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As eviction crisis looms, priest highlights the legal needs of the poor

Denver Newsroom, Jan 23, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- In the waning months of 2020, the United States watched as the Senate conducted hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven. President Donald Trump had nominated Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat left by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Among the observers was Father Pius Pietrzyk, OP, a canon lawyer and among the few Catholic priests to, like Barrett, hold a Senate-confirmed political appointment.

In late 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Pietrzyk to serve on the board of the Legal Services Corporation, a nonpartisan body that gives grants to local legal aid offices to provide free civil legal services for the poor.

“I never thought I'd like the work as much as I have. I've enjoyed it very much. And a big part of that is because I've seen the people who have been helped by it,” Pietrzyk told CNA.

“But I also see, in a much bigger way, the people who continue to need to be helped by it. And there's far more need certainly than we have resources. But we keep trudging along doing our best and helping as many people as we can.”

Pietrzyk is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph, and chairs the Pastoral Studies department at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, where he also teaches canon law. 

Before being ordained to the priesthood in 2008, he practiced civil law for several years at a large firm in Chicago. 

Pietrzyk received the news of his appointment to the LSC’s board in early 2010. As a lawyer, he had heard of the Legal Services Corporation and was vaguely aware of what they did. But his appointment was still a big surprise. 

“It was completely out of the blue for me. I never saw this coming,” he said. 

'Fundamental disparities'

The Legal Services Corporation is a 501(c)(3) corporation created in 1974 with bipartisan Congressional sponsorship. 

Congress appropriates money to the LSC each year— for 2021, some $465 million in funding is expected. The LSC does not itself provide legal services, but rather provides grants to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the country. 

People earning 125% or less of the federal poverty line are eligible for the services that the local legal aid agencies provide. Pietrzyk said some of the common civil law issues that the aid agencies deal with are issues of domestic violence, housing (such as landlord-tenant disputes), elder law, and veterans issues. 

In civil cases, many people living in poverty cannot afford lawyers, and often have to represent themselves, making them less likely to win their cases. 

“You look in the housing courts in the United States, and most of the landlords are represented by a lawyer, and almost none of the tenants are represented by a lawyer. And so you've got these fundamental disparities when it comes to as basic a human need and human right really as housing issues,” he said.

So how did a Dominican priest get picked for a political appointment like this?

Apart from Pietrzyk’s legal qualifications for the position, there was another reason his name came up as a possible candidate. 

By tradition, at least two members of the LSC’s board are “client-eligible,” meaning they themselves qualify for the free services that they oversee. 

Because Dominicans take a vow of poverty, Pietrzyk is technically poor. So when the Senate was looking for potential nominees to recommend to President Obama, a Senate staffer suggested looking for a nominee who had taken a vow of poverty. 

Pietrzyk is quick to point out that his Senate hearing was not the flashy, high-profile media affair that often accompanies hearings for Supreme Court nominees, such as Barrett. 

Instead, his hearing was conducted as a conference call with several Democratic staffers, away from the public eye. Pietrzyk described the room where it took place as little more than a “cloakroom.” 

Still, as you might expect, any nominee for a Senate-confirmed position has to be vetted by the FBI. The FBI conducted interviews with several people whose names Pietrzyk provided, as well as with several of Pietrzyk’s parishioners and neighbors. 

At one point during the vetting process, Pietrzyk was studying in Rome. Since the FBI lacks jurisdiction outside U.S. territorial boundaries, a retired State Department agent living in Europe met with Father Pietrzyk and conducted additional interviews in Rome. 

“I had really nothing to hide, nothing that's going to cause a major objection,” Pietrzyk laughed.  

“I wasn't a foreign agent. I wasn't engaging in some sort of heavy illegal practices. That made it a lot easier. I had no complicated financial situations that would cause embarrassment to the President or anything like that.”

Although Pietrzyk says he is not aware of any major ideological objections to his appointment, he says there was some suspicion in the Senate that he fit the mold of a “client eligible” candidate. After all, he says, not many poor people have a University of Chicago law degree. 

“And while I live a vow of poverty, it wasn't as if there was any danger of me being on the streets. I don't think my religious community was going to throw me out on the street anytime soon,” he pointed out. 

“So that caused, I think, a little bit of grumbling from some people, but it never came back to me, and it never affected my nomination, and it never affected the vote in the Senate.”

The Senate confirmed Pietrzyk’s nomination on March 29, 2010. He said he regularly wears his religious habit to board meetings, and has earned the respect of his fellow board members. 

“My other board members have accepted me as a Catholic priest, as Catholic religious, and have received that whole-heartedly and have just been very professional to me,” Pietrzyk said. 

