith, attention to the sick, and ability as a spiritual counselor.

The beatification Mass will be said at Ford Field in Detroit, which can accommodate as many as 60,000.

Venerable Casey will be the second American-born male to be beatified.

Born Bernard Casey on Nov. 25, 1870, he was the sixth child of 16 born to Irish immigrants in Wisconsin. At age 17 he left home to work at various jobs, including as a lumberjack, a hospital orderly, and a prison guard.

Reevaluating his life after witnessing a drunken sailor brutally stab a woman to death, he decided to act on a call he felt to enter the priesthood. Because of his lack of formal education, however, he struggled in the minor seminary, and was eventually encouraged to become a priest through a religious order rather than through the diocese.

So in 1898 he joined the Capuchin Franciscans in Detroit and after struggling through his studies, in 1904 was ordained a “sacerdos simplex” – a priest who can say Mass, but not publicly preach or hear confessions.

He was very close to the sick and was highly sought-after throughout his life, in part because of the many physical healings attributed to his blessings and intercession. He was also a co-founder of Detroit's Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929.

For 21 years he was porter at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit.

He is also known for his fondness for playing the violin and singing, although he had a bad singing voice because of a childhood illness which damaged his vocal chords.

Even in his 70s, Fr. Solanus Casey remained very active, and would even join the younger religious men in a game of tennis or volleyball. He died from erysipelas, a skin disease, on July 31, 1957, at the age of 87.

A miracle attributed to Venerable Casey's intercession was recognized by Pope Francis at a May 4 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

“I’m grateful to hear from the Capuchin friars that the date of the beatification has been finalized,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit stated.

“The beatification of Father Solanus will be a tremendous blessing for the whole community of southeast Michigan, an opportunity for all of us to experience the love of Jesus Christ.”

Senate health care bill 'unacceptable,' bishop says after budget office report

Washington D.C., Jun 28, 2017 / 06:36 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Senate’s health care bill remains “unacceptable,” one U.S. bishop insisted after a non-partisan government office estimated it would result in millions more uninsured.

“This moment cannot pass without comment,” said Bishop Frank Dewane, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, in response to the scoring of the draft Senate health care bill by the Congressional Budget Office on Monday.  

“As the USCCB has consistently said, the loss of affordable access for millions of people is simply unacceptable,” he said of the office’s estimate that the number of uninsured could increase by 22 million by 2026. “These are real families who need and deserve health care.”  

The Congressional Budget Office released its scoring of the Senate health care bill on Monday, H.R. 1628, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.

The bill eliminates the individual and employer mandates of the Affordable Care Act, replacing the individual mandate with a six-month waiting period for new insurance in non-group plans if one goes without insurance for more than 63 days.

Also, the bill makes it easier for states to waive essential health benefits, or the list of benefits like emergency services and maternity care that was mandatory in health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The elderly can be charged up to five times more than younger persons in their premiums by insurers, as opposed to the limit being three times more than younger people.

The bill could reduce the federal deficit by over $320 billion over 10 years, according to the CBO, largely because of cuts to the rate of increased spending on Medicaid over that time (almost $800 billion in cuts) and cuts in the amount of federal subsidies for health plans.

The Medicaid cuts would take place through “per capita” caps on federal Medicaid funding of states. Thus, the funding in the future would be dependent upon the populations of the states.

An estimated 22 million more people would also be uninsured by 2026, increasing the projected number of uninsured from 28 million to 49 million.

Some of those uninsured would be persons who voluntarily forego having health insurance because of the removal of the individual mandate, which levies heavy fines on those without health insurance.

Instead, the new bill would fine persons with a gap in coverage once they sign up for insurance again, at a rate of 30 percent of their new premium.

In the short-term, this would be the “primary” reason behind the increase in the number of uninsured, the CBO said. However, after several years, other policies could increase the number of uninsured, like the cuts to Medicaid spending and federal subsidies.

For instance, for persons under the age of 65 by the year 2026, Medicaid enrollment would be down 16 percent, the office estimated.

The White House panned the CBO estimates in a statement released on Monday evening.

“The CBO has consistently proven it cannot accurately predict how healthcare legislation will impact insurance coverage,” the White House stated. “In 2013, the CBO estimated that 24 million people would have coverage under Obamacare by 2016.  It was off by an astounding 13 million people – more than half – as less than 11 million were actually covered.”

