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‘March for the Martyrs’ to raise awareness of Christian persecution

March for the Martyrs, Sept. 5, 2020 / For the Martyrs

Washington D.C., Sep 10, 2021 / 10:01 am (CNA).

The second annual March for the Martyrs, an event to draw attention to global Christian persecution, will be held on Sept. 25 in Washington, D.C. 

It will mark the first time the event has been held in the nation’s capital. The move to Washington from Long Beach, California was done to bring greater awareness of Christian persecution overseas. 

“We all see what’s going on in Afghanistan right now. Christians are being hunted down and killed,” said Gia Chacon, president of the group For the Martyrs which organized the march. 

“This is happening in so many other nations across the world, and so few people are talking about it. That’s why we’ve chosen to move the March for the Martyrs to Washington, D.C.” 

For the Martyrs is an advocacy group founded in 2019 that seeks to raise awareness of international Christian persecution and promote religious freedom. 

Chacon estimates that “thousands” will attend the march in Washington, and asked participants to wear red in solidarity with persecuted Christians. 

The march will begin on the National Mall, and will end at the JW Marriott hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. The day’s events include a rally on the National Mall, and “Night of the Martyrs,” featuring testimonies from survivors of Christian persecution as well as from advocates. 

Last year’s march “was and continues to be the United States’ first and only large-scale march representing persecuted Christians,” the group states.

While the board members of For the Martyrs are Catholic, the march is open to all. 

“I believe we can all unite around this cause - with one voice - as the body of Christ in the United States advocating for our persecuted brothers and sisters,” said Chacon.  

The march will be co-sponsored by The Catholic Connect Foundation, Open Doors USA, In Defense of Christians, Liberty University’s Freedom Center, and Students for Life.  

Speakers at the rally include Fr. Benedict Kiely, the founder of; David Curry, president of Open Doors USA; Bob Fu, a Chinese defector and the founder of China Aid; and Toufic Baaklini, the president of In Defense of Christians. 

Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of Catholic News Agency, is an advisory board member of For the Martyrs.

Catholic health ministry head decries 'unjust' federal vaccine mandate

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House, Sept. 9, 2021 /

Washington D.C., Sep 10, 2021 / 08:04 am (CNA).

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for many private employers, drawing criticism from the head of one Catholic health care ministry.

“Coercing individuals into making a medical intervention is unjust,” said Louis Brown, executive director of the Christ Medicus Foundation and former acting deputy director of the Civil Rights Division of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, in an interview with CNA on Thursday.

“And a vaccine mandate that could cause millions of Americans to lose their jobs, to be excluded from large swathes of civil society – to become, effectively, second-class citizens – seriously undermines the principle of human dignity and the civil rights foundations of America,” he said.

President Biden on Thursday said his administration would require employers with 100 or more employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, or ensure negative COVID-19 tests weekly. The emergency rule is being developed by the Labor Department, Biden said Thursday afternoon.

Those employers must give paid time off to workers to get vaccinated, Biden said, also appealing to entertainment venues to require proof of vaccine from customers.

Biden on Thursday also issued an executive order requiring executive branch federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and mandating the same for federal contractors.  Facilities receiving Medicaid or Medicare funding would also have to require the vaccine for staff, the Associated Press reported.

“Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective, and free,” Biden said in remarks at the White House on Thursday.

“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us,” he said to unvaccinated Americans.

In his remarks, Biden did not specify if the Labor Department was crafting conscience accommodations for employees opposed to COVID-19 vaccines due to conscience concerns.

The three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have utilized controversial cell lines, drawn from fetal tissue from abortions believed to have been conducted in the 1970s. The vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna used the controversial cell lines in testing, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the cell lines in both testing and production.

However, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a December 2020 note, said that use of COVID-19 vaccines with connections to the cell lines is morally permissible, if no ethical option is available.

“The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation” with the abortions “is not obligatory,” the Vatican said, “if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent--in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.”

The congregation went on to state that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

For those refusing a vaccine “for reasons of conscience,” they must take precautions to avoid transmitting the virus, the Vatican said.