“We rarely have, if ever, ideological disputes. That camaraderie and friendship and professionalism has been part of what's made this such a rewarding experience for me, in addition to the stories that we hear of the poor people who are helped by the services. And some of them are really quite compelling.”

In Dec. 2019, Pietrzyk was further elevated to Vice-Chairman of the LSC’s board. 

'We haven't seen the worst of the poverty'

Pietrzyk said the work of the Legal Services Corporation is particularly important today, as millions of Americans face eviction from their homes because of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

A handful of states have made it illegal for landlords to evict tenants during the pandemic, but many have not. In a July 2020 survey done by the LSC, 95% of their grantees reported an increase in eviction cases. 

Late last year, Congress extended a moratorium on evictions nationwide until the end of this month, January 2021.

The federal moratorium applies when renters meet certain conditions, and data show that landlords in many states have ignored moratoria and have continued with evictions. The Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University, has tracked at least 200,000 evictions in the US since the pandemic began.

President Joe Biden has pledged to make an extension of the federal moratorium one of his top priorities, pledging to sign an executive order extending the moratorium until March on his first day in office. 

Unless that moratorium is later renewed, an estimated 30-40 million needy people are going to find themselves homeless. 

“We haven't seen the worst of the poverty that has been a result of the COVID, and we'll see it a lot worse once the evictions crisis really hits. And so being on the front lines and trying to ameliorate that as much as possible, I think, is something we all really need to be invested in,” Pietrzyk said. 

The need for affordable legal services for the poor has been highlighted recently as an important component of the country’s response to poverty, especially in light of the pandemic. 

Notably, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a Sept. 2020 op-ed calling for reform of the court system, noting that “even to accomplish the simplest task, hiring a lawyer is expensive — too expensive.” 

As one possible remedy, Gorsuch highlighted new programs in Utah and Arizona that will, beginning this year, permit “trained, non-lawyer legal professionals” to represent clients in some legal areas. 

Although the LSC is set to receive $465 million in funding this year, the largest dollar amount ever appropriated, the figure is significantly lower than what the LSC requested for 2021. The Trump administration recommended “zero funding” for the LSC every year that Trump was in office. 

Pietrzyk said he believes all Americans— regardless of income—  ought to be able to access the court system. 

“When you're a poor person, you can barely have money to feed your family. When you become a victim of injustice in the civil realm, you often have no outlet at all, because you can't hire a lawyer,” he said.  

“You oftentimes don't have the resources to be able to navigate yourself through a very complicated court system. And so what's left?...I do think that if you are committed to the rule of law and to justice for all Americans, that you have to be committed in some way to a program that provides civil legal services to the poor.”

The LSC’s grantees nationwide have seen a large increase in demand for their services during the pandemic. 

Guy Lescault, executive director of Legal Services Alabama, one of the LSC’s grantees, told CNA that at least 1.5 million Alabama residents cannot afford to hire lawyers when faced with civil issues like fighting an eviction. 

Alabama has long ranked near the bottom in terms of average income and racial disparities, Lescault said. Alabama does not have a state moratorium on evictions, and it is one of only two states nationwide— the other being Idaho— that has never appropriated any state money toward legal services for the poor. 

Typically, some 80% of their funding comes from the LSC, and last year they got some much-needed additional funding from the CARES Act and in the form of a grant from HHS. Legal Services Alabama is hoping to fill in gaps with their own fundraising. 

Legal Services Alabama operates a call center where people can call to get connected to free legal services, and they have seen a massive increase in demand since the pandemic started. 

Most calls they receive at the call center, Lescault says, are from needy people seeking information, such as asking about how to access SNAP (Food stamps). 

Lescault says they deal with many elderly people and children in their work. Moreover, the population served by LSA is about 70% female and nearly two-thirds black.

For serious situations, such as a poor person facing eviction or domestic violence, a call to the statewide call center often will be directed to one of their lawyers. 

“Domestic violence sort of goes hand in hand when you have lockdown orders, loss of employment, all of the other things. These issues, they’re not isolated, they’re all intertwined,” Lescault said. 

“What we should be doing is addressing some of this holistically. So we are trying as fast as our little feet can get us to apply for more domestic violence money from the Department of Justice that would give us additional staff to help address that issue around the state.”

'Make your town and community a better place'

Father Pietrzyk’s status as a Senate-confirmed Catholic priest is fairly unique. 

In 2015— five years after Father Pietrzyk’s confirmation— the Senate confirmed Father Paul Hurley to be U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. The record of whether there have been any other priests confirmed by the Senate is thin.

Most Catholics will never get the chance to help the poor by way of a national political appointment. But Father Pietrzyk encouraged all Catholics to seek out opportunities to help the poor in their neighborhoods and local communities. 