“To date, we have seen average individual market premiums more than double and insurers across the country opting out of healthcare exchanges,” the White House continued, urging action to be taken to reform health care.

Bishop Dewane, meanwhile, promised to pray for the Senate “to keep the good aspects of current health care proposals, to add missing elements where needed, and to not place our sisters and brothers who struggle every day into so great a peril on so basic a right.”

Last week, the bishop had outlined his serious concerns with the draft legislation. The bill, he said, in some ways made the problems with the House health care bill on health coverage for low-income persons worse.

“It is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written,” he said on Thursday. The cuts to Medicaid funding in particular would “wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported,” he insisted.

Bishop Dewane also noted the lack of language protecting “conscience rights” of those in the health care industry from mandates that they perform morally objectionable procedures like abortions or gender-transition surgeries.

He did praise the language protecting tax credits from being used to pay for abortions, but showed caution in warning that the language could very well be removed by the chamber’s parliamentarian because it could be ruled as not pertaining to the budget.

Other parts of the health care bill that the CBO scored included changes to premiums for persons in non-group plans.  

The average premiums for these plans would increase in the short-term, the CBO estimated, but by 2020 would drop to 30 percent lower than the premium estimates under the current health care law.

However, some could still see their health care costs rise because their benefits might be cut and their out-of-pocket health costs could be higher, especially those living in states which choose to waive the essential health benefits.

The marketplaces for non-group health insurance would still be stable in the coming years, the CBO estimated, but in certain areas for “a small fraction of the population,” insurers might not participate in non-group coverage.

This would be because fewer people would sign up for health plans due to fewer available subsidies, or even if the insurers participate in marketplaces, the plans themselves might be more expensive.

When asked on Monday if the White House would take CBO scores into account to the extent that they would go “back to the drawing board” on the bill if necessary, press secretary Sean Spicer answered that the White House would continue its current plan on health care reform.

“We feel very confident with where the bill is,” he stated. “And he [President Donald Trump] is going to continue to listen to senators who have ideas about how to strengthen it. But it's going to follow the same plan as we have.”

 

Detroit event combines biking, sacred architecture

Detroit, Mich., Jun 27, 2017 / 10:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Nearly 250 pilgrims made their way through downtown Detroit visiting different churches on Sunday.

What made this a spectacle? They were all riding along on two wheels.

“I love these architectural gems that were gifts to us from prior generations of the faithful. I love biking, I love bringing people together, I love celebrating our heritage as Detroiters,” said event organizer Danielle Center. “So here we are, the marriage of all these things.”

Center told the Detroit Free Press that she expected about 20 people to show up to the event, named “Holy Rollin’.” She had wanted to put on such a gathering for years, but feared that people would be reluctant to bike downtown Detroit, which has been undergoing a process of depopulation for years.

However, her fears turned out to be groundless: though she had expected 20 bikers to show up, more than ten times as many brought their wheels to downtown.

“To have so many people here is pretty special,” Annie Schunior told the Detroit Free Press.

Bikers stopped at four churches after departing from Center’s workplace, Ste. Anne – St. Aloysius, Sts. Peter and Paul, Old St. Mary, and St. Joseph Oratory. At each, bikers got a taste of the art and history of each building.

“In the Catholic church there is a lot of beautiful art but there are not a lot of opportunities for people to tour and see it,” said Schunior.

Fr. Loren Connell gave the group a tour at St. Aloysius, saying he welcomed the chance to let such a group into the church building.

"It's about hospitality," he told the Detroit Free Press. "We open our doors to street people and visitors and everyone in between."

'Texting suicide' case could impact assisted suicide legislation

Boston, Mass., Jun 27, 2017 / 03:25 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A case about whether a troubled teenager convinced her depressed boyfriend to commit suicide through her words and text messages may have possible implications for physician-assisted suicide cases.

On June 16, a Massachusetts judge ruled that Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, for words and texts exchanged with her depressed boyfriend Conrad Roy III as he attempted to commit suicide two years ago. Both Carter and Roy were teenagers at the time.

