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NYC Catholic schools in session while pandemic closes public schools

CNA Staff, Nov 19, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic schools in New York City will remain open for in-person learning on a school-by-school basis even as the city’s public schools have closed amid a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We intend to keep our buildings open regardless of decisions made by Mayor de Blasio regarding NYC public schools,” Superintendent Michael Deegan said in a Nov. 14 letter to parents of Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of New York.

When the letter was sent, there was expectation that New York’s public schools would soon close to in-person learning.

On Nov. 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools would “temporarily” suspend in-person classes.

The decision to suspend in-person learning in public schools was made after one set of data found that the city’s coronavirus test positivity rate was 3%. Metrics shared by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference Wednesday, however, stated that the city’s positivity rate was 2.5%, not yet at the anticipated threshold for school closure.

On Thursday, Cuomo was part of a bipartisan group of governors from the northeast who signed a statement calling in-person learning the “best possible scenario” for children.

“Our Catholic schools operate independently of New York City public schools,” said Deegan in his letter.

 He said that if public schools were to close, the archdiocese’s schools “will remain open until the Health and Safety Task Force of the Office of the Superintendent, working with officials from the New York State Department of Health and the governor’s office determines otherwise.”

Deegan wrote that his schools would remain open “for as long as safety allows.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn, whose territory includes the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, issued a similar statement on November 15.

“Every member of our school community has truly dedicated themselves to keeping our schools as safe as possible in the wake of this Coronavirus pandemic, and the results prove these efforts have worked,” said Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese.

“For more than eight weeks, we have been able to maintain in-person learning for our students, mostly five days a week, and we intend to keep doing so going forward this school year,” he said, adding that it is “critical” for child development to keep schools open.

“Our children want to be in the classroom and we want them to be there for as long as safely possible,” said Chadzutko.

On Twitter, Deegan stated that the city’s two Catholic dioceses “stand united” on the issue of keeping schools open.

“As long as we remain vigilant on the health and safety of our school communities--which we have been--we should be able to educate our children in the best way possible,” said Deegan on November 16.

The Diocese of Brooklyn has 69 Catholic schools; the Archdiocese of New York administers 172 schools. Combined, the two school systems educate approximately 84,000 children in grades kindergarten through 12. New York City’s public schools started the in-person school year on September 29, nearly three full weeks after the Catholic schools began classes in-person on September 9.

While cases of coronavirus have continued to spike throughout the country, schools have largely not been the sources of these infections.

According to Public Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on Wednesday, only 0.19% of teachers in the city had tested positive for coronavirus.


US religious liberty ambassador calls out China for using tech to suppress religion

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 19, 2020 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- The U.S. will be working against the use of technology to suppress religious minorities, the religious freedom ambassador announced this week.

“The United States announced today that we will pursue the topic of misuse of technology to oppress religious minorities,” said Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, on a Nov. 17 press call about the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Brownback cited China’s abuses against Uyghurs; it has created a “virtual police state” to track the movements of the population and to engage in predictive policing.

“We’re seeing this graphically done in Xinjiang, where high-tech observation systems using artificial intelligence and facial recognition are oppressing a dominantly Muslim majority from practicing its faith, this along with being locked up in detention facilities – over a million Muslim Uyghurs locked up in detention facilities,” Brownback said.

Poland hosted the third annual ministerial, held virtually Nov. 16-17 due to the pandemic. The meeting featured leaders from more than 50 countries and international organizations. The United States hosted the first two ministerials in 2018 and 2019.

Callista Gingrich, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, stated Nov. 16 that “[u]pholding the right to religious freedom is not just a moral necessity. It is a national security imperative. When nations effectively protect religious freedom, they are safer, more prosperous, and secure.”

Brownback was asked about the recent election of presumptive President-elect Joe Biden, and what a new administration might mean for the future of religious freedom in U.S. diplomacy.

The ambassador said he was “optimistic” because promoting international religious freedom “is a bipartisan movement” that “goes deeply into the American psyche.”

The new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, with 32 member countries, “is not going to stop with the change of an administration,” he added.

One of the priorities for the U.S. in the coming year will be countering China’s deployment of a “virtual police state” to suppress Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims, among others.

“And we want to stop this from spreading to other countries around the world or spreading more to other countries around the world,” he said.

Some other priorities for the U.S. next year include advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience and the repeal of blasphemy laws, Brownback said.

“We advocated for prisoners of conscience to be released during the pandemic,” he said, adding that “literally thousands of religious prisoners were released” in several countries.

“There are 10 countries in the world that give – they give the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy,” he said, noting that the U.S. is working “for all of them to be repealed as a undue restriction on people’s religious freedom.”

City repeals law limiting pro-life outreach at Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic

CNA Staff, Nov 18, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- A law that curtailed pro-life outreach at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi has been repealed by the city of Jackson, leading to the dismissal of a legal challenge against the ordinance.

