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'Sister Strike' nominated for Best Viral Sports Moment

Chicago, Ill., Jun 26, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- Maybe it’s the signature bump of the baseball off her bicep before pitching the perfect curve ball. Maybe it’s that she does it all in a full black and white habit with a beaming smile on her face.

Whatever it is, the pitch of baseball whiz Sister Mary Jo Sobieck, OP, that captured the hearts of many over the past year inspired a baseball card, a bobble head, and now a nomination for a national sports award.

“Sister Strike,” as the DominIcan sister has been called, has been nominated for an ESPY award in the category “Best Viral Sports Moment.” The ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) are an annual sports awards ceremony honoring memorable people and moments in sports. This year’s ceremony will be hosted by Tracy Morgan in Los Angeles July 10.

The moment for which Sister is nominated? It’s called “Don’t Sleep on Sister Mary Jo’s curveball”, and it’s the moment when she threw a curveball strike to Lucas Giolito at the ceremonial opening of a Chicago White Sox game in August 2018.

The fans went wild and the moment went viral, catching the attention of baseball fans and casual observers on social media and national media. Her strike also aired on ESPN’s Sportscenter highlight reel.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum now sells a Sister Mary Joe bobblehead for $25. She stands in a pitching stance, wearing a baseball jersey pulled over her habit, and a baseball mitt. Her right hand is cocked back with a baseball, ready to strike.

In April, Topps announced that they would be premiering a Sister Mary Jo baseball card this summer.

Patrick O'Sullivan, Topps Associate Brand Manager, told CNA in April that Sister is a good reminder that: “Baseball is for everyone from every walk of life. That's what makes it so special and fun to be a fan.”

There’s a reason Sr. Mary Jo, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and a teacher at Marian Catholic High School, seems so comfortable on the pitching mound. She played softball starting in elementary school and through college and has coached high school sports.

She told the Chicago Catholic in December that she wasn’t about to “get ripped” by past coaches and teammates for a lousy pitch, so she gave the White Sox throw her all. But then again, that’s how she lives her whole life.

“Before (the pitch), she was just kind of like that loud nun,” Jen Pasyk, a fellow Marian Catholic teacher, told the Chicago Catholic. “She’s kind of gregarious and outgoing. There’s this image that sisters are kind of quiet and reserved, and that was never her. She is very popular, because she makes it a point to meet the students wherever they are. She really goes out for those shy kids who just want to blend into the bricks. She will learn something about them, so someone knows something about them.”

Since the viral moment, Sr. Mary Jo has been invited to various sporting events and speaking engagements. She wants to use the attention to lead others to God, she told the Chicago Catholic.

“The best gift I can give now is to give a good example of what it means to be virtuous,” Sister Mary Jo said. “It’s transitioned to what happens on the field of life. I try my best and sometimes I fail miserably and I get back up and try again. You get up the next day and try again.”

Chilean diocese concerned for Venezuelan migrants at border crossing

Arica, Chile, Jun 26, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of San Marcos de Arica expressed Monday its concern over the humanitarian conditions of hundreds of people, mostly Venezuelans, held up at the Chacalluta border crossing between Peru and Chile.

Chile recently imposed stricter controls on those entering its territory, as the number of Venezuelan emigrants swells. More than 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015.

Since June 22, to enter Chile a passport with visa, proof of the money to support one's stay, and a letter of invitation or a hotel reservation are required.

Since 2018, for residency there is required a temporary residency visa valid for one year and renewable for the same period, no criminal record, and other documents.

Immigrants at the Chacalluta border control would have to process their documents at the Chilean consulate in Tacna, fewer than 25 miles north of the site.

In a June 24 statement, the Arica diocese said that among the 700 people at the crossing, “lamentably there are children of all ages who urgently need better care, pregnant women, sick people suffering  from inclement weather out in the open, unable to resolve their migration problems.”

That day Bishop Moisés Carlos Atisha Contreras, along with his vicar general, Mauricio Cáceres, and Fr. Isaldo Bettin, head of the Chilean Catholic Institute for Migration in Arica, went to the site to “see firsthand the situation experienced by our Venezuelan brothers and sisters.”