The ruling of manslaughter was decided based on Carter’s words to Roy, mostly in a phone call, urging him to re-enter a truck she knew to be full of carbon dioxide, where he was attempting his suicide. Carter had also sent Roy numerous texts encouraging his suicide and later texted a friend about her phone call with Roy.

In Massachusetts, an involuntary manslaughter charge can be brought when an individual causes the death of another person by engaging in behavior that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.

While some states have laws that criminalize the encouragement of suicide, Massachusetts does not, complicating Carter’s case.

Legal experts wonder whether the case could set new legal precedents when it comes to legalizing assisted suicide.

Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University school of law, told USA Today that the case may set a precedent of criminalizing those who sympathize with someone who expresses a desire for assisted suicide.

“Don’t forget, there’s a still a big societal debate going on about assisted suicide,” he said. “This sort of verdict would imply that anyone being sympathetic to a loved one could be at fault.”

Matthew Segal, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the verdict “is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words.”

Anti-assisted suicide groups believe that the case is significant because of the weight it places on outside pressures on already vulnerable people to take their lives, though it remains unclear if the case will set any legal precedent regarding the issue in reality.  

Tim Rosales, a spokesperson for Patient’s Rights Action Fund, told CNA that when it comes to assisted suicide, there are often outside pressures that can influence the person’s decision to end their life.

“Whether it’s the denial of a certain type of treatment, or there is the insinuation by a physician or a family member or someone close to them about the potential of assisted suicide versus (continued care), all of those go into someone’s mindset and decision making,” he said.  

These outside pressures can be particularly strong “when they’re in a vulnerable state, and mental illness as well as physical illness can be one of those things that puts people in a vulnerable state,” Rosales said.  

“I think we have to be exceedingly cautious and that’s one of the big reasons why you have a lot of opposition to something like assisted suicide, because at its very core it is fraught with the possibility for abuse or dangers,” he said.

“I think in (the Carter case) certainly the dynamics surrounding it kind of give us an indication of how vulnerable people can be at times and how influential those close to us are during those vulnerable times.”

John B. Kelly, New England Regional Director of the disability advocacy and anti-assisted suicide group Not Dead Yet, told CNA that he does not believe the Carter case will affect future assisted suicide legislation because the decision drew heavily from a 2002 case, Commonweath v. Levesque.

In the case of Commonwealth v. Levesque, homeless couple Thomas S. Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes were found responsible for the death of six firefighters who ran into a factory building as it burned. Levesque and Barnes had been living in the factory, escaped the fire and failed to report it.

In the Carter case, Judge Lawrence Moniz drew from the case directly in his verdict, saying that “where one's actions create a life-threatening risk to another, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk. The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter.”

“I don’t think that it adds any legal precedent to deciding what are words and what’s coercion (in assisted suicide cases),” Kelly told CNA.

“But I think we can say that words matter, and that this ruling underlines the commonsense notion that we make choices in a context, and that those contexts can be influenced by other people,” he said.

“Assisted suicide proponents argue that an individual makes that choice freely without any impact, but we know that it’s hard to choose...when you’re seen as a burden by those around you and your doctor thinks you would be better off dead, those are influences that would be very difficult for vulnerable people to resist.”

 

 

 

The bishops have spoken up on two very different issues – and now the Supreme Court will, too

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 12:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Supreme Court wrapped up its latest term on Monday, it agreed to consider a major religious freedom case, as well as the case of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, this fall.

Both topics have drawn concern from the U.S. bishops, who have urged respect for freedom of conscience and religion in the face of legalized gay marriage, while criticizing the travel ban for abandoning vulnerable refugees in need.  

The court agreed to hear two cases next term which could prove to have major impacts – the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involves the rights of a baker to refuse out of conscience to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

The latter case was relisted 14 times by the Supreme Court, which finally took it up on Monday, SCOTUSBlog.com reported.

“The issue in this case is a free speech case; whether or not the state of Colorado can coerce a person to write a message through culinary arts that violates his conscience,” said Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the baker Jack Phillips in the case.

Phillips, who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo. and has run the shop for over 23 years, explained on Monday how he operates his business in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The shop is “not just a bakery, but a place where I can use my artistic vision and talents to create cakes that communicate just the right message for my clients,” he said. “I gladly welcome and serve everyone that comes into my shop.”