Catholic health care groups have also opposed vaccine mandates, while noting that Catholics have been encouraged to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

The Catholic Medical Association stated, on July 28, that it “opposes mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment without conscience or religious exemptions.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center also issued a July 2 statement opposing mandated vaccination with any of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States.

“The best ethical decision-making occurs when individuals have sufficient information for discernment and are able to reflect without undue external pressures placed on them,” the center stated.

“Mandates, by their very nature, exert pressure that can be severe if employment or the ability to further one’s education are threatened.”

U.S. bishops have also issued statements on vaccine mandates and conscience exemptions.

Some, such as Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, upheld the decisions of Catholics who declined COVID-19 vaccines out of conscience.

“For those who have discerned to receive one [vaccine], they can be assured that they can do so in good conscience. For those who have discerned not to receive one, they too can do so in good conscience,” Olmsted said in an Aug. 27 letter to Catholics in his diocese.

“What is primary for us as individuals is to form our conscience through the teachings of the Church.”

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, however, required COVID-19 vaccines for all diocesan employees.

“This is an urgent matter of public health and safety. There is no religious exemption for Catholics to being vaccinated, and Pope Francis has repeatedly called this a moral obligation,” he said.

Vaccines and the federal government both have important roles to play in fighting COVID-19, Brown said, while warning against a federal vaccine mandate.

“I know folks that have died and been hospitalized because of COVID-19,” he said. “The disease should be taken seriously.”

“But there are better ways of combatting the virus,” he said, than “coercing Americans into making a medical intervention, and robbing them of the ability to make informed consent to this medical intervention.”

Cardinal Gregory ‘embarrassed’ at McCarrick abuse charges

Cardinal Wilton Gregory receives the red hat from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica on Nov. 28, 2020. / Vatican Media/Catholic News Agency

Washington D.C., Sep 9, 2021 / 15:02 pm (CNA).

The Archbishop of Washington on Wednesday said he was “embarrassed” at the charges of sex abuse recently filed against his predecessor, and emphasized that the Church’s primary concern in such cases should be caring for victims.

Addressing a National Press Club luncheon on Wednesday, Cardinal Wilton Gregory answered questions on a wide range of issues including the clergy sex abuse crisis, COVID-19 vaccines, and becoming the first African-American cardinal in the United States.

The former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, last week pleaded not guilty in a Massachusetts court to criminal charges of sex assault against a 16 year-old male; the acts allegedly took place in the 1970s while McCarrick was a priest.

McCarrick, a former cardinal who retired as Washington archbishop in 2006, was laicized in 2019 following a Vatican investigation that found him guilty of “sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults” and solicitation in the confessional.

“I’m embarrassed,” Gregory said of his predecessor’s alleged acts. “I’m embarrassed not with the discovery – although that’s certainly a part of my embarrassment. But I’m embarrassed because it’s absolutely contrary to everything that I as a priest – my brother priests and bishops – should be pursuing, in terms of serving our people.”

“My first thought was about the people that he [McCarrick] had hurt,” Gregory said of seeing images of the 91-year-old McCarrick appearing at his Sept. 3 arraignment in Massachusetts.

From the beginning of the clerical sex abuse crisis, he said, the Church has been focused on the wrong questions - rather than on the victims.

“We’re trying to make sure that the proper attention is put in the proper place. The people who should get our sorrow and our concern and our compassion are those that were hurt,” Gregory insisted.

Gregory led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, a tenure which included the 2002 revelations of widespread clergy sex abuse. The conference in the fall of 2002 drafted its response, the Dallas Charter, which established norms for dealing with alleged abuse by priests and deacons. McCarrick, then the archbishop of Washington, had a role in drafting the charter.

“We also took this position: that no one with a credible [abuse] allegation should ever be in public ministry,” Gregory said on Wednesday.

He added that bishops can only act on clergy abuse accusations that are credible, and that they have knowledge of.

“I can only act on that which I know,” he said.

Back in January, Cardinal Gregory delivered an invocation at a national memorial service for COVID-19 victims, held on the eve of President Biden’s inauguration.

