Browsing News Entries

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Venice illuminated in red for Asia Bibi, persecuted Christians

Venice, Italy, Nov 21, 2018 / 12:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- To express solidarity with persecuted Christians, including Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman recently acquitted of blasphemy, the city of Venice was illuminated in red light Tuesday night.

In a message of support for the initiative, Pope Francis said the event “will draw the due attention of all to the serious problem of discrimination that Christians suffer in many parts of the world.”

“There are countries where a religion is imposed, others where there is violent persecution or systematic cultural mockery towards the disciples of Jesus!” he said.

Starting after dark Nov. 20, eight historic Venetian buildings, as well as the Rialto Bridge and the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, will be lit up in the color red to bring awareness to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.

The same evening, young people from the Archdiocese of Venice will make a walking pilgrimage through the city to pray for persecuted Christians.

The event, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), follows a similar initiative in February, when the Colosseum was illuminated.

In 2017, ACN also illuminated in red London’s Parliament building, as well as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris and the cathedral in Manila, Philippines. The year before, the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome was lit.

From Nov. 21-Nov. 28, other major landmarks in the cities of Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, London, Sydney, and Washington, DC will also be illuminated in red for an evening.

This year’s initiative, organized in conjunction with the city of Venice and the Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia, is being put on in a particular way for Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi.

The mother-of-five was acquitted of blasphemy charges by Pakistan’s Supreme Court Oct. 31. However, her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.

Bibi had spent eight years on death row in Pakistan after she was accused of blasphemy for making disparaging remarks about the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Bibi’s family has asked that she be granted asylum in the United States, the United Kingdom, or in other countries around Europe. Italy has offered to help Bibi obtain asylum.

Pope Francis will travel to Romania in 2019

Vatican City, Nov 20, 2018 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis will visit Romania in 2019, according to Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest, president of the Romanian bishops’ conference.
 
Archbishop Robu met the pope Nov. 9, together with the bishops of Romania gathered in Rome for their ad limina visit.
 
“The meeting with the pope was long because each of us had the opportunity to talk,” Robu told CNA.
 
Although details of the meeting cannot be disclosed because they are part of a personal exchange between the pope and the bishops, Robu said that he could announce that Pope Francis will go to Romania next year.
 
“The date and program have not been set yet, the Holy See and Romanian administration will get to details in a further discussion. Also the Orthodox Church of Romania will be involved in the talks, as the majority religion in Romania. The pope, however, confirmed to us he will come in 2019,” Robu said.
 
As of 2011, there are 870,774 Catholics in Romania; 4.3 percent of the population. The Catholic Church is the second largest Romanian denomination after the Romanian Orthodox Church.
 
The Romanian bishops’ conference is composed of 17 bishops, including both bishops of Roman Catholic dioceses and Greek Catholic dioceses, that is, dioceses of the Byzantine rite.
 
Robu said that relations between the Catholic Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church vary according to the rite.
 
“There are no tensions,” he said, “between Orthodox and Catholics of the Latin rite, while the relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox are living a sort of winter.”
 
He added that the “winter” in their relationship is mostly generated by the discussion about the return of churches to the Greek Catholic Church.
 
In 1948, when the Communist party took over the country, the Greek Catholic Church was declared illegal and the property rights of as many as 2,500 Greek Catholic church buildings and other assets were transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
 
In 1989, in the wake of the Romanian revolution, the bill that declared the Greek Catholic Church outlawed was repealed, and the Romanian Greek Catholic Church could be restored.
 
Ever since, the Greek Catholic Church struggled to have its properties returned, and much of the original property has remained in Romanian Orthodox or government hands.

Robu mentioned “the case of the Greek Catholic cathedral of Baia Mara, which is the only cathedral not returned to the Greek Catholic Church.” He also said that “there are many churches that were not returned to their legitimate owner.”
 
Relations with the Romanian Orthodox Church is crucial.
 
St. John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, and so an eventual visit by Pope Francis in 2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of the first visit of a pope in the country. St. John Paul II had a wonderful relationship with Patriarch Teoctist, then head of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
 
Robu recounted that “when John Paul II came to Romania, the splendid relation between the pope and Patriarch Teoctist made all the difference: Orthodox, including Patriarch Teoctist, took part in the Catholic Mass, and Catholics, including John Paul II, took part in the Orthodox prayer.”
 