His store is closed on Sundays and he refuses to craft cakes with messages that run contrary to his values, such as anti-American, atheist, or racist messages. He added that “my sincerely-held religious belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman.”

“In 2012, I was stunned when I became the target of a lawsuit relying on sexual orientation gender identity law that offers no exemptions for people of faith,” he said.

After he had declined to make a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said he had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The couple was able to obtain a rainbow-themed cake at another shop in the vicinity of Masterpiece.

Phillips said he was barred by the commission from serving any weddings and ended up losing 40 percent of his business, “a crushing loss.” He was also ordered by the commission to enter anti-discrimination re-education, and submit quarterly reports on updating the policies of the business.

Furthermore, Phillips said he began receiving “vile and hateful calls at the shop, including one death threat that was so bad, that I hid my daughter and granddaughter in the back until the police arrived.”

On Monday, after the Supreme Court agreed to take Phillips’ case, lawyers for ADF hoped that the Court would ultimately uphold his free speech rights.

“We’re hopeful that the Court will affirm the basic principle that the government cannot punish artists like Jack for refusing to create art that violates his religious convictions,” said senior counsel Kristin Waggoner.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court also ruled on Monday that a travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries may go into partial effect, as the ban awaits a hearing and full consideration by the high court in October.

The court blocked full implementation of the executive order originally released by President Donald Trump in January, saying that the ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”  

Thus, family members, students and employees from the six designated countries who wish to visit, live or work in the United States will be able to do so. Those who lack such ties to the U.S. will be banned under the executive order.

The order in question bars persons from six majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days, and also requires that refugees wait 120 days before entering the country. The executive order also lowers the number of refugees accepted by the United States in FY 2017 to 50,000 – down from the 110,000 person limit and the 85,000 refugees accepted in actuality during FY 2016.

Initially released January 27, the executive order was then revised on March 6 after judicial challenge. The modified version removed Iraq from the list of countries subject to the ban, and also walked back provisions that would have prioritized refugee admissions for persecuted religious minorities.

The bans were challenged by courts in Maryland and Hawaii, who blocked them from taking effect. Those rulings were later upheld by federal appeals courts in Virginia and California, respectively, on grounds that they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, asking that the stay be lifted and the ban go into effect until arguments are heard before the Supreme Court later this year.

The Supreme Court’s decision only removes part of the stay on the administration’s executive order, allowing the travel and refugee bans to continue against those with no existing ties to the United States. Many of the plaintiffs in the original cases brought in Hawaii and Maryland had family members, schools or employers based in the U.S.

The executive order has come under harsh criticism by the U.S. Bishops and Catholic refugee experts. Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on migration, stated that the bishops were “deeply troubled by the human consequences of the revised executive order on refugee admissions and the travel ban,” after the ban’s March revision. “The revised Order still leaves many innocent lives at risk,” he said.

“The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal,” the bishop said.

“However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.”

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations at Catholic Relief Services, echoed many of Bishop Vasquez’s sentiments, urging in a March 6 statement that “now is not the time for the world’s leader in refugee resettlement to back down.”

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference runs one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, helping to resettle more than a quarter of all of the refugees admitted to the United States annually.

 

Supreme Court rules in favor of church in crucial First Amendment case

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 11:32 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In one of the biggest religious cases of the term, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote June 26 that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran,” the church at the center of the case, “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer was about “religious people being treated just like everybody else,” stated Mike Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom.

At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and operated by the church’s preschool. To resurface the playground for safety reasons, the church had applied for a state reimbursement program that provides rubber surfacing material made from used tires. Trinity Lutheran had ranked the fifth most qualified out of 44 applicants for the program.

The state’s natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status. The Missouri state constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the Court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the free exercise clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.

He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s opinion.

The Church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.

It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.

Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.

Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”

The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed by Congress.

In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.

Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions, and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated.

“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, stated. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”

“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."

The decision “will have an effect” in the future, David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the Court in April, said. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.

Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and who filed an amicus brief with colleagues on behalf of Trinity Lutheran in the case, stated that “today’s decision affirms the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion—to have more than just a belief but to live out your faith without discrimination from the government.”

The case was ultimately between the church and the state’s natural resources department. Missouri’s attorney general recused himself in the case.