Regarding Catholics who have “religious” concerns about taking COVID-19 vaccines, Gregory on Wednesday pointed to Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI having both received a vaccine.

“It’s difficult to say that ‘I have a religious concern’ when the last two pontiffs have already been vaccinated, and where Pope Francis has so clearly, and may I say with great insistence, urged Catholics to take the vaccine,” Gregory said.

“It doesn’t diminish their concern, but it certainly puts their concern on a pretty shaky platform.”

Some Catholics have voiced objections to receiving the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States. Two of the vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, have been tested with cell lines derived from abortions committed decades ago. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not only tested on the controversial cell lines, but was also produced using the cell lines.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 2020 issued a note stating that Catholics may receive a COVID-19 vaccine with a connection to the cell lines, if no ethical option is available, due to the gravity of the pandemic.

For Catholics objecting out of “conscience,” they should take other precautions to prevent transmission of the virus, the Vatican stated.

On the topic of racial reconciliation, Gregory on Wednesday was asked by moderator Lisa Matthews, president of the National Press Club, what role the Church could play to bring Black Americans back to the faith.

Catholics “have a responsibility because of our faith to be on the forefront of the justice movement,” Gregory said. “It’s not something that should be foreign to any of us.”

He noted a generational decline in religious practice that is not unique to Catholicism.

“We have a problem – and it’s not just a Catholic problem,” he said, “of passing on the faith to the next generation.” For too many Catholics, he said, Catholicism “is a description rather than a practice or lived reality.”

Gregory also answered questions on immigration, labor, abortion, the death penalty, and the ordination of women.

He said that President Biden was “not demonstrating Catholic teaching” on when life begins, in response to Biden’s claim last week that life does not begin at conception. Gregory also called the death penalty “flawed,” before the Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the execution of a Texas inmate.

Asked about the Church’s discipline on priestly celibacy and its connection to the clerical sex abuse crisis, Gregory said that celibacy is not the central problem at hand. Married priests, as well as married rabbis and ministers of other denominations have also abused children, he noted.

“The Catholic Church – we are the 800-pound gorilla. But we’ve got some other small relatives that have also demonstrated that same type of incredibly sick personality, behavior,” he said.

Reflecting on becoming the first Black cardinal in the United States in November 2020, Gregory pointed to his Chicago roots.

“Having been raised in an urban environment, like many African-American Catholics, the schools were a primary vehicle for entering the Catholic Church. And so it is with me,” Gregory said.

“When I knelt in front of Pope Francis to receive the biretta, the ring, and the sign, titular church – a lot of that heritage was running through my head at that time,” he recalled.

“We’ve had Italian cardinals, Polish cardinals, German cardinals, Irish cardinals. Now we have a Black cardinal. What is that going to do to the heart of the Church? What benefit will that bring to our Church? I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Biden administration sues Texas over pro-life law

Breaking News / CNA

Washington D.C., Sep 9, 2021 / 13:45 pm (CNA).

The Biden administration on Thursday sued Texas over its new law prohibiting most abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat.

In a complaint filed in a federal district court in West Texas, the Justice Department said the state acted “in open defiance of the Constitution” in restricting “most pre-viability abortions.”

“The Act is clearly unconstitutional under longstanding Supreme Court precedent,” Attorney General Merrick Garland stated on Thursday. 

“The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that no state can deprive individuals of their constitutional rights through a legislative scheme specifically designed to prevent the vindication of those rights.” 

The complaint, reported by Bloomberg News, seeks a permanent injunction on state officials and “private parties who would bring suit under the law, from implementing or enforcing” the law.

The Texas Heartbeat Act, S.B. 8, requires doctors to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion. If a heartbeat is detected – which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy – the law prohibits abortions except in medical emergencies.

However, the law is enforced through private civil lawsuits and not by the state.

Abortion providers challenged the law in court, but the Supreme Court on Sept. 1 denied their petition to block the law from going into effect.

In response, President Joe Biden called the law “an unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights,” and promised a “whole-of-government” effort to maintain abortion in Texas.