"We talked with the central and local government authorities, but the most important thing was to listen to the stories of those affected and to pray with them so that humanitarian solutions with concrete actions could be sought as soon as possible."

“We have to understand the migration reality in the world from principles of humanity, and we are constantly challenged as a society to look for ways to treat people with the dignity proper to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus we put into practice what the Gospel mandates, 'I was a migrant [sic] and you welcomed me.'”

The statement noted that the government authorized the entrance of families with underage children, while institutions such as INCAMI, the Jesuit Migrant Service, the National Human Rights Institute, the Scalabrini Foundation and other migrant associations, consulates, and individuals are providing humanitarian aid.

Different civil society organizations issued a letter in turn expressing the hope that “the states in the region provide a coordinated response commensurate with the situation of the Venezuelans. They're not people invading countries, but families seeking to survive,” they said.

“While  the efforts of the consulates in giving timely responses are appreciated … extraordinary measures must be jointly taken that adapt to the situation the people are going through that need protection, instead of imposing requirements that not everyone has the possibility of fulfilling.”

Millions of Venezuelans have emigrated in recent years, as under the socialist administration of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social upheaval, with severe shortages and hyperinflation.

Some 1.3 Venezuelan emigrants are being hosted by Colombia, and some 800,000 are in Peru.

In a move to restrict the flow of immigrants, Peru mandated June 15 that Venezuelans have a passport and visa to enter the country; previously, only a national ID card was needed.

‘Hear victims, treat the whole problem,’ human trafficking conference told

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Human trafficking survivors shared their stories of abuse and oppression before an audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, kicking off a day of education and advocacy in the U.S. Congress.

Experts, members of Congress, and trafficking victims spoke at a Capitol Hill conference on human trafficking held on June 26. The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd co-hosted the event, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the DC Baptist Convention.

“I cannot talk about human trafficking without saying ‘modern-day slavery’. Because when I think about my situation, it was a form of modern-day slavery,” said Evelyn Chumbow, speaker with Survivors of Slavery and a survivor of labor trafficking. 

Chumbow emphasized the importance of not separating sex trafficking from labor trafficking when discussing the problems. “One thing I hate is separation. I hate to separate the issue of sex and labor [trafficking],” she said, because “if you’re going to address the issue, address the whole issue.”  

There are an estimated 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization; the trafficking industry is estimated to be around $150 billion.

The lack of investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking in the United States is a significant problem, said Hilary Chester, PhD, Associate Director of the Anti-Trafficking Program for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While “we do have relatively robust laws” against trafficking, she said, pointing to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), “what’s missing right now is accountability.”

This creates a system of impunity where “there is no consequence for exploiting a worker,” whether it be in a small business, agriculture, or a hotel chain. “There really isn’t much risk for them,” Chester said.

Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, the United Nations Representative for the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, said there is a common thread running through global systems of exploitation.

“Laudato Si, as I Iook on it and reflect on it, connects the dots,” she said, referencing Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical. Doherty said the Pope has frequently drawn attention to how economies built towards the pursuit of profit rather than respect for human dignity lead to a market culture based on exploitation.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) also spoke at the conference about her service as a U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, during which time she helped to draft the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, and which first exposed her to human trafficking to Europe through the Balkans.

“Then I came home to my own suburban community in St. Louis County,” she said, seeing that trafficking was also “hiding in plain sight in the United States of America.”

In her testimony before trafficking experts and other audience members, Chumbow told of how she wanted to travel to America from Cameroon for opportunity, and at nine years old she came to the U.S. Unbeknownst to her, her uncle had sold her for $1,000 and she was taken to a family home in Maryland where other trafficking victims were put to work cooking and cleaning. 

Chumbow said was promised education and opportunities. “I thought I was coming to America to go to school, to be a lawyer.” “I remember my trafficker’s mother--my uncle was sitting right there--and the mother asked ‘is she old enough for the job?’ I’m thinking, ‘what job?’”

“She turned me around, she opened my mouth, she looked at me to see if I was strong enough to do whatever job I was coming to America to do. Obviously, to the mother, I passed the test,” said Chumbow. 

Her illegal entry into the U.S. and her exploitation were not coincidental, she explained. 

