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Catholic groups settle in lawsuit against HHS contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Dozens of Catholic groups that challenged the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act have reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, they announced late Oct. 16.

The groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the Pennsylvania dioceses of Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Erie, were represented by the Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day.

Activists participate in a rally in late September to protect the Affordable Care Act outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein, Reuters)

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl wrote an Oct. 16 letter to archdiocesan priests saying the “binding agreement” ends the litigation challenging the Health and Human Services’ mandate and provides a “level of assurance as we move into the future.”

The Washington archdiocese was one of dozens of groups challenging the mandate, which went to the Supreme Court last year in the consolidated case of Zubik v. Burwell. Although it was most often described as the Little Sisters of the Poor fighting against the federal government, the case before the court involved seven plaintiffs and each of these combined cases represented a group of schools, churches or church-sponsored organizations.

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik, whom the case is named for, said he was grateful for the settlement, which he described as an “agreement with the government that secures and reaffirms the constitutional right of religious freedom.”

In an Oct. 17 statement, the bishop said the diocese’s five-year-long challenge to the mandate “has been resolved successfully” allowing Catholic Charities in the diocese and other religious organizations of different denominations to be exempt from “insurance coverage or practices that are morally unacceptable.”

He said the settlement follows the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core beliefs.

On Oct. 6, the Trump administration issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate to include religious employers who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.

Cardinal Wuerl said in his letter to priests that the new guidelines and regulations were extremely helpful but that the “settlement of the Zubik litigation adds a leavening of certainty moving forward. It removes doubt where it might otherwise exist as it closes those cases.”

“The settlement adds additional assurances,” he added, “that we will not be subject to enforcement or imposition of similar regulations imposing such morally unacceptable mandates moving forward.”

The cardinal thanked the Jones Day law firm for its legal representation in the case and thanked Catholics for their prayers and support for the petitioners in the long legal fight.

Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, Calif., one of the groups that fell under the Washington archdiocese’s challenge of the HHS mandate to the Supreme Court, similarly thanked the law firm Jones Day for representing the school pro bono.

The school’s president, Michael McLean, said in an Oct. 16 statement that as part of the settlement, the government will pay a portion of the legal costs and fees incurred by the law firm.

He said the college welcomed the broadening of the exemption from the HHS mandate by the Trump administration in early October but he similarly said the settlement of the case provides “something even better: a permanent exemption from an onerous federal directive and any similar future directive that would require us to compromise our fundamental beliefs.”

“This is an extraordinary outcome for Thomas Aquinas College and for the cause of religious freedom,” he added.

The school’s statement said according to the terms of the settlement, the government concedes that the contraceptive mandate “imposes a substantial burden” on the plaintiffs’ exercise of religion and “cannot be legally enforced” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The contraceptive mandate, in place since 2012, required all employers to provide contraceptive coverage in their employer insurance. Last year when opposition to this mandate came to the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously returned the case to the lower courts with instructions to determine if contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage.

Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico, representing one of the groups that challenged the mandate, said in an Oct. 17 statement that it has been “difficult for people to understand that this lawsuit was not just about contraceptives.

“The real issue,” he said, “was the government attempting to narrow the definition of freedom of religion, using the HHS mandate to exempt only a small subset of religious employers. Churches were declared exempt, but their hospitals, Catholic Charities agencies, schools, and universities were not.”

The bishop said he was pleased with the settlement particularly because the church continues to assert that all of its ministries “are inextricably tied to the practice of our faith.”

     

Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese, contributed to this report.

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      Follow Carol Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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Victims of Las Vegas shooting remembered at funeral Masses, vigils

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Catholic News Service

Immediate makeshift memorials in Las Vegas to the 58 victims killed during the Oct. 1 outdoor country music concert are being replaced by memorial services, vigils and Catholic funerals at the victims’ hometowns across the country and in Canada.

Many of the services are taking place in California since 33 of the victims, more than half of those killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, were from the Golden State.