He directed federal agencies, including the Justice Department, to review what actions could be taken “to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions as protected by Roe.”

Under the Texas law, plaintiffs may not sue women for illegal abortions. They may sue those who perform illegal abortions, and anyone who “knowingly” aids and abets an illegal abortion.

However, the law forbids those who impregnate women who then have abortions from bringing lawsuits in those cases.  

Successful lawsuits can net at least $10,000 in damages under the law, plus court costs and attorney fees.

Instead of enforcing the law, the state of Texas “has deputized ordinary citizens to serve as bounty hunters,” the Justice Department officials alleged in their complaint.

“It takes little imagination to discern Texas’s goal—to make it too risky for an abortion clinic to operate in the State,” the lawsuit argued. “Thus far, the law has had its desired effect. To date, abortion providers have ceased providing services prohibited by S.B. 8, leaving women in Texas unacceptably and unconstitutionally deprived of abortion services.”

Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to meet with “abortion and reproductive health providers and patients from Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and New Mexico” on Thursday afternoon, to discuss the Texas law.

"The right of women to make decisions about their own bodies is not negotiable," Harris said, according to the White House pool report of the meeting. "We need to codify Roe v. Wade."

In advance of the lawsuit on Thursday, one pro-life leader called it “anti-democracy.”

Pro-life leaders pointed out that the state legislature recently increased public benefits for low-income mothers, expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers and funding the Alternatives to Abortion program.

“Texas is further leading in compassion for women and families with its $100 million Alternatives to Abortion state program and ten times as many pro-life pregnancy centers as abortion facilities,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, on Thursday.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, pointed to the bishops’ national outreach “Walking with Moms in Need” which helps parishes meet the needs of new and expecting mothers.

He cited the words of Pope Francis to say that “killing a child is never a solution to a problem.”

“Tragically, the President, Speaker of the House, and other public officials have responded with statements that ignore our nation’s sacred interest to protect the life and health of both mothers and their unborn children, instead responding with radical pledges to mobilize the full force of the federal government to block all efforts to protect the life of the child in the womb,” he stated.

“As Catholics, we are committed to working and praying for the conversion of minds and hearts so all people will respect the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death.”

This article was updated on Sept. 9 with new information.

Which corporations have come out against Texas' pro-life law?

Lyft and Uber stickers on the rear window of a vehicle offering rides in San Francisco Bay Area / Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Sep 9, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).

Since Texas’ pro-life “heartbeat” law went into effect last week, some corporations responded by donating to pro-abortion groups or issuing statements in opposition. Meanwhile, other companies have remained silent.

The Texas Heartbeat Act, which went into effect Sept. 1, prohibits abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat and is enforced through private lawsuits. Women who have an illegal abortion cannot be sued under the law.

Ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber were two of the earliest corporations to enter the debate on the corporate level. Lyft, in a Sept. 3 statement, said the law “is incompatible with people’s basic rights to privacy, our community guidelines, the spirit of rideshare, and our values as a company.”

Lyft officials claimed that the law threatens to unfairly punish drivers for transporting customers to abortion clinics. The company created a legal fund for drivers sued under the law, and donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood. 

Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, said on Twitter that his company will be covering drivers' legal fees as well. “Right on @logangreen- drivers shouldnt be put at risk for getting people where they want to go,” he said. 

The Texas law allows for civil action against someone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement” of an illegal abortion. Plaintiffs may bring a lawsuit “regardless of whether the [defendant] knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation.”

Under the law, a defendant could offer an affirmative defense if they “reasonably believed, after conducting a reasonable investigation” that the abortion they stood accused of assisting in would have been legal.

Successful lawsuits under the law can net at least $10,000 in damages, plus court costs and attorney fees. 

Other companies have also promised financial support to employees sued under the law. 

In a memo to employees, Match Group CEO Shar Dubey said that the new law presented a “danger” to women, and that she is setting up a fund for her Texas employees in case they are penalized by the law. Match Group is the parent company of the dating app, Tinder. 