Times have changed, the archbishop added, and “I cannot see all of this being possible today. Patriarch Daniel, who took the helm of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2008, has not encouraged the celebration of joint prayers, nor with Catholics nor with any other religious denominations. There is not even anymore a joint prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”
 
Robu also said that “sometimes, in the case of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox, the Orthodox ask for a second Orthodox baptism to celebrate the wedding. Sometimes, when a Catholic is best man in an Orthodox wedding, the priest ask him to convert to Orthodoxy and sign the conversion in that very moment.”
 
It is still soon to preview how Pope Francis will eventually handle these issues, but it is almost certain that there will be a meeting with Patriarch Daniel.
 
Pope Francis will be welcomed by a flourishing Catholic Church in Romania.
 
Robu underscored that “the Romanian Church gave 44 fidei donum priests, spread in many European dioceses, and there are a lot of vocations, though they are decreasing.”

Federal judge sides with asylum-seeking migrants, blocks Trump order

Washington D.C., Nov 20, 2018 / 04:22 pm (CNA).- The Trump administration’s new rules limiting asylum for undocumented immigrants was wrong, says a federal judge who ruled they can still claim asylum even if they do not cross the border at an official point of entry.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said that President Donald Trump’s Nov. 9 proclamation violates  immigration law that clearly makes such migrants eligible to seek asylum.

“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” said Tigar, who temporarily blocked President Trump’s proclamation from taking effect at least until a Dec. 19 hearing.

Tigar, a President Barack Obama nominee, said the ban on asylum “irreconcilably conflicts” with immigration laws and with the “expressed intent of Congress.” He said the ban would put potential asylum seekers at “increased risk of violence and other harms at the border.”

Trump administration leaders defended the proclamation, claiming it was “lawful and tailored” and aimed at “controlling immigration in the national interest.”

The order cited the same powers in a Trump administration travel ban that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“As the Supreme Court affirmed this summer, Congress has given the President broad authority to limit or even stop the entry of aliens into this country,” Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldeman and Department of Justice spokesman Steven Stafford said in a statement.

“Our asylum system is broken, and it is being abused by tens of thousands of meritless claims every year,” they added, characterizing asylum as a “discretionary benefit” given by the executive branch only under certain legal conditions. They said they would continue to defend the executive branch’s “legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border.”

Trump’s order drew criticism from Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, and other Catholic leaders. They made a Nov. 14 joint statement responding to the proclamation.

“While our teaching acknowledges the right of each nation to regulate its borders, we find this action deeply concerning,” they said. “It will restrict and slow access to protection for hundreds of children and families fleeing violence in Central America, potentially leaving them in unsafe conditions in Mexico or in indefinite detention situations at the U.S.-Mexico border.”

“We reiterate that it is not a crime to seek asylum and this right to seek refuge is codified in our laws and in our values,” said the Catholic leaders.

Bishop Vasquez was joined in the statement by Sister Donna Markham, O.P., president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network; and Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

The Catholic leaders urged the Trump administration to seek “other solutions that will strengthen the integrity of the existing immigration system, while assuring access to protection for vulnerable children and families.”

They said the Catholic Church will continue to “serve, accompany and assist” all those who flee persecution, “regardless of where they seek such protection and where they are from.”

President Trump’s order was part of a response to the several migrant caravans reported to be headed to the U.S. from Central America. It was intended to last for 90 days unless Mexico agrees to allow U.S. immigration officials to deport to Mexico those Central Americans who have entered the U.S. at the southern border.

“We need people in our country, but they have to come in legally,” he said Nov. 9

According to DHS estimates, about 70,000 people a year claim asylum after crossing the border without documentation.

Recently media attention and immigration restriction advocates have focused on caravans of refugees and immigrants, sometimes growing or shrinking as they progress towards the U.S. border on a journey that can be dangerous.

The latest caravan of about 3,000 people has arrived in Tijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego. U.S. Border and Custom Protection officials said they closed northbound traffic at the San Ysidro crossing for several hours on Monday to install movable barriers in response to reports that there was a plan to rush the crossing. There was no rush, the Associated Press reports.