“You cannot talk about immigration without talking about trafficking,” she said, both “go hand in hand.” Chumbow was also sexually assaulted during her time of slavery. 

Then she escaped the home, and went to a Catholic church. She told the priest her story, and he asked her what she wanted to do. Chumbow answered that she wished to return home or go to school. However, she did not have the legal documents that she needed for employment or education. She was able to obtain fake documents to work at Taco Bell.

After spending time later in foster care, during which she says she was nearly recruited for sex trafficking but was able to recognize the threat, she eventually obtained her GED and Bachelor’s degree. She now works at the law firm Baker McKenzie. 

“Healing is a process. I’m 33 years old, I’m still struggling,” Chumbow said.

Abortion is key issue for 2020 voters, new poll says

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A new poll has shown that abortion is a top consideration among a large section of voters, indicating the issue may be a crucial policy battleground in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

The study, conducted by Monmouth University, surveyed 751 people from June 12 to 17. It found that over a third of respondents rated abortion as either the “most important” or a “very important” issue for the presidential election. An additional 30% of respondents said that the issue was “somewhat important.” 

The poll found that Democrats were the most likely to rate abortion as the “most” or a “very” important issue for 2020, ahead of both Republicans or independents.

The 2016 Democratic Party platform included a call to roll back both the Hyde Amendment, which blocks the use of federal funds in most abortions, and the Mexico City Policy, which prevents U.S. overseas aid from going to organizations that provide or support abortion.

Abortion has played an increasing role in the Democratic presidential primary race, with Senator Bernie Sanders publicly backing unrestricted access to abortion up to birth, and Senator Joe Biden publicly reversing his decades of support for the Hyde Amendment.

Among Democrats most likely to weigh abortion rights in determining their vote, 28% said they support Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, 21% prefered Elizabeth Warren, and 18% hoped Bernie Sanders is the nominee. 

The poll also found that while a plurality--32% --of respondents said they thought abortion should be “always legal,” a combined 55% were in favor of making the procedure “legal with limitations” or “illegal with exceptions,” such as in the cases of rape or incest. 

Ten percent of respondents were in favor of making abortion always illegal. 

Of that 10%, nearly two-thirds said that their pro-life stance will play a “very important role” in the 2020 election. Forty-three percent of the people who said they believe abortion should be legal all times said they consider abortion to be one of their key issues for the presidential election. 

Earlier this year, the Trump administration changed Title X regulations, prohibiting funding recipients from co-locating with abortion facilities, a move projected to cost Planned Parenthood approximately $60 million in federal funding. 

At the state level, several legislatures have moved to pass so-called “heartbeat bills” and other restrictive abortion laws, many of which are the subject of legal appeals. Other states, most notably New York and Vermont, have codified the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision into law, allowing virtually unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy. 

Both Democrats and Republicans said that the other party as too focused on this issue.

Among Republicans, 58% said Democrats focused too much abortion but only 26% thought that their own party gave the matter too much attention at the federal level. 

Surveyed Democrats registered nearly identical numbers: only 23% thought federal-level Democrats were spending too much time on abortion, but 64% said Republicans were disproportionately focused on the issue.

After forced abortion threat, disability advocate says support is key to fight eugenics

London, England, Jun 26, 2019 / 01:10 pm (CNA).- In the face of an increasingly ‘eugenic’ mentality toward people with disabilities in Europe -- exemplified in the recent overturned forced abortion case -- a Catholic disability expert says parishes should be looking at how to further support people with disabilities and their families.

“Each and every person has been created in the image of God. There is no decision made about who can or cannot be born -- that's God's choice,” disability theology specialist Cristina Gangemi told CNA.

“It is a type of eugenics here where they are beginning to say for the ‘well-being’ of this person who ‘cannot’ go through birth, who ‘cannot’ look after the child, the best thing to do is to kill their offspring,” she said.

Gangemi is the director of the UK-based Kairos Forum, a consultancy that helps communities and organizations respond to the educational and spiritual needs of people with disabilities. For the past 25 years, Gangemi has worked with people with intellectual disabilities, like the woman involved in the recent attempted forced abortion case.