“Where you can have a great deal of influence is at the local level, getting involved in helping people who are in need in your own community, in your own town, in your own city,” he said. 

“I think that's what Catholics need to be about— to try to avoid all of the political and ideological gamesmanship that goes on sometimes at the national level, and ask yourself what you can do to make your town and community a better place.”

This story originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the segment below, beginning at 23:13. 



CNA Newsroom · Ep. 90: For God and Country  
 

 

George Weigel: Cardinal Cupich’s criticisms of Archbishop Gomez are baseless

CNA Staff, Jan 22, 2021 / 07:56 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, showed courage in releasing a statement on the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration despite opposition from within the conference, said papal biographer and longtime Church observer George Weigel.

Weigel said Gomez displayed “episcopal courage” at a time when others demanded “a reprise of the accommodationist approach to Catholic public officials long championed by Theodore McCarrick.”

Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Washington D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, penned an essay published in First Things on Friday, commenting on the statement released by Gomez on Inauguration Day and the subsequent criticism from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

The statement from Gomez noted that Biden’s inauguration marks the first time in 60 years that a president has professed the Catholic faith. This presents a unique circumstance, Gomez said, particularly because Biden is in support of legal abortion and has pledged to increase taxpayer funding for it.

Cupich later criticized Gomez for releasing the statement, saying it was an “ill-considered statement” that “was crafted without the involvement of the Administrative Committee, a collegial consultation that is normal course for statements that represent and enjoy the considered endorsement of the American bishops.”

Norms from the bishops’ conference, however, indicate that standard procedures were followed ahead of the release of the statement.

Weigel argued that Gomez releasing a statement on the inauguration was in keeping with the recommendations from the Working Group on Engaging the New Administration created by the bishops at their November 2020 meeting.

As Gomez told his brother bishops, Weigel said, the working group had proposed “a letter to the new president from Archbishop Gomez, writing as a pastor. The letter would promise support for the new administration in areas of agreement. It would also identify administration policies, including abortion, that the bishops believed violated human dignity, and it would urge the new president to reassess his positions on these questions.”

The letter did just that, Weigel said. It noted numerous issues of concern among both political parties, but said that “the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority’.”

“By any reasonable standard, Archbishop Gomez’s statement was balanced and measured; absent the controversy that erupted before and after its release,” Weigel said.

However, he said, “Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make no statement, as did the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.”

Weigel said the controversy “underscored the statement’s firm, clear, and unambiguous stance on the 'preeminent priority' of the life issues—and thus heightened the impact of those parts of the statement that the dissident cardinals may have found so objectionable that they tried to quash the entire document.”

He said Cupich’s suggestion that Gomez was somehow acting against the norms of the bishops’ conference “is itself unfair and irresponsible.”

“To suggest that there was something unprecedented here is to falsify history,” he said. “What was indeed unprecedented, as Archbishop Gomez pointed out in his statement, was the situation of a president of the United States who professed a devout and heartfelt Catholicism and yet was publicly committed to facilitating grave moral evils.”

Read George Weigel's full essay in First Things here: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/01/archbishop-jos-gomez-a-profile-in-episcopal-courage
 

US bishops urge Biden to reject abortion rights after 'deeply disturbing' statement

CNA Staff, Jan 22, 2021 / 05:40 pm (CNA).- President Joe Biden’s statement backing legal abortion on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade drew swift reaction from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose pro-life chairman said the no president of the United States should ever defend denying the right to life of unborn children.
 
“We strongly urge the president to reject abortion and promote life-affirming aid to women and communities in need,” the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities head Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas said Jan. 22.
 
“It is deeply disturbing and tragic that any president would praise and commit to codifying a Supreme Court ruling that denies unborn children their most basic human and civil right, the right to life under the euphemistic disguise of a health service,” he said.
 
The U.S. bishops’ conference responded to the statement from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which mandated permissive abortion laws nationwide.
 
The president and vice president stressed their commitment to legal abortion, saying “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe.”
 
Although Roe v. Wade was a critical pro-abortion rights decision, the statement did not mention abortion by name, preferring to use euphemisms such as “reproductive health” and “health care.”
 
“In the past four years, reproductive health, including the right to choose, has been under relentless and extreme attack,” they said.  “As the Biden-Harris Administration begins in this critical moment, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to ensuring that all individuals have access to the health care they need.”
 
The U.S. bishops’ conference said the statement wrongly characterized the Roe v. Wade decision as “an advancement of women’s rights and health.” While the Biden-Harris statement did not mention religion, the bishops said Catholics cannot support abortion.
 