Bumble, a dating app and competitor of Match Group, also announced its opposition to the law and said it will be donating to six pro-abortion organizations.

Not only corporations have expressed opposition to the law. The Portland city council will be voting next week on an emergency resolution to ban future travel to the state of Texas, as well as the import of goods and services from Texas, “until the unconstitutional ban on abortion is withdrawn or overturned in court.”

The vote, which was supposed to take place on Sept. 8, was postponed so the city council could spend more time deliberating the effects of the resolution. A spokesperson for the city told CNA that over the last five fiscal years, approximately $35 million have been spent on business goods and services from Texas.

The web hosting company GoDaddy made headlines recently for removing a website used to report illegal abortions in Texas. 

GoDaddy notified Texas Right to Life that its website would be taken down for violating GoDaddy policies. After the law went into effect on Sept. 1, introduced a web page for anonymous tips called “Help Enforce the Texas Heartbeat Act.” The tip section asked for personal information as well as “information about potential violations of the Texas Heartbeat Act.”

GoDaddy notified the group’s IT department on Thursday that it had violated the terms of service. Texas Right to Life said that GoDaddy “neglected to specify how” it violated the terms.

GoDaddy told National Public Radio that the tip section violated the company’s policy on “collecting personally identifiable information about someone without the person's consent.”

The pro-life group’s main website is not hosted by GoDaddy, Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesperson for Texas Right to Life, told CNA on Wednesday.

The whistleblower website was then reportedly registered with the host company Epik. A Sept. 6 Washington Post report noted that Texas Right to Life “agreed” to take its tips web page down, due to a violation of Epik’s terms of service. Epik confirmed to CNA that the website was removed due to a violation of its terms. 

Schwartz told CNA, however, that Texas Right to Life did not agree to take the tips website down, and that Epik did not force the group to take the site down. Rather, Texas Right to Life was working to improve security before relaunching its whistleblower web page, she said. 

“We haven't put it back up yet by our own choice,” she added. “We're working on extra security before putting it back up.”

Epik’s general counsel Daniel Prince told CNA on Wednesday that it will not serve Texas Right to Life if the group keeps its anonymous tips page active. Prince added that although the tips page violates Epik’s terms of service, the redirection to the Texas Right to Life homepage does not. As of Sept. 8, Texas Right to Life was still using Epik’s services.

Schwartz told CNA that Texas Right to Life was in talks with Epik, with the goal of relaunching with Epik as the domain registrar of the whistleblower website. She said the anonymous tips page will remain on the whistleblower website. 

While Texas Right to Life is using Epik for the website’s domain registrar, the actual web host provider remains classified.

Supreme Court halts execution of inmate requesting vocal prayer at his death

U.S. Supreme Court building, east side / Claudette Jerez/CNA

Washington D.C., Sep 9, 2021 / 06:15 am (CNA).

The Supreme Court late Wednesday evening halted the execution of a Texas death row inmate who had requested his pastor be allowed to lay hands on him in the execution chamber. The inmate, John Henry Ramirez, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday night. 

The court also agreed to hear his case in its upcoming docket this fall, challenging the state’s prohibition of chaplains’ vocal prayer and physical contact with inmates inside the execution chamber.

“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is granted,” said the Supreme Court in an order issued late Wednesday evening. The case could be argued in October or November 2021, according to the court order.

The order came about three hours before Ramirez was scheduled to be executed. He was sentenced to death in 2008 for the 2004 murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro.

Ramirez argued that a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prohibition on audible prayer and physical touch in the execution chamber was an infringement upon his religious liberty. Ramirez sought to have his spiritual advisor, Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, present with him as he receives lethal injection, and laying hands on him as he is dying. 

The court’s decision was praised by advocates for religious freedom. 

"We welcome the Court's decision to set this case for argument this fall. This issue deserves the Court's, and the country's, full attention,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNA on Thursday. “We will urge the Court to recognize that the age-old practice of comfort of clergy is protected by the United States Constitution."

State officials argued that the audible prayer and laying of hands in the chamber would be disruptive and a potential security risk.