A couple prays during an Oct. 3 vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas. A gunman, identified as Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, was perched in a room on the 32nd floor of a hotel and unleashed a shower of bullets on concertgoers below late Oct. 1. He killed at least 59 people and wounded more than 500, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters)

Bakersfield, Calif., two hours north of Los Angeles, was home to three victims of the shooting. A memorial service was held there Oct. 6 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church for Jack Beaton, a 54-year-old father of two who worked with a roofing company.

More than 800 people attended the service where Beaton was remembered as a fun-loving friend, a hard worker, a kindhearted neighbor and a devoted husband and father of an 18-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. He and his wife, Laurie, attended the concert to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. He died in her arms after putting his body on top of hers to protect her.

“I knew every day that he would protect me and take care of me and love me unconditionally, and what he did is no surprise to me,” Laurie Beaton told The Associated Press before the service, adding: “He is my hero.”

In San Francisco, a funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 12 at St. Mary’s Cathedral for Stacee Etcheber, a 50-year-old hairstylist and mother of two children, 10 and 12, who was attending the Las Vegas concert with her husband, Vince, a San Francisco police officer.

At the funeral Mass, so close to where devastating wildfires are happening, the San Francisco Chronicle said it was not lost at anyone that Etcheber was exactly the kind of person the area needed at this time.

She was described as someone who wouldn’t have thought twice about volunteering and doing what she could for the thousands affected by the fires. She also would have been the “the incident commander” getting horses to safety, Father Michael Quinn, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Sausalito, California, told the congregation.

The Etchebers had been separated during the chaos of the shooting. Her husband, who survived, was helping many of the wounded at the concert.

Although Stacee was not a member of the San Francisco Police Department, her funeral included many of the honors of an officer’s funeral. Bagpipers played as officers with the department’s mounted unit stood their horses at attention outside the cathedral.

Some of those in attendance wore orange ribbons for Stacee’s favorite color.

The same day, a funeral Mass was celebrated for 28-year-old Christopher Roybal, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Navy at St. Matthew’s Church in Corona, Calif.

Roybal had gone to the concert with his mother, and like many others, they were separated in the confusion during and after the shooting took place.

“He always made me feel so beautiful, so amazing, and I’m sure that a lot of you in here understand exactly what I’m saying because he was such an amazing soul,” his mother said at the funeral, according to the local ABC news affiliate KABC, which also reported that the priest encouraged the congregation to sing Roybal a country song as a final goodbye.

Roybal’s father said his son’s Navy training immediately kicked in when the gunfire started.

He suspected that his son “immediately went into that mode of protecting everybody around him like he did in Afghanistan, the sound nobody will understand, Christopher just started saving lives and not for one second thought about his own life,” he said.

In Alberta, Canada, a candlelight vigil took place just two days after the Las Vegas shooting at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Valleyview for Jessica Klymchuk, a 34-year-old mother of four and educational assistant at St. Stephen’s Catholic School, across the street from the church.

“I just really, really miss her,” said a 10-year-old at the vigil. An 11-year-old described her as the kindest person he knew, reported CBC News in Canada.

Klymchuk, one of four Canadians killed in the mass shooting, attended the festival with her fiance. She wore several hats at the school where she was a bus driver, a classroom aide and librarian.

“She had this heart of gold,” said Christine Ikonikov, a friend of who organized the vigil, and described her as a “wonderful woman, strong, always put other people first.”

A celebration of life for Sandy Casey, a newly engaged 35-year-old resident of Redondo Beach, Calif., was scheduled to take place Oct. 17 at the United Church of Dorset and East Rupert in Dorset, Vt., where her family lives.

Casey, who was a special education teacher at Manhattan Beach Middle School near Los Angeles, attended the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vt., and received a master’s degree in special education in 2005 from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

The Massachusetts Catholic college is planning to hold a memorial for Casey. The school’s president, Francesco Cesareo, said in a statement that the mass shooting is a “harsh reminder of the darkness that attempts to consume the world in which we live.”

“Despite that darkness,” he said, “the light of hope can be found illuminating such tragedies in the selfless actions of those that put their own lives in jeopardy assisting others.”