Missouri’s governor Eric Greitens (R) had already announced that in the future, religious institutions could be eligible for benefit programs of the natural resources department. However, the Court stated on Monday that “that announcement does not moot this case.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, stated that “this case is about nothing less” than the relationship “between church and state.”

“The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” she added. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “it is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel.”

“But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.’” And a church being denied participation in public benefits because of its religious character can be such an “indirect coercion” on the free exercise of religion, he continued.

“In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”

What does it mean to be a 'pro-life' police officer?

Washington D.C., Jun 24, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “Ultimately, this report is about the sanctity of all human life.”

This remarkable line opens up an international police group's flagship document on how to improve incidents of officer-involved shootings and the kinds of non-armed crisis situations that take place regularly across the United States.

“The essence of policing is the preservation of life,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., told CNA.

“That's why we exist; life is very precious, and we have to remind ourselves of that.”

This ethic of protecting human life extends even to the use of force in responding to incidents, Wexler argued: “Everything should be what we have to do to preserve human life – especially in the area of use of force.”

This principle, that human life is sacred has found itself at the core of PERF's work as an independent research and policy organization that looks at best practices in policing, as well as assistance, education and advice for law enforcement agencies.

With the idea that “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does” at the center of the organization's 30 Guiding Principles on the Use of Force and training guide, the group is already revolutionizing the way police departments approach policies on force and the response to crisis situations.

Keeping everyone safe

The pro-life approach to police work is part of a years-long project undertaken by PERF, which has more than 2500 members from around the globe.

Wexler explained that the organization was inspired to readjust their recommended policies and training after high-profile cases of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere sparked a national conversation on the appropriate force.

“We needed to take a hard look at what we were doing,” he said.

It's hard to capture the scope of the issue of police-involved shootings in the United States, because there is no data or source of official reports that's collected on a national level.

FBI Director James B. Comey explained in a 2015 speech at Georgetown University that the federal agency can't even investigate the issue because “reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all.”

This means that any information available is at best unreliable, and hampers both investigating and addressing the issue, the director said.

In its report, PERF pointed to attempts by journalists at the Guardian and the Washington Post to help fill this void of data by documenting the number of people killed in officer-involved shootings in the United States. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., also collects data on allegations of police misconduct, including shootings, at the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.

PERF furthermore noted that according to the data collected by the Washington Post, nearly one-third of fatal police-involved shootings in 2015 could have a significant potential for de-escalation, either because the subject killed was mentally ill, unarmed, or armed with a weapon that was not a firearm.

Wexler was assisting colleagues in Scottish police departments when these issues rose to public prominence in 2014. It occurred to Wexler that these colleagues – most of whom are not armed in departments in the United Kingdom – still must respond to and stay safe when dealing with incidents involving weapons like bats or knives, without the option of deadly force.

“For me it was an epiphany,” Wexler said. He asked himself, “If they can do it, why can't we?”

PERF had researchers spend time studying police tactics in Scotland as well as in special emergency units in New York City and other departments around the United States. While the organization’s later research made a point not to blame most of the officers at the center of these events, PERF reassessed the training and policies surrounding the use of force in challenging situations.

“It really got us to think about how to re-engineer use of force policy and training,” Wexler said.

The result of their research was a document outlining guiding principles on the use of force and a training guide to teach officers how to better diffuse situations where de-escalation is possible. The guiding principles document notes that in most non-firearm cases “the threat is not immediate and the officers will have options for considering a more methodical, organized approach,” and many lives have the potential to be saved.

All of this is about trying to de-escalate a situation, giving officers the tools they need to do that.

It is this potential for saving lives – and not only the lives of civilians who interact with the police – which is the focus of the revised guidelines and tactics. PERF's research states that changing approaches to incidents can increase officer safety, too.

“Rather than unnecessarily pushing officers into harm's way in some circumstances, there may be opportunities to slow those situations down, bring more resources to the scene, and utilize sound decision-making that is designed to keep officers safe, while also protecting the public,” the report states.

In its findings, the document emphasizes the sanctity of human life as well as administering life-saving aid, transparency in reporting officer-involved shooting, use of less lethal options, and promoting effective means of managing mental illness in crisis situations.

The documents also criticize “line in the sand” policies and other training and field tactics which they found escalated, rather than calmed, crisis situations not involving firearms.