On Nov. 9 President Trump had said that the situation of people crossing the southern border has changed in recent decades. About two decades ago, the average person caught crossing the southern border was a single adult who was immediately returned to Mexico, and did not try to claim asylum or express fear about going back to their country of origin.

He claimed there has been a “massive increase” in fear-of-persecution or torture claims. While the “vast majority” satisfy the first asylum step of appearing to have a credible fear, only a “fraction” are ruled to qualify for asylum.

There are about 1.1. million asylum cases pending in immigration courts, and about 20 percent of applications for asylum are approved, the Associated Press reports.

Other officials who defended the new policy have said it would encourage migrants to pass through official border crossings where their asylum claims can find a fast hearing. The border is close to 2,000 miles long.

Between the active date of President Trump’s order and the court ruling, DHS had referred over 100 people who had sought asylum without going to an official crossing to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The president has advocated revoking the right to citizenship of babies who are born in the U.S. to non-U.S. citizens. His family separation policy came under strong criticism and was changed.

His travel ban on foreigners from several predominantly Muslim countries was blocked in federal court before the U.S. Supreme Court let it stand.

Most of his immigration actions have come through regulatory change and presidential orders, rather than through new legislation passed by Congress.

Winona-Rochester diocese to file for bankruptcy amid abuse lawsuits

Winona, Minn., Nov 20, 2018 / 03:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Diocese of Winona-Rochester will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it was announced Sunday. Bishop John Quinn wrote a letter explaining the decision, which was distributed in bulletins throughout the diocese.

In a recorded video statement posted on the diocesan website, Quinn said he was sorry, and that on behalf of his brother priests, he “offer(s) an apology to these survivors and acknowledge their pain and suffering,” and pledged to “remain vigilant” to prevent abuse in the future. He also said it was important to create an “environment of healing” for both abuse survivors and their families.

Quinn explained that due to the 121 claims of child sexual abuse by priests within the diocese, and after praying for guidance as to how to best heal the pain of these survivors, the diocese would file for bankruptcy. A total of 17 priests in the diocese have been accused of sexual abuse.

This move is the “most just and equitable way to hold ourselves accountable, to bring healing and justice to the survivors, and to find a path forward for our diocesan community,” said Quinn.

“By proactively taking this step, we will begin to bring healing and justice to survivors, holding ourselves accountable for the abuse that occurred in the past,” said the bishop. The diocese will continue to work with survivors and their legal counsel.

Filing for bankruptcy will allow the diocese to reorganize their finances, and continue to provide social service work. Quinn said there was “no way to predict” how long this was going to take, but he promised complete transparency and will continue to provide updates throughout the process.

He did, however, say that he does not anticipate a day-to-day change for members of the diocese, and that no parishes or parish schools will be closing due to the bankruptcy filing. This is because they are separate legal entities, he explained.

Survivors of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese will be compensated, said Quinn, by a combination of insurance, savings, money from the sale of assets, and other sources.

“I am committed to keeping our children, and vulnerable adults, safe from sexual abuse,” said Quinn.

“I want to assure you: all clergy against whom credible accusations have been previously made are either deceased, or have been removed from ministry, laicized, and no longer function in any priestly capacity in the diocese.”

Quinn explained that since 2002, the diocese has implemented a program in order to ensure the safety of children in the diocese. As part of this program, every member of the clergy, as well as diocesan employees and volunteers, undergoes a background check.

“I pray for God’s grace during this difficult period, as well as for guidance and strength from the Holy Spirit,” said Quinn.

“I believe that we will walk together toward healing, reaffirming our dedication to carrying out ministries across southern Minnesota. I also ask for your continued prayers and support as we work together to offer healing to those who have suffered unconscionable abuse and to forge a path forward for all of us.”

Quinn also said that he welcomed suggestions from members of the public on how the diocese could work to become a safer environment.

Gunman kills one at Catholic store in Missouri

St. Louis, Mo., Nov 20, 2018 / 02:56 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A gunman remains on the loose after shooting a woman and sexually assaulting another at the Catholic Supply of St. Louis retail store in Ballwin, Mo. on Monday afternoon. Ballwin is a suburb of St. Louis.