Texas in 2019 banned spiritual advisors from the chamber, following condemned inmate Patrick Murphy’s request for a Buddhist chaplain to join him at his execution. At the time, Texas only allowed state employees in the death chamber, and the state did not employ a Buddhist chaplain. 

In April 2021, the state criminal justice department updated its policies to once again allow spiritual advisors of any creed to join condemned inmates in the execution chamber. Later, the department added a restriction that chaplains could not pray out loud. 

An amicus brief filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on Tuesday, Sept. 7 called the updated Texas Department of Criminal Justice policy a clear violation of Ramirez’s Constitutional rights. 

“Given that focus on history, and the long tradition of audible prayer by clergy at the moment of death, the scope of the constitutional right is clear—audible prayer should be allowed,” the attorneys explained. 

Tradition that predates the founding of the United States upholds “respectful, nondisruptive—but audible—prayer at the time of executions,” said the brief. 

“Such expression was key to both the solace and spiritual help sought by the condemned and the guiding role the clergy sought to provide."

Charlotte diocese objects: Federal judge can't set employment standards for Catholic schools

null / Stephen Kiers/Shutterstock

Charlotte, N.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

The Diocese of Charlotte has said the law and religious freedom precedent are on its side, despite a federal judge’s ruling that a Catholic high school illegally discriminated when it said it would no longer hire a substitute teacher who announced that he would contract a same-sex marriage. 

The ruling both applies a new Supreme Court decision that defines sex discrimination to include sexual orientation, and holds that other religious freedom rulings do not apply.

“We respectfully disagree with the district court’s decision and are considering next steps,” the Charlotte diocese said Sept. 4. “The First Amendment, federal law, and recent Supreme Court decisions all recognize the rights of religious organizations to make employment decisions based on religious observance and preference. They do not — and should not — compel religious schools to employ teachers who publicly contradict their teachings.”

The diocese said its Catholic schools “exist to provide high-quality education and transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation.”

“Like all religious schools, Catholic schools are permitted to employ educators who support our Church’s teachings and will not publicly oppose them,” said its statement.

The plaintiff, Lonnie Billard, in October 2014 had posted to social media his intention to contract a same-sex marriage. He had worked as a full-time faculty member teaching drama and English at Charlotte Catholic High School from 2001. He retired in 2012 and became a long-term substitute teacher, working more than a dozen weeks a year.

In December 2014, an assistant principal at the school then told him he would no longer be hired as a substitute teacher.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn said the Diocese of Charlotte and the diocese’s Charlotte Catholic High School illegally discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The federal judge granted a summary judgement to Billard and said a trial would determine any legal relief.

“Plaintiff is a lay employee, who comes onto the campus of a religious school for the limited purpose of teaching secular classes, with no mandate to inculcate students with Catholic teachings,” said Cogburn, who was nominated to his position by Barack Obama.

Billard’s lawsuit, filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, claimed that the diocese ordered his termination because of his announcement. It sought back pay and benefits, punitive damage, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and a court order blocking the school and Catholic leaders from taking similar actions in the future, “restraining Defendants from engaging in further discriminatory conduct.”

The lawsuit said he was wrongly fired because of his intention to enter a same-sex civil marriage and “because he does not conform to sex-based stereotypes associated with men in our society.”

In recent years the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several federal court cases have advanced the claim that “sex stereotypes” like the belief that that men should not marry men or that women should not date women constitutes illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Cogburn’s ruling rejected claims that religious freedom protected the school from the lawsuit.

Title VII employment law is “narrowly tailored” because of its carve-outs for religious discrimination, he said. The judge cited the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said, “protecting non-ministerial employees from sex discrimination in church-affiliated schools is an interest ‘of the highest order’.”

Cogburn cited both longstanding interpretations of sex discrimination and the 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County ruling, which “held it is impossible to discriminate against someone for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against them based on sex.” He said it is “an unanswered question” whether a religious employer might have a legal or constitutional defense against Title VII claims of sexual orientation discrimination. The exemptions to Title VII allow religious discrimination, but not sex discrimination, said Cogburn.