Biden has repeatedly emphasized his Catholicism, attending Mass the morning of his inauguration and citing St. Augustine of Hippo in his inaugural address. He has put a Pope Francis picture in the Oval Office.
 
Even on Biden’s first day in office, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited Biden’s Catholicism when asked questions about abortion.
 
At a Jan. 20 press briefing, Owen Jensen of EWTN News asked Psaki what Biden plans to do regarding the Hyde Amendment and the Mexico City Policy, which Biden has opposed because they limit abortion funding.
 
“Well, I think we’ll have more to say on the Mexico City Policy in the coming days,” Psaki said.
 
“But I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he (Biden) is a devout Catholic, and somebody who attends church regularly,” she told reporters. “He started his day with attending his church this morning.”
 
In the bishops’ conference statement, however, Archbishop Naumann emphasized Church teaching on abortion.
 
“I take this opportunity to remind all Catholics that the Catechism states, ‘Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable’,” he said.
 
The statement also emphasized politicians’ responsibilities to reject a right to abortion.
 
“Public officials are responsible for not only their personal beliefs, but also the effects of their public actions. Roe’s elevation of abortion to the status of a protected right and its elimination of state restrictions paved the way for the violent deaths of more than 62 million innocent unborn children and for countless women who experience the heartache of loss, abandonment, and violence,” said Naumann.

The president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Fr. Dave Pivonka, also reacted to the Biden-Harris declaration, saying their “aggressive pro-abortion statement … is saddening to Catholics worldwide. The policies they have promised to put forward are harmful to the dignity of the human person and are contrary to the teachings of the Church.”

Pope Francis has often rejected abortion as part of a “throwaway culture,” but some American pro-abortion rights advocates and politicians, and their supporters, have tried to claim the Pope has taken a non-confrontational approach at variance with most U.S. bishops. 
 
On the day of Biden’s inauguration, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, in his role as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said he was praying for Biden. He noted areas of agreement and disagreement between the bishops and Biden.
 
“Catholic bishops are not partisan players in our nation’s politics,” Gomez said in a statement. “We are pastors responsible for the souls of millions of Americans and we are advocates for the needs of all our neighbors.”
 
“For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority’,” he said, adding that “preeminent does not mean ‘only’,” and there are a wide variety of challenges and threats to human dignity facing the country today,” he said.
 
The U.S. bishops will engage with Biden with the aim of starting “a dialogue to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families,” Archbishop Gomez said.

UN adopts resolution on protecting religious sites

CNA Staff, Jan 22, 2021 / 05:19 pm (CNA).- The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution Thursday calling for greater efforts to protect religious sites from acts of terrorism and asking for a global conference on the subject.

Titled “Promoting a culture of peace and tolerance to safeguard religious sites,” the resolution asks Secretary General Antonio Guterres to launch an international conference to discuss the best means of implementing the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites.

“Religious sites are representative of the history, social fabric and traditions of people in every country and community all over the world and should be fully respected as such,” the resolution says.

The resolution highlights the increasing threats to culturally and spiritually significant sites by terrorists and militias, who have at times destroyed religious property and illicitly trafficked artifacts.

The resolution denounces “all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines … including any deliberate destruction of relics and monuments” and condemns “all acts or threats of violence, destruction, damage or endangerment, directed against religious sites as such, that continue to occur in the world, and denounces any moves to obliterate or forcibly convert any religious sites.”

It calls on the governments to promote these religious sites as vulnerable targets and to implement safeguards to protect them. The resolution states that governments should assess risks and potential targets as well as “ensure that comprehensive measures are in place for the immediate response to an attack.”

The resolution also challenges the United Nations to develop “strategies, educational initiatives, and global communications campaigns and tools” that foster greater multicultural respect and media awareness.

“[We invite] all Member States to enhance education and capacity-building to counter incitement to violence through fostering the messages of unity, solidarity and interreligious and intercultural dialogue,” it said, calling for the promotion of peace and coexistence among different religions and cultures.

Saudi Arabia proposed the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Arab nations including Egypt, Iraq, the UAE, Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine. The resolution was also supported by the United States and the European Union.

“The United States is pleased to join the European Union’s statement concerning this resolution, and recalls that the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are mutually reinforcing and complementary,” said David Messenger, the advisor for Political Affairs of the U.N. Mission to the United States, in a Jan. 21 statement.

However, Messenger voiced concern that the resolution overemphasizes a condemnation of hate speech, “at times equating speech to acts of violence.” Offensive speech is not necessarily a form of violence, he said, and the resolution should not be used to justify restrictions on free speech.

“Rather than seek restrictions to expression to deal with intolerance or hate speech, the United States advocates for robust protections for speech, as well as the enforcement of appropriate legal regimes that deal with discriminatory acts and hate crimes,” he said.