The woman killed was identified on Tuesday as Jamie Schmidt, from the nearby town of House Springs. Schmidt was a customer in the store at the time of the attack. She was shot in the head by the assailant, and died after being transported to the hospital in critical condition. She was 53.

Schmidt is survived by her husband and three children.

In an emotional tribute posted on Facebook, her husband Gregg Schmidt remembered his wife’s singing voice and encouraged everyone to share feelings of love at every opportunity.

"Folks, I had my own Mother of Dragons but she was taken from us today,” said Schmidt.

“I still don't know how to feel yet. I do know one thing for sure. Hug your friends and family and tell them you love them every time you get the chance. I didn't get to say goodbye and that hurts pretty bad. She was my angel, my partner, my best friend and the love of my life. I'm sorry if you never got to hear her sing recently because it gave me chills. I probably won't be on Facebook much for awhile but know that I love you all in some way or another,” said Schmidt.

The suspect is described as a white male, between the ages of 45 and 50, 5’7, with a heavyset build. He is not believed to have known Schmidt, and police think the attack was random.

Catholic Supply of St. Louis released a statement saying that they were “shocked and saddened” by the “senseless tragedy” that occurred at the chain’s West County location Nov. 19. They asked for prayers for the victims and their families.

Catholic Supply of St. Louis’ three locations were closed on Tuesday and will reopen Wednesday, said the statement.

“We are cooperating fully with the ongoing police investigation, and we will share details as appropriate. We appreciate your patience, grace and prayers during this difficult time.”

Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis also weighed in with a statement, saying that the archdiocese’s hearts went out to the victims of the “horrific tragedy” at the store.

“We join with civil authorities asking for the community's assistance in apprehending the culprit of this crime,” said Carlson in the statement released to Facebook.

Carlson also instructed parishes throughout the archdiocese to offer prayers for those affected by the shooting and for an end to violence.

As a precaution, two area schools canceled classes on Tuesday due to security fears stemming from the shooting.

Cardinal DiNardo calls for 'reasonable' gun control after Chicago hospital shooting

Chicago, Ill., Nov 20, 2018 / 12:29 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After a shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago left four dead, including the gunman, on Monday afternoon, the president of the U.S. bishop’s conference offered prayers for the victims and called for reasonable gun restrictions.

“Yesterday, at a place which should be a center of healing, a police officer, a doctor and a pharmaceutical resident lost their lives in a senseless act of gun violence,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said in a Nov. 20 statement.

“We entrust to Almighty God the victims and their loved ones and for [sic] the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe. May her love and compassion embrace and bring comfort to those who sorrow,” he said.

According to reports, the shooting is being investigated as a domestic dispute. Dr. Tamara O'Neal, one of the victims, had been engaged to gunman Juan Lopez until September.

The other victims of the shooting were Dayna Less, 25, a pharmacy resident and recent graduate of Purdue University, and police officer Samuel Jimenez, 28, who was responding to the shooting.

Lopez was found dead with gunshot wounds to the head; it is unclear if they were self-inflicted or if they were sustained while he exchanged gunfire with police.

Lopez had worked for Chicago Housing Authority, which said in a statement after the shooting that Lopez had cleared background checks and did not have a history of complaints against him during his employment there.

In his statement, DiNardo said the shooting yet again called into question how someone “capable of such violence was able to obtain a firearm to carry out this heinous act.”

“In our desire to help promote a culture of life, we bishops will continue to ask that public policies be supported to enact reasonable gun measures to help curb this pervasive plague of gun violence. Our prayers are with the staff of Mercy Hospital and the people of the Archdiocese of Chicago as they continue God’s healing work.”

Polish bishops ask forgiveness of sexual abuse victims

Czestochowa, Poland, Nov 20, 2018 / 11:18 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The bishops of Poland published Monday a statement on the sexual abuse of minors by some clerics, asking forgiveness of the victims and calling for action, prayer, and penance.

When sexual abuse “appears among the clergy, it becomes the source of a particular scandal,” the bishops said in their Nov. 19 statement, prepared during their plenary assembly at Jasna Gora.

“The disillusionment and the outrage are all the more painful because children, instead of receiving caring love and accompaniment as they seek the closeness of Jesus, experience violence and the brutal detachment from their dignity as children.”

The bishops made frequent reference in their statement to the words of Pope Francis and Benedict XVI, as well as of St. John Paul II.