 

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Trump administration expands exemptions on contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration Oct. 6 issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate for religious employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance.

Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the action as “a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice and peaceful coexistence between church and state.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington Sept. 26. The Trump administration Oct. 6 issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate for religious employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The contraceptive mandate was put in place by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Affordable Care Act.

While providing an exemption for religious employers, the new rules maintain the existing federal contraceptive mandate for most employers.

President Donald Trump had pledged to lift the mandate burden placed on religious employers during a White House signing ceremony May 4 for an executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty, but Catholic leaders and the heads of a number of Catholic entities had criticized the administration for a lack of action on that pledge in the months that followed.

From the outset, churches were exempt from the mandate, but not religious employers. The Obama administration had put in place a religious accommodation for nonprofit religious entities such as church-run colleges and social service agencies morally opposed to contraceptive coverage that required them to file a form or notify HHS that they will not provide it. Many Catholic employers still objected to having to fill out the form.

The HHS mandate has undergone numerous legal challenges from religious organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and Priests for Life.

A combined lawsuit, Zubik v. Burwell, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices in May 2016 unanimously returned the case to the lower courts with instructions to determine if contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage.

Senior Health and Human Services officials who spoke to reporters Oct. 5 on the HHS rule on the condition of anonymity said that the exemption to the contraceptive mandate would apply to all the groups that had sued against it. Groups suing the mandate all the way to the Supreme Court include the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Eternal Word Television Network and some Catholic and other Christian universities.

In reaction immediately after the 150-page interim ruling was issued, religious groups that had opposed the mandate were pleased with the administration’s action.

An Oct. 6 statement by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said the new rule “corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.”

The church leaders also said the decision to provide the religious and moral exemption to the HHS mandate recognizes that faith-based and mission-driven organizations and those who run them “have deeply held religious and moral beliefs that the law must respect.”

Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Lori said the decision was “good news for all Americans,” noting that a “government mandate that coerces people to make an impossible choice between obeying their consciences and obeying the call to serve the poor is harmful not only to Catholics but to the common good.”

Michael Warsaw, EWTN chairman and CEO president, said the television network’s legal team would be “carefully considering the exemptions announced today and the impact this may have on our legal challenge to the mandate, but we are optimistic that this news will prove to be a step toward victory for the fundamental freedoms of many Americans.”

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, told reporters in a telephone news conference an hour after the rule was released that it is a “common sense and balanced rule and a great step forward for religious liberty.”

He said the rule “carves out a narrow exemption” and keeps the contraceptive mandate in place for those without moral or religious objections to it.

He noted that it does not provide immediate relief for those groups who had challenged it, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, which Becket represents. They will “still need relief in courts,” he said, but was confident now that it would happen.

“We’ve traveled a long way,” he added, of the multiple challenges to the contraceptive mandate in recent years, which he described as an “unnecessary culture war fight.”

Rienzi, noted that the HHS rule could have eliminated the contraceptive mandate completely but it did not do so. He also said the new rule is open for comments for a 90-day period and will likely face legal challenges, which already began in a lawsuit filed Oct. 6 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of members of the ACLU and Service Employee International Union-United Health Care Workers West who say they are at risk of losing their contraception coverage because of where they work or attend school.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU said the interim rules violate the establishment clause regarding religion in the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in the Constitution “by authorizing and promoting religiously motivated and other discrimination against women seeking reproductive health care.”

     

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

 

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Bishop urges Senate to remedy health care for the ‘common good’ — Updated

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — After the Senate voted July 25 to proceed with the health care debate, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., urged senators of both parties to “work together to advance changes that serve the common good.”

A rainbow shines over the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 24. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

A rainbow shines over the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 24. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

The statement from Bishop Dewane, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the health care reform proposals currently under consideration would “harm millions of struggling Americans by leaving too many at risk of losing adequate health coverage and continue to exclude too many people, including immigrants.”