“This is a major victory for free speech for Jackson and the state of Mississippi,” Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, told the NBC affiliate WLBT.

The ordinance, adopted in October 2019, prohibited protesters from approaching within eight feet of another person, unless that person consents, for the purpose of handing a leaflet, displaying a sign, engaging in oral protest, or educating or counseling a person within 100 feet of a healthcare facility.

The ordinance also prohibited congregations or demonstrations within 15 feet of a healthcare facility entrance, as well as shouting and amplified sound with 100 feet as long as the area is marked as a “quiet zone.”

Violators of the ordinance faced a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in prison, or both.

The lawsuit, filed by Concord, N.C. resident Philip Benham, was joined by members of Sidewalk Advocates for Life – Jackson and the Mississippi Justice Institute. It said that pro-life protesters often have to shout in order to be heard above the loud music that the abortion clinic plays in order to drown out the protesters’ speech.

The appellants in the lawsuit were volunteers for Sidewalk Advocates for Life, and they often congregated outside the state’s last abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The facility performs abortions up to 16 weeks into pregnancy.

Sidewalk Advocates for Life said the outreach had success in Jackson in 2019, when 30 women turned away from the abortion clinic and sought alternatives in the area.

“The sidewalk counselors aren’t there to yell at anybody, aren’t there to scream at anybody, they’re just there to tell people that don’t know there is another option that you don’t have to do this,” Brett Kittredge, director of marketing and communications with Mississippi Center for Public Policy, told CNA in October 2019.

Court documents said the repeal took effect Nov. 16. Although city attorney Tim Howard said the city council repealed the ordinances, WLBT was unable to determine at what council meeting the repeal took place.

Andy Taggart of the law firm Taggart, Rimes and Graham, who worked as pro bono counsel on the case, welcomed the move.

“The city of Jackson has rescinded an ordinance that should have never been the law to begin with, and at least for now, things are set right,” he said, according to WLBT.

The lawsuit argued that the ordinance had a chilling effect on the protesters’ speech, prevents them from engaging in peaceful assemblies, and “irreparably harms persons patronizing the abortion facility by denying them access to useful information regarding the alternatives to abortion.”

The suit also argued that the ordinance was a content-based regulation of speech, since it prohibited certain speakers from participating in certain types of speech while allowing others to engage in the same type of speech.

At the national level, Sidewalk Advocates for Life trains volunteers to offer women alternatives to abortion. The organization says that nearly 7,000 women nationwide have freely chosen not to abort in the past five years thanks to their advocacy. They describe their ministry as “prayerful and peaceful.”

Colorado and Montana both have buffer zone laws in effect at abortion clinics.

A federal appeals court in February 2019 upheld the constitutionality of a 2009 Chicago ordinance that created an 8-foot buffer zone outside medical facilities, while several other cities, such as Philadelphia, have had buffer zone ordinances struck down, the Associated Press has reported.

A 2007 Massachusetts “buffer zone” law forbade sidewalk counseling within 35 feet of an abortion clinic, but the Supreme Court in June 2014 unanimously ruled it a violation of the First Amendment. The law imposed “serious burdens” on the counselors, the court wrote, adding that sidewalks have traditionally been a forum for “the exchange of ideas.”

In the U.K., the High Court of England and Wales upheld a buffer zone order around a London abortion clinic in a July 2018 decision. Pro-life advocates lost their appeal of the decision in August 2019.

Virtual photo exhibit seeks to tell diverse Catholics' stories

Denver Newsroom, Nov 18, 2020 / 06:31 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops on Tuesday praised a virtual exhibit created by the Diocese of Green Bay, which features portraits of racially diverse Catholics from the diocese and testimonies about their experiences.

The exhibit, Open Wide Our Hearts, was developed by Peter Weiss, the Living Justice Advocate for the Diocese of Green Bay. Weiss told CNA that his job is primarily a teaching role, seeking to promote Catholic social teaching and raise awareness of problems of injustice.

In 2017, the same year Weiss started at his current position, the U.S. bishops formed the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in response to increasing racial tensions and an outburst of violence in Charlottesville, when a white nationalist attacked counter-protesters of a far-right gathering, killing three and injuring 19.

Since its formation, the committee has produced an award-winning children’s book on healing and reconciliation, as well as organizing a day of prayer and fasting in reparation for sins of racism this summer. The bishops this week voted overwhelmingly to renew the ad hoc committee for another three-year period.

Weiss started to consider how he could use his position to help to bring the issue of racial justice into the conversation in Green Bay— a diocese which, he notes, is probably "about 90% white."

"The experiences of particular racial or ethnic groups is not the same as what the vast majority of people are having within our diocese. And I think it's important to reach out and find those stories, learn a little more, and find out what they can tell us about our understanding of ourselves as Catholics," he said.

On a personal level, Weiss said, reports of various killings of black men by police was disturbing to him, in no small part because he has several biracial nieces and nephews.