In this case, “the judge was saying that she wouldn't be able to cope with the birth and she wouldn't be able to cope with the child being taken away, but if she had an abortion, she would, at 22 weeks, still have had to give birth to a dead baby and the baby would have been taken away dead. That is what would have caused psychological problems to the young woman,” Gangemi explained.

“We can always work with her to help her understand the life she has within her and beyond her. And who says that that young woman is not able to give that child an immense amount of love?” she said.

“If I were called into work with this family, or if I were called to advise the parish or the diocese in which the family lived -- because we don’t know who they are -- I would be working with the local church to help them first of all understand the canonical duties that they have toward families such as this, and I would be looking to work with symbols, pictures, body language, and music to help the young woman understand what it means to be a mother,” she said.

“She might not be able to reason out now and we shouldn't even be expecting that, but what we can become is … creative teachers through love,” Gangemi explained.

“In my years working in the field I have never met anybody who can't learn. I've met lots of people who learn creatively, but I've always met people who can learn,” she said.

“We turn our gaze back to God and we begin to work creatively and accompany such a family, helping this young woman and her family not to be burdened by society's judgement, but to be celebrated by the Church's face,” she said.

Concerns have been raised for years over the treatment of those with disabilities in Europe. Disability advocates voiced alarm in 2017 when Iceland declared that it had “eradicated Down syndrome,” because 100% of babies who were diagnosed with the condition were aborted. Many other European countries also have high rates of abortions of children with Down syndrome.

Gangemi is currently working on a program called “Icons of Christ,” which will be a resource to help parishes approach the lives of people with intellectual disabilities pastorally when they request support for marriage preparation and living family life.

“Importance needs to be given to people with disabilities in faith communities. They have to be seen for who they are, members of the Body of Christ, and therefore there have to be creative practices within our Church that are not just special parishes or special Masses,” she said.

“People with disabilities should be catechists, protagonists, active members of the Church. They should be participants rather than recipients ... This is no special program. This is Catholicism at its finest,” she said.

Eritrean Catholics dedicate Apostles' Fast to pray over clinics' closure

Asmara, Eritrea, Jun 26, 2019 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- The head of the Eritrean Catholic Church has called for the Church's faithful to observe the current fasting season in response to the government's seizure and closing of 22 Church-run health clinics earlier this month.

Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of the Eritrean Archeparchy of Asmara wrote in a June 22 letter that “only the Lord can console us and resolve our problems.”

The Eritrean Catholic Church observes the Apostles' Fast – a fasting season between Pentecost and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul – this year from June 25 through July 11. The Church uses the Alexandrian rite and the Coptic calendar, on which the feast of Saints Peter and Paul is not celebrated until the Gregorian calendar's July 12.

The Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa has also condemned the clinics' seizure.

Bishop Charles Kasonde of Solwezi, chair of AMECEA, wrote to the Eritrean bishops saying, “I hereby extend my heart-felt message of solidarity to you and the entire Catholic family in Eritrea over the confiscation of the health institutions owned by the Catholic Church.”

“May the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ nurture you with the hope and give you the necessary courage and stamina to stand strong in defence of the rights of the Church and God’s people in Eritrea,” he added.

In June, military forces arrived at the Church's 22 clinics, telling patients to return to their homes, and subsequently guarding the buildings.

A letter from the Church to the health ministry after the seizure said that “the government can say it doesn't want the services of the Church, but asking for the property is not right.” It added that the Church's social services cannot be characterized as opposition to the government.

Eritrea is a one-party state whose human rights record has frequently been deplored.

According to the BBC, analysts believe the seizures were retaliatory, after the Church in April called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.

Government seizure of Church property is not new, however.

A 1995 decree restricting social and welfare projects to the state has been used intermittently since then to seize or close ecclesial services.

In July 2018, an Eritrean Catholic priest helping immigrants and refugees in Italy told EWTN that authorities had recently shut down eight free Catholic-run medical clinics. He said authorities claimed the clinics were unnecessary because of the presence of state clinics.

Christian and Muslim schools have also been closed under the 1995 decree, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.

Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern since 2004 for its religious freedom abuses by the US Department of State.