“We are grateful for the efforts to include protections for the unborn, however, any final bill must include full Hyde Amendment provisions and add much-needed conscience protections. The current proposals are simply unacceptable as written, and any attempts to repeal the ACA (Affordable Care Act) without a concurrent replacement is also unacceptable,” he said in a July 25 statement.

During the procedural vote on the Senate floor, 50 Republicans voted yes and two GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted no, along with the Senate’s 48 Democrats. The tiebreaking vote was necessary from Vice President Mike Pence, as president of the Senate.

The vote to debate health care legislation took place after months of ongoing discussion and leaves Senate Republicans with a few options, including completely replacing the health care law, or voting for what has been described as a “skinny” repeal that would remove parts of the Affordable Care Act. They also could pass a measure that would repeal the current law without implementing a replacement.

Late July 25, the Senate voted down one of these proposals in a 57-43 vote with nine Republicans voting against it. The proposal — an updated version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act — would have done away with the ACA’s tax penalties for those not buying insurance, cut Medicaid and allowed insurers to sell cheaper policies with less coverage. It also included $100 billion in extra funds to help people losing Medicaid.

Senators were expected to vote on a “repeal-only” proposal July 26 that also was likely to face defeat since many in both parties have spoken against repealing the ACA without a replacement plan.

As votes were being cast, all eyes were on Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who returned to the Senate floor just days after being diagnosed with brain cancer, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who had not assured the Senate of his vote prior to the tally.

Just prior to the procedural vote, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, majority leader, urged fellow senators not to let this moment slip by.

“All we have to do today is to have the courage to begin the debate,” he added as protesters yelled in the background: “Kill the bill, don’t kill us.” “Shame.”

“Will we begin the debate on one of the most important issues confronting America today?” he asked before answering: “It is my hope that the answer will be yes.”

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, minority leader, stressed that Democrats had been locked out of the recent health care debate and he warned that the Republican plan will “certainly mean drastic cuts” in Medicaid and would cause many to lose health care insurance.

McCain urged his colleagues to “trust each other” and “return to order” after casting his vote to move the debate forward.

In his July 25 statement, Bishop Dewane said, “There is much work to be done to remedy the ACA’s shortcomings” and he called on the Senate to make the necessary changes.

He also stressed that “current and impending barriers to access and affordability under the ACA must be removed, particularly for those most in need. Such changes can be made with narrower reforms that do not jeopardize the access to health care that millions currently receive,” he added.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said in a July 26 statement that she was disappointed with the Senate’s vote to attempt to repeal and replace the ACA “without a clear plan to protect access to affordable health care coverage.”

She said that throughout the health care reform debate, Catholic Charities has insisted that any reform must protect those who have health care coverage and provide more health insurance to those without it.

“We urge senators to work together to reject dramatic cuts to Medicaid coverage and provide a health care bill that truly expands coverage, reduces costs and respects human life and dignity, especially for those who are most in need,” she said.

 

Carolyn Mackenzie contributed to this report. Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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House committee approves measure to repeal D.C. assisted suicide law

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee voted July 13 in favor of an amendment to repeal the District of Columbia’s assisted suicide law. The measure still faces a vote by the full House and Senate before being sent to President Trump.

The day before the vote, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan sent a letter to members of the committee urging them to “nullify the D.C. City Council’s deceptively named ‘Death with Dignity Act’ that legalizes the dangerous and unethical practice of doctor-assisted suicide.”

he House Appropriations Committee voted July 13 in favor of an amendment to repeal the District of Columbia's assisted suicide law. (CNS photo/Lawrence Looi, EPA)

The House Appropriations Committee voted July 13 in favor of an amendment to repeal the District of Columbia’s assisted suicide law. (CNS photo/Lawrence Looi, EPA)

The amendment to the fiscal year 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill looks to repeal the assisted suicide law, which went into effect this past February. It was introduced by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, who told the committee there is “nothing dignified about suicide” in his opinion.

Harris represents the First District of Maryland, which includes the entire Eastern Shore.