Pro-abortion protestors disrupt pro-life Mass at Ohio cathedral

Denver Newsroom, Jan 22, 2021 / 05:06 pm (CNA).- About eight pro-abortion protesters disrupted the Respect Life Mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Columbus Friday, where Bishop Robert Brennan was presiding at an event marking the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

“Two, four, six, eight, this church teaches hate,” the protesters shouted, saying that abortion rights were under attack.

“Fund abortion, not cops,” said one of their signs. “Abortion on Demand. End Hyde Now,” said another, apparently referring to the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funding for abortion. At least two protesters wore vests that read “clinic escort” on the back.

Police and church officials escorted the protestors outside, where some protesters appeared to make obscene gestures at them, according to video from The Columbus Dispatch.

Friday marked the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which mandated permissive abortion laws nationwide.

Posts on the cathedral Facebook page indicated that Bishop Edward Malesic from the Diocese of Cleveland was present as a concelebrant of the Mass. The Columbus diocese had previously announced that all respect life activities would follow pandemic restrictions, including capacity limits at indoor events.

Bishop Brennan discussed the disruption in a statement the Columbus diocese sent to CNA.

“Today during our Respect Life Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral, a group of protesters entered this sacred space in an attempt to disrupt our worship,” Brennan said. “I am deeply thankful to the Columbus Police, assisted by diocesan staff, for the quick response without injury to anyone present.”

“I want to express my great admiration and thanks to all those attending the Mass whose respectful and prayerful response reflects the joy, hope, and mercy that marks our pro-life witness,” he added. “I also apologize to the families present whose children were exposed to this.”

“On this day, in remembrance of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, I ask all to continue to pray for the unborn who died, for all those who have experienced the pain of abortion, and for those who cannot understand our divine and steadfast calling to champion this cause,” the bishop said.

Before the Mass began at 10:30 a.m. local time, Jerry Freewalt, director of the diocesan office for Social Concerns, discussed the purpose of the event.

“We are called to respect life and love our neighbor. … They're all made in the image of God,” he said, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “It’s important because, especially in this day and age where there’s a lot of turmoil in our society and in some circles disrespect for each other, this type of Mass we hope will empower Catholics and all people of goodwill to take up that mantle of seeing Christ in each other.”

While pro-life advocates are hopeful that legal precedent on abortion will be revised by the Supreme Court after new justices were appointed by President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden has committed to a strong pro-abortion rights position, including an end to the Hyde Amendment.

As a U.S. Senator, Biden at one time said that the Roe v. Wade decision went too far and he was a longtime supporter of the Hyde Amendment. However, he backed away from this stand in June 2019 after criticism in the Democratic presidential primary.

Vice President Kamala Harris, a vocal proponent of abortion rights, has taken credit for Biden’s change in position on the Hyde Amendment. Any effort to end the amendment will require support in Congress.

In Columbus, St. Joseph’s Cathedral had posted to its Facebook page a photo of its church sign, which bore the message: “The Unborn Baby is created ‘in the image of God for Greater Things’,” with the message attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

After the Mass in Columbus, Bishop Brennan was scheduled to speak at the Roe Remembrance event outside the Ohio Statehouse. The event was sponsored by Greater Columbus Right to Life.
 

Secretary of State nominee says he will fill LGBT position at agency

Washington D.C., Jan 22, 2021 / 02:45 pm (CNA).- President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State pledged to appoint an LGBTI envoy at the agency, and says he will permit embassies to fly the “Pride” flag if confirmed. 

 

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. State Department, was asked about filing the LGBTI Special Envoy position at the agency during his confirmation hearing before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19. 

 

Filling the position is “a matter, I think, of some real urgency,” said Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration. 

 

The administration created the special envoy position in 2015 to help counter violence against persons identifying as LGBTI around the world, as well as helping overturn laws criminalizing same-sex conduct. 

 

"We've seen violence directed against LGBTQI people around the world increase,” said Blinken on Tuesday. “We've seen, I believe, the highest number of murders of transgender people, particularly women of color, that we've seen ever.” 

 

However, when the position was first created, some religious freedom advocates warned that the administration’s objective could be “more revolutionary” than simply countering violence abroad. They told CNA that the agency could pressure developing countries to redefine marriage and promote transgender ideology.

 

The Trump administration did not fill the position.

 

Blinken said on Tuesday that he believed that the United States is “playing the role that it should be playing in standing up for and defending the rights of LGBTQI people is something that the Department (of State) is going to take on, and take on immediately.” 

 

Blinken further pledged to “repudiate” the 2020 Commission on Unalienable Rights, established in 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and which produced a report on human rights in 2020. 