Many Eritreans, especially youth, emigrate, due to a military conscription, and a lack of opportunities, freedom, education, and health care.

A July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended a conflict over their mutual border, led to an open border which has allowed for easier emigration.

House passes emergency border funding, Trump threatens veto

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday night to provide emergency funding for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The bill, HR 3401, provides $4.5 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, and to provide for security. It passed the House by a vote of 230 to 195, largely along party lines with the exception of four Democrats voting against the bill, and three Republicans voting for it.

President Trump has threatened to veto the measure, stating that the legislation “does not provide adequate funding to meet the current crisis” and “contains partisan provisions designed to hamstring the Administration’s border enforcement efforts.”

The appropriations would go to the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. According to ABC news reports, $934.5 million would go to funding processing facilities, food, water and personal items, and transportation and medical services.

Last-minute changes to the legislation included requirements that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issue new standards for the care of migrants and requiring HHS contractors to supply sufficient supplies and medical care for migrants in custody.

“We must meet our responsibility to ensure the humane treatment of children and families in U.S. custody, and this legislation further strengthens protections for those individuals and increases accountability,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) stated.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) criticized the legislation as partisan, noting that it included no funding for a border wall and would likely be vetoed by the president if it passed the Senate. Scalise called instead for the passage of legislation to support border personnel and reform immigration laws to address the root causes of the crisis.

Tuesday’s vote came after President Trump postponed nationwide raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that were planned to pick up thousands of migrant families with deportation orders for removal.

The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, stated on Saturday, before the raids were delayed, that “broad enforcement actions instigate panic in our communities and will not serve as an effective deterrent to irregular migration.”

“Instead,” he stated, “we should focus on the root causes in Central America that have compelled so many to leave their homes in search of safety and reform our immigration system with a view toward justice and the common good.”

The situation along the U.S. - Mexico border remains a highly emotive situation, with individual cases drawing comment and attention from civil and religious leaders. A recent photograph showing the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, floating along the Rio Grande riverbank circulated across the world after they were discovered on June 24.

The image caused Pope Francis to speak of his “profound sadness” at the tragic loss of life and his prayers “for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery.” 

On Wednesday, the USCCB released a statement from Vasquez and conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo calling the image “horrific” and the “unspeakable consequence of a failed immigration system.”

“This image silences politics,” DiNardo and Vasquez wrote. 

“Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis? Sadly, this picture shows the daily plight of our brothers and sisters.  Not only does their cry reach heaven. It reaches us. And it must now reach our federal government.”

Pope Francis 'profoundly saddened' at image of drowned migrant father and daughter

Vatican City, Jun 26, 2019 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis expressed his "immense sadness" upon seeing the image of the migrant father and child who drowned in their attempt to cross the Rio Grande, a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday.

“The Pope is profoundly saddened by their deaths, and is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” Holy See Press Office interim director Alessandro Gissoti said June 26.

The graphic image of the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, floating along the Rio Grande riverbank circulated across the world after they were discovered on June 24.

Martinez and his daughter died while attempting to swim across the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border after they were unable to make an official request to U.S. authorities for asylum from El Salvador, the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, reported.

At least 283 migrants died while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border last year, according to U.S. border patrol.

President Donald Trump announced June 22 that he would delay scheduled immigration raids by two-weeks to allow Congress to modify U.S. asylum law.

The House of Representatives passed a bill June 4 that would provide a citizenship path for some brought to the U.S. illegally as children, as well as for qualified holders of Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure.

The bill, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, would grant qualifying childhood arrivals 10 years of legal residence, after which they could receive permanent legal residence with two years of higher education or military service, or three years of employment. Those with TPS or DED could apply for lawful permanent residence if they have been in the country for at least three years and have passed background checks. After five years of lawful permanent residence, they would apply for citizenship.

Earlier this month, Mexico agreed to take measures to reduce the number of migrants to the US, in order to avoid the imposition of tariffs.

Some 6,000 National Guard troops will be assigned to Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, and some asylum seekers in the US will be sent to Mexico to wait while their claims are processed.

Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate for countries to accept migrants and refugees in recent years.

“Before the challenges of contemporary movements of migration, the only reasonable response is one of solidarity and mercy,” Pope Francis said at a Mass commemorating migrants who died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe.