“For many believers, especially for young people who are sincerely looking for God, sexual scandals involving clergy are becoming a hard test of faith and a reason for great scandal,” they said.

“The Church in Poland wants to be increasingly effective so that the safety of children and young people, according to the will of the Lord, will become a priority for all communities and families,” they added.

The bishops said they have begun collecting data on sexual abuse of minors by clerics in Poland, and said that such an act is “an extremely grave sin.”

“We ask God, the victims of abuse, their families and the Church community for forgiveness for all the harm done to children and young people and their relatives by clerics, consecrated persons and lay workers in the Church. We ask the Lord to give us light, strength, and courage to resolutely combat the moral and spiritual corruption that is the main source of sexual abuse against minors. We ask the Lord to make our efforts to create an open and child-friendly environment in the Church effective.”

They said they have acted for many years to eliminate such crimes from among the clergy: “Any sign of possible criminal acts leads to a preliminary investigation, and if the probability is confirmed, the Holy See and the prosecutor's office are informed. We ask those who have been harmed by the clergy to report the damage suffered to ecclesiastical superiors and to the appropriate state authorities.”

The bishops noted that each dioceses has a delegate to receive reports of abuse, who will “help the victim to get psychological, legal, and pastoral support” so as “to help the victims to take the steps necessary to overcome the consequences of the damage suffered.”

The bishops' conference has, for five years, appointed a child protection coordinators who “organizes many formation meetings for the diocesan and religious clergy that are slowly but effectively changing attitudes and raising awareness. We are also preparing in dioceses, orders and religious congregations a prevention system to help to protect children and adolescents from potential sexual abuse. We want ecclesial communities to be a safe place for children and young people and to make their safety a priority for the whole society. On this occasion, we appeal to all those who take this to heart to effectively combat threats against children and young people, especially in the sphere of the Internet.”

“We are also more attentive to the human and spiritual formation in the seminaries and to priestly formation. For this purpose, for several years, formation is given the educators in the seminaries so that they may work competently on the formation of future priests and avoid admitting immature people, unable to faithfully pronounce their vows and promises, to become members of the clergy.”

They urged prayer and penance to “open our hearts to the spirit of authentic conversion; let us live in harmony and love with all people of good will and fight against all abuses of power, sexuality, and conscience, in all environments, especially in the Church communities where children live and grow.”

The bishops urged perpetrators to repentance: “Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.”

“May Mary, the Mother of Beautiful Love, ask her Son to give us his grace so that we may express our sincere sorrow and act with determination in a courageous struggle against every kind of danger, coming from some clerics, inflicted on children and young people,” the Polish bishops concluded.

“Let us not forget to ask for conversion for the perpetrators of these wrongs. Let us also ask for the entire Church, both clergy and laity, the spirit of unity and Christian love of our neighbor. Let us be strengthened by the example and intercession of martyr priests who gave their lives in defense of human dignity.”

Russian icons, spiritual masterpieces on display at Vatican

Vatican City, Nov 20, 2018 / 10:05 am (CNA).- “Art, spirituality, beauty,” are the three words Vatican Museums director Barbara Jatta used to describe a visiting exhibition of 54 Russian icons and masterpieces, which opened at the Vatican Tuesday.

The exhibit, which has no cost to visit, is called a “Pilgrimage of Russian Art: From Dionysius to Malevich” and will be on display in the Vatican’s Braccio di Carlo Magno Museum, the entrance to which is in St. Peter’s Square, until Feb. 16, 2019.

The paintings and icons, many of which have never before been exhibited outside their home gallery, were brought to the Vatican following a successful visit of Vatican Museum masterpieces – including works by Raffaello and Caravaggio – to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery in 2016.

Jatta told journalists Nov. 19 that part of the idea of an exhibit “on Russian spirituality, the Russian soul,” is that beauty can build bridges between cultures, places, and religions.

The 54 pieces, spanning the 15th to 19th centuries, include works such as Dionyius’ 16th-century icon, “The Crucifixion,” Vasily Perov’s 1872 “Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky,” and Kasimir Malevich’s 1929 version of “The Black Square.”

A goal of the show, according to its Russian curators, is to “present the cultural and spiritual message of Russian art in the heart of the Western Christian world.”