Wexler also said the principles of proportionality and effective communication are key to protecting the lives of all involved.

“All of this is about trying to de-escalate a situation, giving officers the tools they need to do that,” emphasizing the importance of teamwork, tactical skills and crisis intervention. “What's really important is the safety of the officer and the safety of the person you're dealing with.”

From the church to the streets

These policies aimed at respecting the dignity of life are not just formulated in an abstract environment, but with feedback from around the world.

“We have consulted with literally hundreds of police officers and police departments. We met and studied best practices around the country,” Wexler said.  

The research organization consulted with hundreds of police chiefs for over two years, and looked at countless case studies and reports to put together their findings and then their training program.

“We would not be recommending something if we didn't think it would work, and we've seen enough cases in the United States and in other countries where some may already be doing it or are in the process of implementing it.”

One of the other sources Wexler and PERF president, Scott Thompson, consulted in putting together the report was the archbishop of the largest city in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“The person who we thought would really be interested in this concept was Cardinal Dolan in New York,” Wexler recalled. “We went to see Cardinal Dolan because we thought our principles, and in particular that principle, would be very significant to him.”

Cardinal Dolan was elected as the chairman-elect of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life activities beginning his term as chair in 2015.

“We had a really good meeting and he really understood and embraced” the core principle of protecting life, Wexler said. “It was something he could be very supportive of.”

There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations.

PERF mentioned that Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has also lent his support in helping the group's training programs for the Chicago Police Department.

While the police policy guidelines have been met with support among the hundreds of departments who worked with PERF, the organization’s focus on prioritizing the sanctity of the lives of all persons involved in police incidents has not been without controversy.

“There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations,” Wexler acknowledged.

When PERF first released its guidelines in March 2016, it was met with harsh criticism from both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done,” the organizations said in a joint response to PERF’s initial report.

A year later, however, national police organizations have started to adopt consensus principles that echo many of the ideas emphasized by PERF.

In a document laying out “National Consensus Policy” on the use of force, released in January 2017, 11 national police organizations – including the FOP and IACP – emphasized the importance of de-escalation policies, “reasonably prudent” responses, and less-lethal force. The policy also asks that departments around the country openly state that the “policy of this law enforcement agency is to value and preserve human life.”

While Wexler said he could not comment on these adaptations, he did say the shift in focus to emphasize the dignity and value of all lives – even in the most challenging situations – is a “difficult” shift in perspective: “The changes we're recommending are probably some of the biggest changes in police tactics that we’ve seen in 25 years.”

And the size of the policing community in the United States – more than 18,000 departments – only adds to the challenge.

Still, while the values and emphasis in police policy might still face some debate, PERF's training and concrete policies have met with wide acceptance.

“We've had no pushback from our training,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of departments who have come to their training workshops in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.

With this support in the year since putting out the guidelines and what they've seen in the research process, Wexler is confident that they can create a culture that defends the sanctity of human life in all aspects of its police work.

“I'm optimistic that in five years, this will no longer be controversial,” Wexler said. “This will be the way people handle these situations.”

 

This article was originally published on CNA April 7, 2017.

Judge halts deportations of Chaldean Christians to Iraq

Detroit, Mich., Jun 23, 2017 / 03:26 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A district court judge on Thursday halted the deportation of more than 100 Iraqis, including many Chaldean Christians, who were recently picked up by immigration officers and detained.

“We are thankful and relieved that our clients will not be immediately sent to Iraq, where they face grave danger of persecution, torture or death,” Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, which represented the Iraqi nationals, stated in response to the ruling.

On Sunday, June 11, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement began picking up Iraqi nationals in the Detroit metropolitan area who had previous criminal records.

Ultimately, 114 Iraqis were picked up, some reportedly at their homes in front of their families and others in public places like restaurants. They were detained and informed of their immanent deportation.

Many of the detainees were Chaldean Christians, and members of the local Chaldean Church were dismayed at the arrests.

ICE stated that the detainees had criminal records and although they had entered the U.S. legally and had not yet become citizens, they were no longer eligible for full citizenship. Furthermore, they had been ordered for removal by a federal judge, although in some cases the orders were reportedly decades old.

Iraq had previously refused to accept the Chaldeans, “in some cases, for humanitarian reasons,” Thursday’s decision read.