“How many of the poor are trampled on in our day! . . .  Among them, I cannot fail to include the migrants and refugees who continue to knock at the door of nations that enjoy greater prosperity,” he said.

Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the pope’s grief and said the image of the drowned father and daughter demand action.

“This image cries to heaven for justice. This image silences politics. Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis?” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin.

DiNardo serves as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Vasquez chairs the migration committee.

“Sadly, this picture shows the daily plight of our brothers and sisters. Not only does their cry reach heaven. It reaches us. And it must now reach our federal government,” they said.

The bishops stressed the respect due to every human person, created in the image of God, no matter their legal status or country of origin.

“Recent reports of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions are appalling and unacceptable for any person in U.S. custody, but particularly for children, who are uniquely vulnerable,” they said. “Such conditions cannot be used as tools of deterrence. We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution, and acute poverty.”

DiNardo and Vasquez called on Congress to authorize additional spending to meet the needs of children in custody, as well as to raise standards and oversight for facilities on the southern border.

“It is possible and necessary to care for the safety of migrant children and the security of our citizens. By putting aside partisan interests, a nation as great as ours is able to do both,” they said.

Religious freedom laws 'more necessary than ever,' Congress hears

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 07:00 am (CNA).- The House Committee on Education and Labor heard testimony June 25 on the Do No Harm Act, a proposed measure to limit the application of landmark religious freedom legislation. 

The Do No Harm Act proposes to limit the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Critics of the measure warned Tuesday that tampering with the law could hurt religious minorities who need its protections the most.

Matt Sharp, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said during his testimony that at a time when certain religious freedom protections are unpopular, “RFRA is more urgent and necessary to ensure that the political whims don’t dictate whether an individual or an organization’s faith is respected.”

Sharp said that the Do No Harm Act would withdraw the “opportunity for relief” available to religious groups, “shutting the doors of a courthouse to a lot of individuals and organizations if their claims fall out of disfavor.” 

Tuesday’s hearing on Capitol Hill also heard testimony from several witnesses for and against Do No Harm, including Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Johnson (R-LA), and Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by Congress and enacted into law in 1993, receiving unanimous bipartisan support in the House and passing the Senate by a vote of 97-3. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation.

RFRA was supported by leaders in both parties as a response to the 1990 Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court upheld the government in a case involving two Native Americans fired after testing positive for the drug peyote, which they argued they had ingested as part of a religious ritual. 

The law prevents the federal government from imposing a substantial burden on the sincerely-held religious beliefs of a person, unless it can establish a compelling government interest in passing the law and the legislation is the least-restrictive means of furthering that interest.  

At the time of its passage, RFRA enjoyed broad support from both parties and from advocacy groups across the political spectrum. 

“The reason all those diverse groups came together was because the Smith decision caused great alarm around the country,” stated Rep. Johnson in his member testimony at the hearing. 

Prior to his time in Congress, Johnson served for nearly 20 years as a constitutional law attorney and a defense litigator in religious freedom cases.

The consensus behind RFRA’s passage was not, he said, a reflection of support for the men in the Smith case, but “the personal views of the lawmakers was not the point.”

“Everyone, both liberal and conservative, recognized that even the sincerely-held religious beliefs of small minority groups are important for us to protect,” Johnson said. “RFRA supporters understood that one day, it could be their own religious beliefs and practices that would be unpopular and face government scorn and restriction.”

“All RFRA provides is a fair hearing,” Rep. Johnson said. “[It] was created to provide a very reasonable balancing test” between sincerely-held religious beliefs and the government’s interest in federal law.

Supporters of the Do No Harm Act argued that, since its passage, application of RFRA has been broadened to allow religious groups to avoid complying with equality and employment laws.

In 2014, RFRA was at the center of the Supreme Court case Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, in the Christian owners of the closely-held for-profit company objected on religious grounds to the Obama administration’s mandate of provision of coverage for certain drugs that can cause abortions. 

The Court ruled that Hobby Lobby was exempt from the mandate, which was not the least-restrictive means for furthering the government’s compelling interest of providing contraceptive coverage.