The works are not presented in chronological order, but in a loosely thematic way, to show how Russian art, though different in style over the centuries, was and continues to be influenced by the same cultural and spiritual principles, according to Zelfira Tregulova, director of the Tretyakov Gallery.

For example, a 15th-century icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus, called “Theotokos Kikkotissa,” is hung beside Nikolay Yaroshenko’s 19th-century painting, “Life is Everywhere,” which also depicts a mother and child.

In “Life is Everywhere,” a train car of convicted criminals is waiting to be transported to exile in Siberia; among them, a woman is holding her child, who is reaching out the barred window to feed breadcrumbs to birds outside.

Tregulova wrote in her introduction to the show’s 266-page catalogue that the exhibit demonstrates the “deep, inner relationship between icon painting and Russian realism of the 19th century.”

Icon painting was a living art in the 19th and 20th centuries in Russia, and a familiar part of life for every Russian, she explained.

“The masterpiece, in Russian understanding, should not just be a work of art of the highest quality, but a global utterance on a theme that is of universal importance,” she wrote. “The mastery and quality of pictorial art are not negated, but they take second place to the spiritual value of the work.”
 

A look at 25 years of RFRA

Washington D.C., Nov 20, 2018 / 03:14 am (CNA).- Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA.

While the law is well-known within legal circles, many Americans may not realize that RFRA is one of the primary legislative pillars upon which religious freedom arguments have rested in the last quarter century.

What exactly is RFRA? What does it say, how did it come to be passed, and what are the primary challenges that it faces today?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act clarifies the standards that should be used in judging religious freedom disputes involving the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. That clause says that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

But what are the limits to what may be carried out in the name of free exercise of religion? What is to stop an individual or group from carrying out acts of rape, theft, or human sacrifice, and claiming that they are exercising their protected religious beliefs in doing so?

RFRA helps answer that question. It says that the federal government may not “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion, unless there is a “compelling government interest” in doing so, and it is carried out in the “least-restrictive” manner possible.

Over the last 25 years, courts have used these standards to evaluate various religious freedom claims that conflict with established laws. In one case, courts upheld the right of an Arkansas inmate to grow a beard as required by his Muslim faith. In another, a Native American feather dancer was allowed to use eagle feathers in a religious ceremony.

In a high-profile 2014 case, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and similar employers could not be forced to comply with the federal contraception mandate against their religious beliefs. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the federal government had failed to prove that the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of advancing its goal of providing free birth control to women.

RFRA was initially passed in response to two high profile cases involving American Indians. In one case, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of an illegal hallucinogen – peyote – in a Native American religious service. In the other, the court upheld the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to build a road through land considered sacred by several tribes.

At the time of its passage, RFRA enjoyed wide bipartisan support and was not considered controversial. Introduced by Democrats Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, it passed unanimously in the House and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate. President Bill Clinton signed it into law Nov. 16, 1993.

In recent years, however, RFRA has drawn criticism, particularly as it relates to same-sex marriage and the provision of free contraception. These clashes with claims of women’s rights and LGBT rights have led some people to question RFRA, or call for it to be limited or repealed.  

The National LGBT Bar Association has warned of the “dangerous results” of RFRA. In recent years, Democrats in the House and Senate have made several failed attempts to introduce legislation that would limit RFRA in cases where religious freedom comes into conflict with other civil rights. Chai Feldblum, appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under both Obama and Trump, has said that when religious liberty conflicts with sexual rights, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

RFRA applies only to the federal government, although in recent years, similar laws have increasingly been proposed or passed in many state legislatures as well. State RFRAs have also faced heated objections. Most notably, then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence faced threat of boycotts from CEOs, celebrities, major sports events and leaders of some city and state governments in 2015 over a state RFRA law that mirrored the federal legislation.

Despite these criticisms, however, RFRA remains today as an established law with a solid precedent in the court system.

Last year, the Trump administration affirmed the significance of RFRA in its government-wide religious freedom legal guidance, issued to govern all administrative agencies and executive departments in their work.

The guidance said that RFRA “applies to all sincerely-held religious beliefs,” and the government does not have the authority to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious conviction.

