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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-MT), 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.