After that decision, critics claimed it violated women’s right to obtain healthcare coverage - including contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs. Legislation was introduced in Congress to limit the use of RFRA in religious freedom cases.

In 2019, Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) reintroduced the “Do No Harm Act” to forbid the use of RFRA against “equal opportunity and protection against discriminatory laws, protections in the workplace and against child abuse, and health care access, coverage and services.

“Over the years,” Rep. Kennedy explained in his member testimony on Tuesday, “RFRA has morphed from a shield of protection to a sword of infringement.”

“Religion has played a vital role in our nation’s history,” stated Rep. Scott in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, helping fuel social justice causes such as the civil rights movement and child labor movement. Yet, he said, it has been used as a “pawn” to justify segregation and discriminatory attacks.  

New conscience protections, introduced by the Trump administration for health care workers opposed to procedures such as abortions, were cited as a discriminatory practice that was protected by RFRA but against the original spirit of the law.

Opposition to the contraceptive mandate, notably by groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, was also argued by supporters of the Do No Harm Act to be an unreasonable religious exemption under RFRA, along with religious adoption agencies only placing children with opposite-sex couples—or even with couples from a certain church or Christian denomination.

The Do No Harm Act would “restore RFRA to its original purpose,” Kennedy said. “If civil liberties and legal rights exist only in absence of a neighbor’s legal objection” then they’re not rights, he said.

Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that the proposed legislation would prevent RFRA from being “misused for something that it wasn’t originally intended to do.”

Against these arguments, Sharp and Congressmen Johnson both testified that RFRA does not disproportionately benefit Christians at the expense of other groups. 

In 25 years, Sharp argued in his written testimony, only 16.3% of appellate court religious freedom cases under RFRA were successful—“in other words, the government almost always wins,” Johnson said.

“Critics of the Hobby Lobby decision insisted that the decision would ‘open the floodgates’ to all sorts of new claims under RFRA and to ‘impose Christian values in America and use religious freedom as a license to discriminate.’ That simply has not happened,” Johnson said, citing a Becket Fund study showing that Christians were actually underrepresented among the religious groups making claims under RFRA.

The bill, if enacted, “would eviscerate one of the most important and widely-regarded laws that’s ever been passed by the Congress,” Rep. Johnson said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) dismissed the argument that RFRA was being used to protect unfair discrimination in health care, “that is not what RFRA is about,” she said. 

“RFRA is not about denying anything to anybody except the freedom of religion—the Do No Harm bill will deny that.”

Pope Francis: There is no room for selfishness in Christian life

Vatican City, Jun 26, 2019 / 03:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Wednesday that there is no room for selfishness in the Christian life, pointing to the example of the lives of the early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles.

“The community of believers banishes individualism in favor of sharing and solidarity. There is no place for selfishness if you are a Christian,” Pope Francis said in St. Peter’s Square June 26.

Looking at the Acts of the Apostles, one can see that they lived in a very specific way, Pope Francis explained, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers.”

Pope Francis said that this line from Scripture contains the four essential qualities in the Christian life:

“Christians listen constantly the didaché or apostolic teaching; they practice a high quality of interpersonal relationships through the communion of spiritual and material goods; they remember the Lord through the ‘breaking of bread,’ that is the Eucharist; and they dialogue with God in prayer,” he said.

The pope pointed out that this way of life contradicts the individualist tendency in human society to “pursue one’s own interests regardless or even to the detriment of others.”

“Baptismal grace therefore reveals the intimate bond between the brothers in Christ, who are called to share, to identify themselves with others, and to give according to the needs of each one,” he said.

“The fruit of Pentecost, the powerful outpouring of the Spirit of God on the first Christian community, was that many people felt their hearts pierced by the happy announcement - the kerygma - of salvation in Christ and adhered to Him freely, converting, receiving baptism in his name and in turn accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

The perseverance of believers in this covenant with God and with each other then became an attractive force guaranteeing the growth of the community, Francis explained.

“Let us pray to the Holy Spirit to make our communities places where we can welcome and practice the new life, works of solidarity and communion, places where liturgies are an encounter with God, which becomes communion with our brothers and sisters, places that are doors open to the heavenly Jerusalem,” Pope Francis said.