Around 2018, Weiss attended a traveling photo exhibit in his community chronicling the experiences of racially diverse people, and was inspired to create a similar project for the diocese.

Weiss admits that he had no prior experience as a photographer or a curator of art exhibits. So, that November, he enlisted the help of several leaders of various ethnic groups within the diocese as an advisory team.

The exhibit was inspired in part by the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts, which condemns racism as a failure to acknowledge others as children of God.

The exhibit features the portraits and testimonies of African Americans, Africans, Native Americans, Asians, and others, all of whom are Catholics who live in the diocese.

One of the portraits in the virtual gallery is of Gerry Martins, who is originally from India and who came to the U.S. as a Catholic missionary.

Martins told CNA that he was glad Weiss approached him to invite him to be a part of the project, adding that he is a photographer in addition to being a missionary and father.

The exhibit seeks to convey the honest experiences of diverse people within the Church, Weiss said, and is not explicitly "about" racism, though some of the subjects do talk about racism they have experienced firsthand.

Though Martins said he has not experienced any overt racism since he arrived in Wisconsin, moving to such a predominantly white area made him feel like he "stuck out" occasionally at Mass and at Catholic functions.

He said the project has been "prophetic" in a way, since the Catholic Church has, since the events of 2020, been focusing more and more on the topic of racism. Martins recently moved with his family to Augusta, Georgia, in the Diocese of Savannah, and he has shared the virtual gallery with many of his fellow Catholics in his new diocese. A lot of the feedback has been positive, he said.

Martins encouraged Catholics to be open to listening to other people's experiences, rather than staying closed in stereotypical views. He said he hopes Catholic people of various ethnicities will be open to talking about their culture and traditions.

"We need to be open to will be good to have these conversations so people feel included. We are an inclusive Church, and everyone is welcome in the body of Christ. I'm definitely hoping we can get the conversation started," he said.

The exhibit launched as a traveling in-person gallery during November 2019, and ran until March 2020, when it was forced to close amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When protests erupted during the summer of 2020, Weiss said he was inspired to work with the diocesan communications team to adapt the exhibit into an online presentation.

Weiss said he hopes people from all around the country will find the photos and stories compelling and relatable, even if they are specific to people within Green Bay. He said he also hopes that other dioceses may see the online exhibit and be inspired to create their own.

Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, chair of the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee against racism, praised the virtual exhibit Nov. 17 during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall meeting.

Treat churches like businesses during lockdowns, Americans say

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 18, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- As some states and cities reinstate restrictions meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus, a survey has found that Americans believe places of worship should not be subject to harsher regulations than are businesses.

The Becket Fund released Nov. 17 its second annual Religious Freedom Index, a study tracking Americans’ perspectives on religious freedom.

The index examines six categories of American thought on religious liberty: Religious Pluralism, Religion and Policy, Religious Sharing, Religion in Society, Church and State, and Religion in Action.

A majority of respondents in their survey said that government and public health officials should treat houses of worship such as synagogues, mosques, and churches with at least the same priority for re-opening as businesses such as malls, restaurants, and retail stores.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">.<a href="">@BECKETlaw</a>&#39;s second annual Religious Freedom Index found Americans think houses<br>of worship should be treated with at least the<br>same priority for reopening as businesses amid COVID restrictions: <a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Kate Scanlon (@kgscanlon) <a href="">November 18, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

More than 4 out of 5 respondents who said faith was important also said religious organizations should play a role in advocating for racial equality and justice, but less than half of that group said their faith community is doing enough to respond to those issues.

The study also found that amid a turbulent year including the coronavirus pandemic, national protests about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd in police custody, and a presidential election, Americans’ views on religious liberty have remained consistent through these challenges.

“Americans view faith as an essential, stabilizing force in the midst of a pandemic, and they want their elected officials to do a better job of protecting religious freedom,” Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket and co-editor of the index, said in a statement. “We will all be better off if our leaders and government officials respect the foundational value of religious freedom.”

Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at Becket and co-editor of the index, said in a statement, “When Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity, it is no surprise that that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life.”

“Respondents recognized that religion and people of faith can make unique contributions to the challenges faced this year,” Lyman added.

In a virtual panel marking the release of the report, Amrith Kaur, J.D., legal director at the Sikh Coalition, said the challenges of this year have brought to the forefront “the intertwining of faith and identity for many religious groups.”

Kaur said the closure of houses of worship were not the only challenge to religious liberty that arose amid the pandemic, adding that her organization worked with Sikh healthcare workers who felt pressure to shave their facial hair to accommodate N95 masks, even though unshorn hair is one of the five articles of their religious belif.

“It was a real teaching lesson, for us, for our clients, for their employers, for people in this space, and I think if this pandemic has taught the Sikh community anything, it’s that you should always be advocating for yourself, and I think people of faith really need to take that message home all the time.”