However, they recently agreed to accept them as part of a deal with the U.S. that removed Iraq’s place on a list of countries where foreign nationals were barred from traveling to the U.S., except in special cases, as part of President Donald Trump’s immigration executive order.

Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit insisted that many of those who were detained were responsible residents since they had served their time in prison, and that many of the crimes had been committed decades prior to the June 11 arrests.

Pleas to stay the deportations reportedly reached the highest levels of government. The ACLU represented the Chaldeans in court, filing a habeas corpus action petition on their behalf, while the Knights of Columbus and members of Congress wrote Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Leading U.S. bishops also wrote Secretary Kelly, advocating for a stay on the deportations until Iraq could guarantee the safety of religious minorities.

“Returning religious minorities to Iraq at this time, without specific plans for protection, does not appear consistent with our concerns about genocide and persecution of Christians in Iraq,” a letter by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chair of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee, and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the bishops’ migration committee, stated.

“The persecution that the Christian and Chaldean Catholic community has faced in Iraq is well- documented,” they added. “The deportations to this same country, under such scrutiny for abuse and genocide of Christian and other minorities, seems to run counter to what is happening in other parts of our government.”

Lawyers for the detainees insisted that under the Convention Against Torture they should not be sent back to a country where they have a reasonable expectation of persecution.

Furthermore, since the detainees have already served their prison sentences for their previous crimes, “we believe it would not be just or humane to deport a person who has integrated into American life and poses no evident risk to the local community,” the bishops continued.

This past week, Bishop Kalabat noted in a Facebook post that Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako was also involved in the efforts to halt the deportations, and “spoke with an international Catholic organization that are in contact with Vice President Pence directly.”

Bishop Kalabat also said he had appealed to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to pardon all those who had state felonies.

Then on June 22, Judge Goldsmith granted a two-week stay on the deportations of the Iraqi nationals “within the jurisdiction of the Detroit ICE Field Office with final orders of removal, who have been, or will be, arrested and detained by ICE.”

“In light of these complex jurisdictional issues, and the speed with which the Government is moving to remove Petitioners, it is necessary to stay Petitioners’ removal pending the Court’s determination regarding its jurisdiction,” Judge Goldsmith stated.

He also cited the threat of “irreparable harm” claimed by the detainees through the “significant chance of loss of life and lesser forms of persecution” if they were to be deported to Iraq, as well as “the public interest” in due process that their requests for relief be heard by a federal court before their deportation.

“The court took a life-saving action by blocking our clients from being immediately sent back to Iraq,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, stated. “They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return.”

US Senate healthcare bill 'unacceptable as written', bishops warn

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2017 / 11:10 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. bishops' conference has warned that the proposed Senate health care bill will put serious burdens on poor families and is “unacceptable as written.”

After the draft of a Senate health care bill was finally released on Thursday, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, stated that “this proposal retains many of the fundamental defects of the House of Representatives-passed health care legislation, and even further compounds them.”

He had previously explained, in a March letter to members of Congress, how the House bill was problematic for vulnerable populations such as the poor, the seriously ill, and the elderly.

After the Senate draft, known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act, was released June 22, he reiterated that “it is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written.”

After the House narrowly voted May 2 to pass its own version of a health care reform bill, the US bishops wrote to Senators urging them to reject the “grave deficiencies” of the American Health Care Act.

The bishops had asked the Senate to reject major changes to Medicaid, to retain protections for human life, to increase tax assistance for those with low-income and the elderly, to retain a cap on health care plan costs for the elderly, to protect immigrants, and to add health care protections.

Senate Republicans released the draft version of their bill after weeks of anticipation and controversy that the draft was being worked on behind closed doors. The bill would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act.

A major sticking point for pro-life groups and the U.S. bishops was Hyde Amendment-language protecting taxpayer subsidies from being used to pay for abortions.

However, pro-life leaders are concerned – or are even certain – that the pro-life language will be removed by the Senate Parliamentarian before the bill reaches the Senate floor.

This could happen because the language might be determined to be not pertaining to the rules of budget reconciliation. Since the bill may be passed through the budget reconciliation process – thus requiring a simple majority vote, rather than the normal 60 votes needed to bring it to the floor for a vote – its measures would need to be ruled as pertaining to the budget.