 

The report stated “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” 

 

In 2019, it was reported that U.S. embassies were prohibited from flying the LGBT “Pride” flag during the month of June, which is traditionally known as “Pride Month.” 

 

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) asked Blinken if he would change this policy as secretary of state. Blinken said that the U.S. embassies would be permitted to fly the flag.

 

Court victories strengthen Catholic groups' protections against 'gender transition' mandates

Washington D.C., Jan 22, 2021 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- Catholic medical groups and employers say their religious freedom position has been strengthened by a federal injunction against mandatory insurance coverage or medical referrals for gender transition therapy.
 
“This is a victory not just for the Catholic Benefits Association, but for religious freedom itself,” Doug Wilson, CEO of the Catholic Benefits Association, said Jan. 20. “These rulings will protect Catholic employers for years to come.”
 
“Our members can continue to provide the highest quality employee benefits to their 90,000 employees and their families, while living their religious beliefs,” Wilson said. “These protections also extend to each employer’s insurer, third-party administrator, and to future members of the Catholic Benefits Association.”
 
The Denver-based Catholic Benefits Association was founded in 2013. It helps employers form and administer employee benefit plans consistent with the Catholic faith and works to protect its employer members’ First Amendment legal rights. It serves over 1,000 Catholic employers, including 60 dioceses and archdioceses, religious orders, colleges and universities, hospitals and other ministries. Seven Catholic archbishops serve on its ethics committee.
 
With other Catholic groups, the association challenged the federal mandate that doctors perform or refer for gender-transition surgeries—despite objections that the doctor may have to the procedure. The mandate also requires insurance coverage for gender-transition surgeries.
 
The mandate, issued in 2016, stemmed from the Obama administration’s interpretation of Section 1557 of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care in a number of areas, including sex discrimination. The Obama administration interpreted this to include protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Department of Health and Human Services said that doctors could not refuse to make gender-transition surgery referrals.
 
The Catholic groups who challenged the federal rule alleged that the mandate violated their religious freedom by requiring them to provide insurance coverage and medical assistance for gender transition surgeries.
 
On Jan. 19, U.S. District Judge Peter Welte of the Eastern District of North Dakota granted Catholic groups that challenged the mandate permanent injunctive relief from having to provide or cover gender-transition procedures. The court is the second federal court to rule against the mandate. In October 2019, District Judge Reed O’Connor of the North District of Texas struck down the mandate after doctors had sued, alleging violations of conscience.
 
Wilson was grateful for Welte’s permanent injunction. The injunction protects its members against the 2016 mandates and similar Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules and discrimination claims based on the interpretation of ‘sex’ under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
 
He said the Catholic Benefits Association’s lawsuit was unique in that it was the only one to challenge EEOC rules and Title VII discrimination claims under the new interpretation of “sex.”
 
The interpretation of “sex” is newly relevant. In the 2020 decision Bostock v. Clayton County, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “sex” can include sexual orientation and gender identity in prohibitions on workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.
 
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in the case attempted to keep the changes narrow, but it has already proved influential. President Joe Biden, in his first day in office, signed a significant executive order expanding Gorsuch’s redefinition of “sex” throughout federal law and policy in ways that could have major consequences, including mandatory coverage of gender transition procedures.
 
Medical critics of the surgical practice say gender transition appears to provide only temporary change in health outcomes, if any. In 2016, Paul R. McHugh, M.D., the former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Lawrence S. Mayer, M.B., M.S., Ph.D., then a scholar in residence in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, reviewed hundreds of scientific articles on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
 
They found continued high risk of poor mental health incomes for patients who had gone through the transition surgery.
 
Philosophical, religious and moral critics of the practice question whether gender transition is even possible and whether it gives too much credence to patients’ perceptions of being the “wrong sex.”
The practice wrongly disassociates gender from biological sex, they say.
 
Criticism of gender transition has become taboo in recent years. Critics face opposition from LGBT advocates and their supporters. Some local laws consider the refusal to affirm a person’s self-perceived gender identity to be an illegal form of “conversion therapy”, but some of these laws are themselves under legal challenge.
 
Wilson voiced gratitude to Catholic Benefits Association members who had shown “unwavering support” for the legal challenge to the Obama-era rule. He also thanked the co-plaintiffs the Catholic Medical Association, the Diocese of Fargo, and Catholic Charities of North Dakota. Four Catholic groups under the Religious Sisters of Mercy had also brought objections.
 
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represented the plaintiffs, called the decision a “major victory for religious freedom.”
 