Harris also called the act “bad policy” and said that “physicians were playing God” by prescribing lethal medications to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

The legislation permits physicians in the District of Columbia to legally prescribe lethal drugs to patients who have been deemed mentally competent and who have received a terminal diagnosis of six months or less.

In his July 12 letter to House Appropriations Committee members, Cardinal Dolan said the law was “seriously flawed” and said it “poses the greatest risks of abuse and coercion to those who are poor, elderly, disabled, members of a minority group, or without access to good medical care.”

The cardinal, who is chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also told committee members that the law could cause the deaths of many people who are not terminally ill and it also “reflects a bias against persons with disabilities and serious illness.”

He went on to say the legislation “undermines the very heart of medicine. Doctors vow to do no harm, and yet assisted suicide is the ultimate abandonment of their patients. Seriously ill patients, who are often depressed, need our authentic support, including doctors fully committed to their welfare and pain management as they enter their final days.”

The National Right to Life Committee similarly sent a July 12 letter urging House committee members to vote for the amendment to repeal the assisted-suicide measure.

In a statement, the group said the pro-life movement is as “concerned with protecting the lives of older people and people with disabilities as it has been dedicated to protecting unborn children from abortion.”

J.J. Hanson, president of the Patients Rights Actions Funds, praised the committee’s vote to repeal the assisted -suicide measure, saying: “We welcome any efforts at the congressional level to halt assisted suicide policy which will only put vulnerable D.C. residents — the terminally ill, the disabled and the poor — at risk.”

The D.C. Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of the Catholic Church in the District of Columbia, joined a broad-based coalition of other groups in opposing the assisted-suicide measure when it came up for a vote.

After the City Council approved it, the Catholic conference issued a statement saying the bill “imperils residents particularly those who are sick, elderly, disabled, and uninsured in our communities. It allows for coercion and abuse including third-parties administering the lethal drugs to patients who may or may not be incapacitated and or even requesting assisted suicide.”

The District is the nation’s seventh jurisdiction to allow doctors to assist the terminally ill to kill themselves. Six states — Vermont, Oregon, Washington state, Montana, California and Colorado — also have legalized allowed assisted suicide.

Similar physician-assisted suicide laws have been introduced and have failed in 22 states.

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Catholic convocation: Combination pep rally, retreat inspires leaders

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Catholic News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. — From July 1-4 the main floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Orlando was transformed into a huge parish hall with places for worship, prayer, discussion, and even coffee and doughnuts during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.” Read more »

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Supreme Court levels ‘playing field’ state grants to religious schools

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court June 26 said a Lutheran preschool should not be excluded from a state grant program to refurbish its playground surface just because it is a religious entity.

“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran 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,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the court’s opinion.

Activists rally outside U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 26 after the court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., which sued after being denied a state grant for creating a safer playground. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

Activists rally outside U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 26 after the court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., which sued after being denied a state grant for creating a safer playground. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

The court’s decision reverses a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had sided with the state’s 2015 decision to exclude the school from obtaining grant funds.

Roberts said the appeals court decision made it clear that the Trinity Lutheran preschool was “put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit,” and the answer they were given was: “No churches need apply.”

At issue in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer was the school’s denial of grant reimbursement to nonprofit groups for the cost of purchasing and installing playground surfaces using recycled tires through a state program.

Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, which administers the playground resurfacing program, ranked Trinity Lutheran’s grant application fifth out of the 44 it received. The department, which funds 14 grants, said it denied the school’s application because the state constitution prohibits state funds from going “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

For Trinity Lutheran, the bigger issue was the school’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, which was a key point in oral arguments presented to the court in April.

The court’s opinion noted that the school was not claiming “any entitlement to a subsidy” but was asserting its “right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character.”

It also said the case indicated discrimination against religious exercise not just in “the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the church, solely because it is a church, to compete with secular organizations for a grant.”

The court stressed that this case was unlike Locke v. Davey, a 2004 court ruling which said federally funded scholarships were not required to go to college students who were receiving divinity degrees. In the preschool case, the playground grant was not related to religion.