Senate Republicans can also afford no more than two members of their party voting against the bill, as no Democrats are expected to support it. Several moderate Republicans in the chamber have voiced concern about the bill, and four conservatives have said the draft does not go far enough in repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The draft also strips Planned Parenthood of taxpayer funding and redirects that funding to community health centers which do not provide abortions.

Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, approved of the Planned Parenthood language but added that “the reality is that necessary pro-life protections in this bill will be stripped by the Senate Parliamentarian, as we have now publicly heard from two Senators.”

The Washington Examiner reported Wednesday that Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both admitted that the Senate Parliamentarian would not approve of the pro-life language being used in a bill passed by reconciliation.

“If this happens, one of the most egregious aspects of Obamacare – tax credits for plans covering abortion – will continue under this Administration and Congress,” Mancini continued.

Pro-life groups have insisted that the Affordable Care Act ushered in a massive expansion of abortion funding through tax credits paying for abortions and federally-subsidized plans offering abortion coverage, without sufficient guarantees that the subsidies were not being used themselves to pay for the abortion coverage.

While President Obama issued an executive order forbidding taxpayer dollars from funding abortions under the health care law, many – including then-president of the U.S. bishops, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago – insisted that would not offer sufficient guarantee against taxpayer dollars funding abortions.

A 2014 GAO report found that in five states, all the taxpayer-subsidized plans offered on the health exchanges covered abortions, thus leaving no choices for those who wanted a health plan on the exchanges which did not include abortion coverage.

Furthermore, the report found that 15 insurance issuers and one state exchange were not billing abortion coverage separately from other coverage in federally-subsidized plans, thus leaving open the possibility that federal dollars were going to fund abortion coverage.

“The expectations of the pro-life movement have been very clear: The health care bill must not indefinitely subsidize abortion and must re-direct abortion giant Planned Parenthood’s taxpayer funding to community health centers,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said in a joint statement released Friday.

“The Senate discussion draft includes these pro-life priorities, but we remain very concerned that either of these priorities could be removed from the bill for procedural or political reasons,” they added.

“We are working closely with our pro-life allies in the Senate to prevent this from happening as it could result in our opposition.”

Bishop Dewane echoed those concerns that the pro-life language could be stripped from the bill. He insisted as well that “full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill.”

Moreover, there are other serious problems with the Senate draft legislation that carry over from the House bill, he maintained.

Changes to Medicaid could cut vital coverage for low-income families; conscience protections for everyone in the health care system are lacking; and access for immigrants to health care would not be furthered, he said, which the bishops pointed out as one of the problems in the Affordable Care Act when it was passed in 2010.

The “per-capita cap” on Medicaid dollars to states would limit Medicaid funding based on the populations of the states themselves, “and then connects yearly increases to formulas that would provide even less to those in need than the House bill,” the bishop stated.

“These changes will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported,” he stated.

While efforts to assist people “living at an above the poverty line” are laudable, he continued, the proposed bill “stands to cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net.”

The bill would phase out the expansion of Medicaid more gradually than did the House's version, but the program would see larger cuts in the long run under the Senate's plan.

Bread for the World, a social welfare organization of Christians that advocates for the ending of hunger the US and abroad, was also critical of the Senate bill's changes to Medicaid, saying it will increase hunger and poverty domestically.

“Rolling back the Medicaid expansion at a slower rate still means that millions of vulnerable Americans will lose their health care coverage,” said David Beckmann, Bread for the World's president. “Without health insurance, people must often choose between putting food on the table and receiving the medical care they need.”

He charged that “any senator who supports this bill will be voting to take away health insurance from the elderly, people with disabilities, and children.”

Bishop Dewane also said the bill “fails, as well, to put in place conscience protections for all those involved in the health care system, protections which are needed more than ever in our country's health policy,” he stated.

For instance, the bill could set up conscience protections for religious organizations that refuse to comply with previous mandates that coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives be provided in their employee health plans, the bishop noted. Or doctors who conscientiously refuse to perform abortions or gender-transition procedures could be protected against federal or state mandates that they do so.

“The Senate should now act to make changes to the draft that will protect those persons on the peripheries of our health care system,” Bishop Dewane stated.