The Catholic plaintiffs “joyfully serve all patients regardless of sex or gender identity,” Goodrich said on Twitter. “They routinely provide top-notch care to transgender patients for everything from cancer to the common cold. They also provide millions of dollars in free and low-cost care to the elderly, poor, and underserved rural areas.”
 
While Judge Welte granted the Catholic groups an injunction on the mandate’s requirement of gender-transition surgery and coverage, he dismissed their abortion-related claims, saying concerns about mandatory abortion coverage were addressed by a 2020 rule from the Department of Health and Human Services and other legal interpretations in force.
 
Catholic challenges to other health coverage mandates have proven successful.
 
In 2018, a federal judge has ordered that $718,000 in compensation be paid to the Catholic Benefits Association after its successful religious freedom legal fight against mandated health care coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs, that would have violated Catholic beliefs.
 
The companies that make up the benefits association had collectively accrued $6.9 billion in fines for not providing the coverage. These fines were eliminated by a federal judge’s March 2018 ruling.

Virginia bishops oppose abortion bill passed by state senate

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 22, 2021 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- Virginia bishops opposed a bill allowing for taxpayer-funded abortion coverage that passed the state senate on Friday. 

 

The bill, SB 1276, would permit abortion coverage for any reason in health insurance plans on Virginia’s taxpayer-funded health exchange. The bill was introduced on Jan. 12 and cleared a senate committee on Mon., January 18.

 

On Friday afternoon, the Senate approved the bill by a 20-17 vote along party lines—on the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

 

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond stated their “deep disappointment” with the vote.

 

“Abortion is not health care; it ends lives instead of healing them,” the bishops said.

 

“On this day when we reflect in particular on the more than 60 million unborn lives lost since the Roe v. Wade decision, and on every day, we continue to advocate with relentless determination for health care that affirms every life, born and unborn,” they stated.

 

Virginia set up a health exchange with the federal passage of the Affordable Care Act, allowing for citizens to shop for health plans on the state’s “marketplace.”

 

SB 1276 struck a phrase clarifying that health plans offered on Virginia’s exchange would not cover abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or when the physical health of the mother is at risk due to the pregnancy. 

 

The state’s bishops had been outspoken against the bill. “Virginia should not subsidize abortion on demand with taxpayer funds,” Jeff Caruso, director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, told CNA on Friday prior to the vote. 

 

“The exchange is taxpayer-funded. Taxes pay for managing the exchange, and for subsidizing health plans in many cases,” he said, explaining how the bill would subsidize abortion coverage.

 

Virginia’s state legislature passed an abortion bill in 2020 that allowed physicians assistants and nurse practitioners to perform abortions; it also struck down existing requirements that women be informed about the abortion procedure and receive ultrasounds before having an abortion, and deregulated safety standards at abortion clinics.

 

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on April 11, Good Friday--an act which the state’s bishops called “a particular affront to all who profess the Gospel of life.”

 

A companion bill to SB 1276 is also being considered in the state house of delegates. The bishops called on delegates to vote against the bill.

 

The state’s consideration of taxpayer-funded abortion is taking place as the federal government is also considering repeals of pro-life protections against public funding of abortion.

 

The Biden administration is reportedly set to reverse the Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funding of foreign NGOs that perform or promote abortions.

 

House and Senate Democrats have also signaled a desire to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions in spending bills. House Democrats passed a COVID relief bill last year without protections against taxpayer funding of abortions included, but the measure did not pass the Senate.

 

The Virginia bishops noted on Friday that the state’s current prohibition of coverage for abortion-on-demand in its exchange “is consistent with the federal Hyde Amendment, in place for more than four decades and which most Americans support.”

 

“Tragically, the Senate today took a far different path,” they said.

Biden, Harris state their support for abortion on Roe anniversary

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 22, 2021 / 11:05 am (CNA).- President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stated their commitment to abortion on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision on Friday.

 

In a statement marking the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade— the Jan. 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S.—the new president and vice president said they were “committed” to codifying Roe in law, and to appointing pro-abortion federal judges.

 

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe,” their statement read.

 

“In the past four years, reproductive health, including the right to choose, has been under relentless and extreme attack,” Biden and Harris said.

 

Biden, who is Catholic, promised on the campaign trail that he would codify the 1973 ruling if elected as president.

 

The codification of Roe aims to ensure that, if the Supreme Court were to overturn the Roe ruling, federal law would still uphold legal abortion under the terms of Roe. The ruling had recognized legal abortion performed before the “viability” of the unborn child, but allowed states to ban abortions post-viability.

 

Biden has also supported taxpayer-funded abortion, most notably by calling to repeal the Hyde Amendment in 2019. That policy, enacted each year as a rider to budget bills, bars federal funding of abortions.