Roberts, writing the court’s 19-page opinion, said the student in question in the Davey case was not denied a scholarship because of who he was but “because of what he proposed to do, using taxpayer funds in a clergy training program.” In the playground resurfacing case, Roberts wrote: “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is — a church.”

Roberts’ opinion states from the outset that he did not concur with footnote No. 3. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch made similar distinctions. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan concurred in full with the opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a 27-page dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The footnote in question says: “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination,” which may limit the scope of the ruling.

Sotomayor said the court described the Lutheran school decision as “a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground,” but she warned that the “stakes are higher.”

She said the court’s ruling “profoundly changes” the relationship between church and state “by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.”

Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm, called the court’s decision “good for kids and good for religious liberty.”

Becket filed a filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the school’s behalf as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Missouri Catholic Conference, the National Catholic Educational Association, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America and the Salvation Army.

“This decision is significant because seven of the justices agreed that churches can’t be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public safety benefits,” said Smith.

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Church leaders welcome leaked HHS draft lifting contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

 

WASHINGTON — A leaked draft rule from the Department of Health and Human Services exempting religious groups from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act was welcomed by church officials and attorneys representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of the groups that challenged the mandate at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a June 1 statement that the leaked draft has “yet to be formally issued and will require close study upon publication,” but it provides encouraging news.

“Relief like this is years overdue and would be most welcomed,” he said. Read more »

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Backgrounder: Long-awaited executive order on religion has unclear path ahead

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — At a White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, President Donald Trump told a group of religious leaders: “It was looking like you’d never get here, but you got here, folks,” referring to their presence at the signing of the executive order on religious liberty.

Maybe some in the group wondered where “here” was since they hadn’t even seen the two-page executive order they were gathered to congratulate and only knew the general idea of it from a White House memo issued the previous night with just three bullet points.

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The order didn’t seem to part any seas to make an immediate path to religious freedom, especially since it places decisions for how this will play out in the hands of federal agencies and the attorney general.

Catholic leaders in general seemed to view it with cautious optimism, praising the order as a first step but not the final word.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who attended the White House ceremony also celebrating the National Day of Prayer, said immediately after the event that he had yet to see the entire executive order. He defined the principle of it: “There should not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when people are exercising their religious freedom in the public square or institutions they run.

The two-page order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was posted on the White House website hours after it was signed. It is half the length of a leaked draft version of this order published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine. The order signed by the president is short on specifics and far less detailed than the leaked draft.

It devotes the most space to a promised easing of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that bans churches and nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status from taking part in partisan political activity. Although it would take an act of Congress to do away with this regulation, Trump can direct the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce it.

Many people likely aren’t familiar with the amendment by name, or they weren’t before this executive order, but they support the idea of it, according to a May 4 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll shows 71 percent of Americans favor the law, as do most all major U.S. religious groups Only about one-third of white evangelical Protestants favor allowing churches to endorse candidates, compared to 56 percent who oppose it. Also, just 23 percent of white mainline Protestants, 25 percent of Catholics and 19 percent of black Protestants support churches endorsing political candidates.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport May 4 on his way back to his diocese for a confirmation Mass, Cardinal DiNardo said the amendment was likely more important to evangelical Christians than Catholics because, as he pointed out, the Catholic Church “has the tradition of ‘Faithful Citizenship,’” which he said puts the Johnson Amendment in a bigger context.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document on political responsibility, guides voters not according to the stances of specific political candidates but Catholic social teaching.

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email to Catholic News Service that the order’s emphasis on weakening the Johnson Amendment did not seem particularly significant, noting: “it is already the case that the relevant agencies and officials are highly deferential — as they should be — to churches and religious leaders, especially when it comes to what’s said in the context of sermons and homilies.”

Commenting on another major point of the executive order, relief to employers with religious objections to include contraception coverage in their employees’ health care plans, Garnett called it “a good thing — and long overdue,” but he also noted that “such regulatory relief was already probably on its way, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decisions.”

In a statement after the order was signed, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price promised to take action “to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees.” The promise didn’t give any specifics.