What’s in store for RFRA over the next 25 years? The answer is uncertain. If its opponents have their way, RFRA could see significant restrictions at both the state and federal levels. For now, however, the law remains as a key standard for judging free exercise claims, with the current administration insisting that RFRA continue to be taken seriously and interpreted robustly.

 

After years of controversy, HHS reconsiders fetal tissue funding

Washington D.C., Nov 20, 2018 / 12:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Health researchers need alternatives to using fetal tissue, Department of Health and Human Services leaders have said after several years of controversy and investigations into whether fetal tissue procured from aborted babies was sold illegally.

HHS Assistant Secretary of Health Brett Giroir sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chair of the Freedom Caucus, saying HHS did too little to find alternatives under previous administrations and there need to be “adequate alternatives” to scientific research involving human fetal tissue.

The letter, which a source shared with the news site Politico, said HHS is “fully committed to prioritizing, expanding, and accelerating efforts to develop and implement the use of these alternatives.” He described HHS as “pro-life and pro-science” under President Donald Trump.

The letter appears to back “scientifically validated and reproducible” models as among possible alternatives.

Scientists who back fetal tissue research say there are few alternatives. They argue the tissue would otherwise be discarded, and there are already ethical safeguards in place. They say fetal tissue research has been instrumental in developing vaccines and understanding phenomena like how the Zika virus affects the brains of unborn children. They say fetal tissue aids Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease research, as well as research in childhood developmental disorders.

A 1993 federal law allows the use of fetal tissue from elective abortions that would otherwise be discarded. However, the sale of such tissue is also barred by law.

Mallory Quigley of the Susan B. Anthony List told Politico her group would continue to advocate defunding fetal tissue research “as soon as possible.” She said her group is hopeful “that HHS will reach a new policy consensus that better reflects the administration’s pro-life position.”

Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokesperson, said the agency has not made an official decision on whether to fund more fetal tissue research.

“We continue to go through a thoughtful, deliberative process given the scientific ethical and moral considerations involved,” she told Politico. “When we receive inquiries from members of Congress, we respond.”

A series of undercover investigations from journalists with the Center for Medical Progress, first released in 2015, appear to show several leaders in the abortion industry involved in the illegal sale of fetal tissue from aborted babies.

The investigation has had legal consequences for some procurers of fetal tissue.

DV Biologics and DaVinci Biosciences, two bioscience companies, admitted fault, ceased California operations and agreed to meet the terms of a legal settlement close to $7.8 million in value for violating state and federal laws against the purchase or sale of fetal tissue.

Following two investigations, Congressional committees have made criminal referrals for both Planned Parenthood and Advanced Bioscience Resources, a non-profit company, for alleged involvement in illegal fetal tissue sales. There is an active Department of Justice investigation based on the criminal referrals.

There are also criminal charges against the Center for Medical Progress investigators, as well as civil lawsuits. These allegations include claims that the videos were filmed illegally in violation of privacy laws.

Federal funding for fetal tissue is now under review. As part of the review process, senior officials at HHS held an off-the record, invitation-only listening session on Nov. 16 with leaders in medical research fields.

Participants included leaders with the American Society for Cell Biology, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the Society for Neuroscience and the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

The inquiry has prompted opposition from pro-abortion rights groups.

Mary Alice Carter, director of Equity Forward, which backs fetal tissue research and monitors pro-life groups, charged that HHS secretary Alex Azar “continually kowtows to anti-abortion groups while ignoring the scientific and medical communities,” Science magazine reports.

The National Institutes of Health gave out about $103 million in 2018 for research involving fetal tissue.

In July 2018 the Food and Drug Administration gave a $15,900 contract to Advanced Bioscience Resources for “fresh human fetal tissue,” which would be transplanted into mice in order to create human-like immune systems for research purposes. It is the eighth contract between the FDA and the company since 2012, and seven of the contracts appear to relate to the same or similar programs.

HHS cancelled the contract after receiving protests and criticism from several Members of Congress, who said they were alarmed that the tissue procurement contracts continued despite the “serious unresolved questions” uncovered by House and Senate investigations.

In 2010 a federal judge ruled that federally funded human embryonic stem cell research was against the law. That ruling resulted in a 19-day halt on related in-house National Institutes of Health projects, but NIH funds that had already been given to external researchers were not affected, the magazine Science reports.