 

He has also promised to overturn other protections against taxpayer-funded abortions or abortion advocacy, such as by repealing the Mexico City Policy; that policy bars federal funding of foreign NGOs that perform or promote abortions as a method of family planning.

 

The rescinding or reinstatement of the policy is traditionally among the first actions a new president takes upon entering office. On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci—White House chief medical advisor for COVID-19—told board members of the World Health Organization that the administration would be repealing the policy in the “coming days.”

 

As of Friday afternoon, Biden had not yet officially announced a repeal of the policy

 

While campaigning for president in 2020, Biden also said his health care plan would include abortion coverage, in subsidized health plans offered on a public option.

 

In addition, on Friday Biden and Harris both promised to work to “increase access to contraception.”

 

As vice president from 2009-2017, Biden presided over the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate which ultimately brought the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic dioceses to court.

 

The mandate employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and some drugs that cause early abortions in employee health plans.

 

Biden, as a presidential candidate, said that he would remove religious exemptions to the mandate that were granted by the Trump administration to the Little Sisters and others—thus possibly heralding future court battles with the sisters.

 

On the day of Biden’s inauguration as president, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles—president of the U.S. bishops’ conference—said he was praying for Biden and noted areas of agreement and disagreement between the bishops and Biden.

 

“Catholic bishops are not partisan players in our nation’s politics,” he said in a statement. “We are pastors responsible for the souls of millions of Americans and we are advocates for the needs of all our neighbors.”

 

“For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority’,” he said, adding that “preeminent does not mean ‘only’,” and there are a wide variety of challenges and threats to human dignity facing the country today.”

 

The U.S. bishops will engage with Biden with the aim of starting “a dialogue to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families,” Gomez said.

Why a prohibition on sex discrimination could actually promote abortion

Washington D.C., Jan 22, 2021 / 10:05 am (CNA).- Members of Congress are looking to resurrect a constitutional amendment banning sex discrimination—one that Catholic groups have warned could promote abortion and transgender ideology.

 

On Thursday, members of both chambers of Congress introduced a joint resolution to affirm the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

 

Originally approved by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification, with a deadline of 1979, the proposed constitutional amendment forbids sex discrimination. It states that “[e]quality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

 

Catholic groups, including the Virginia Catholic Conference and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), have warned that the language in the amendment could be broadly interpreted to include protection for various issues including abortion and gender-transition surgery.

 

They have also said that the ratification of the amendment is dubious, as some of the 38 states ratified it after the deadline given by Congress and five other states had rescinded their ratification.

 

By 1979, the ERA failed to receive support from the necessary three-quarters of states (38) for ratification; even after Congress extended the deadline until 1982, it did not have the support of 38 states.

 

However, several states have continued to ratify the amendment in recent years with Virginia claiming to be the 38th state overall to do so.

 

On Thursday, members of Congress—including Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Mary.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), introduced a joint resolution to remove the deadline for ratification and honor the actions of the 38 states.

 

Three of the members—Murkowski, Speier, and Reed—are Catholic.

 

“For survivors of sexual violence, pregnancy discrimination, or unequal pay, the ratification of the ERA will be a critical step towards equal justice,” Rep. Reed said on Thursday.

 

The USCCB issued a fact-sheet on the ERA in Jan., 2020, explaining its concern with the amendment.

 

The conference said that when the amendment was initially considered by states in the 1970s, supporters often denied that it included protections for abortion; more recently, however, supporters of the amendment have said it does promote abortion.

 

For instance, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) stated in 2019 that the ERA, if ratified, “would reinforce the constitutional right to abortion by clarifying that the sexes have equal rights, which would require judges to strike down anti-abortion laws because they violate both the constitutional right to privacy and sexual equality.”

 

Thus, the ERA could possibly be used to strike down state and federal restrictions on abortion.

 

Additionally, the conference warned that the amendment could also promote access to other immoral procedures such as gender-transition surgery, and access to facilities based on one’s gender identity rather than biological sex.

 

If the Supreme Court extended federal civil rights protections against sex discrimination to also include sexual orientation and gender identity—as the court eventually did in the Bostock decision in June—then the ratification of the ERA’s prohibition of sex discrimination could result in “a radical restructuring of settled societal expectations with respect to sexual difference and privacy,” the conference said in Jan., 2020.

 

Religious groups such as homeless shelters could also be forced, against their beliefs, to provide access to single-sex facilities based on gender identity and not biological sex, the conference said.

 

In 2019 members of Congress proposed measures to remove the original deadline for the ERA’s ratification, and the House in 2020 passed a measure removing the deadline; the effort failed in the Senate.

 

It is unclear if the efforts to retroactively remove deadlines would succeed in the courts.