The lack of details in the order even caused the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been poised to sue, to change its course. In a statement issued hours after the order’s signing, ACLU director Anthony Romero said the order had “no discernible policy outcome.”

“After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” he said.

But the group also stands ready to sue the Trump administration if the order generates any official government action. Religious groups, for opposite reasons, likewise stand ready to see if the order has any teeth.

As Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement: “This order marks an important step in restoring those constitutional principles guaranteed to every American,” with the added caveat, “There is still work to be done.”

 

Contributing to this story was Chaz Muth.

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Cardinal says Trump’s religious freedom order begins to relieve burden of HHS mandate

By

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Many religious leaders viewed President Donald Trump’s executive order on religious freedom, which he signed in a White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, as a step in the right direction.

President Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

President Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

In a ceremony for the National Day of Prayer prior to signing the executive order, Trump told the assembled religious leaders: “We’re taking big steps to protect religious liberty” and he assured them the government “won’t stand for religious discrimination.”

Three religious leaders, including Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, offered prayers during the ceremony. Just prior to the event, Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, met with Trump about the order.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport just after the White House ceremony, Cardinal DiNardo said the meeting with the president was brief but productive.

Earlier, in a statement, the cardinal said the executive order “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate,” referring to the mandate issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services requiring most religious employers to provide coverage of artificial birth control for their employees even if they morally oppose it.

But Cardinal DiNardo also stressed that the U.S. bishops will “have to review the details of any regulatory proposals.”

The text of the order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” states that cabinet offices “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.”

During the White House ceremony, Trump told some of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the crowd: “Your long ordeal will soon be over.” The sisters are just one of the groups that challenged the federal contraceptive mandate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province, said in a statement that the sisters are “grateful for the president’s order and look forward to the agencies giving us an exemption so that we can continue caring for the elderly poor and dying” without fear of government punishment.

Another aspect of the order is a weakening of what Trump called the “unfair” Johnson Amendment during the May 4 event. The 1954 amendment bans churches and nonprofit organizations of all types from participating in partisan political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

Trump told the religious leaders that the order’s attempt to lessen restrictions of the amendment will be “giving our churches their voices back.”

The order states the Treasury Department shall ensure and “respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.” 

It also calls for department officials to “not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization” for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”

Regarding religious liberty, the order is not very specific. It states: “In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant federal law, the attorney general shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.”

Cardinal DiNardo, in his statement, stressed that in recent years, “people of faith have experienced pressing restrictions on religious freedom from both the federal government and state governments that receive federal funding.”

He noted that church agencies have specifically experienced such a restriction in adoption, education, health care and other social services, where he said “widely held moral and religious beliefs, especially regarding the protection of human life as well as preserving marriage and family, have been maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility.”

“But disagreement on moral and religious issues is not discrimination; instead, it is the inevitable and desirable fruit of a free, civil society marked by genuine religious diversity,” he added.

Cardinal DiNardo told CNS that the executive order emphasizes that there should “not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when a person or group is exercising one’s faith.

He also said the president seems to be putting some of these religious liberty issues directly in the hands of federal departments and the attorney general, which he called “an important dimension” and a “good way to have this unpacked.”

The White House did not release the full text of the order prior to its signing. A draft of an earlier version of the order, which included stronger language, was leaked and published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine.

Regarding the new order, Cardinal DiNardo said in his statement that the bishops will “continue to advocate for permanent relief from Congress on issues of critical importance to people of faith,” noting that religious freedom is “a fundamental right that should be upheld by all branches of government and not subject to political whims.”

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email that the order will likely be viewed as a commitment from the administration that it wants to protect religious liberty. “In terms of specifics, however, the order does very little and does not address a number of pressing and important questions.”

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also welcomed the order and said the organization “looks forward to reviewing the details” of it with the hope that applying it will “allow Catholic Charities agencies to continue to serve all their clients in accordance with their inherent dignity while at the same time preserving the freedom of these agencies to serve in conformity with our beliefs.”

 

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

 

 

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