Irena Como, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina, said Sept. 3 that the decision is “one of the first applications of the Supreme Court’s ban on sex discrimination to employees of private religious schools.”

“The court sent a clear message that Charlotte Catholic violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination when it fired Mr. Billard for announcing his engagement to his same-sex partner,” she said. “Religious schools have the right to decide who will perform religious functions or teach religious doctrine, but when they hire employees for secular jobs they must comply with Title VII and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.”

Billard welcomed the decision.

“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching all this time,” he said. For him, the decision “validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”

The judge said the defendants did not require the teacher to be Catholic and “even explicitly encourage him and other teachers of non-religious subjects to refrain from teaching religious topics in their classrooms.” The plaintiff was required to refer students with emotional and spiritual questions outside his disciplines to the proper individuals.

Cogburn cited a 2000 Fourth Circuit ruling involving the EEOC v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, when the EEOC ordered the diocesan cathedral to rehire a fired music minister. That ruling said “where no spiritual function is involved, the First Amendment does not stay the application of a generally applicable law such as Title VII to the religious employer unless Congress so provides.”

The judge added that “hiring paid employees is commercial activity, not expressive association.” Keeping the plaintiff “as a substitute teacher for secular classes would not significantly impair its freedom of expressive association.”

Billard was a banker before he became a teacher, the Charlotte Observer reports. He said he brought his partner to school events and their relationship was known to students, teachers, parents, and administrators. He said that his adherence to Catholic teaching was never part of the employment process.

In January 2015, amid controversy over his firing, a diocesan spokesperson said Billard lost his job “for going on Facebook, entering in a same-sex relationship and saying in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Then-communications director of the Charlotte diocese David Hains said that continued employment of Billard would be “legitimating that relationship” and wrongly indicate Church approval, the lawsuit said. He noted the Church’s belief that marriage is a union only of a man and a woman and rejected claims of discrimination.

“He’s not being picked on because he's gay. He lost his job as a substitute teacher because he broke a promise because he chose to oppose church teaching, something he promised he would not do,” the spokesperson said.

At the time, the ACLU argued that religious organizations are not exempt from the federal ban on sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It claimed that other teachers violated Catholic teaching on divorce and other matters, but Billard was the only teacher fired.

As CNA has previously reported, a well-funded network of advocacy groups, legal groups and think tanks have advocated against a broad understanding of religious freedom protections. The American Civil Liberties Union has received funds from groups like the Arcus Foundation for projects to "beat back" religious exemptions, grant listings show.

The foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, has also funded some Catholic dissenting groups. Stryker was a major funder of the effort to redefine civil marriage in the United States.

The ACLU of North Carolina said that Billard is also represented in the lawsuit by the ACLU LGBTQ Project and the law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen. In March 2021 the national ACLU announced that it would rename its LGBTQ & HIV Project for Stryker and his same-sex spouse Slobodan Randjelovic, who made a $15 million grant to the project.

Cardinal Gregory: Biden ‘not demonstrating Catholic teaching’ on when life begins

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington speaks at the National Press Club, Sept. 8, 2021. / National Press Club/YouTube

Washington D.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

The Archbishop of Washington on Wednesday clarified the Church’s teaching on when life begins, after Catholic President Joe Biden last week said life does not begin at conception.

“The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life – human life – begins at conception,” said Cardinal Wilton Gregory at a Wednesday luncheon of the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C.

“So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching,” he added.

Last Friday, Sept. 3, President Joe Biden said he did not “agree” that life begins at conception.

"I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade,” he said at the White House, answering a reporter’s question on abortion. “I respect them - those who believe life begins at the moment of conception and all - I respect that. Don't agree, but I respect that,” he said.

Biden’s comments were a departure from previous statements of his on when life begins. In a 2008 interview as a vice presidential candidate, and again at a 2012 vice presidential debate, Biden said he believed life begins at conception.

Gregory addressed reporters and members of the public at a National Press Club Headliners Luncheon on Sept. 8.

After delivering remarks on journalism, Gregory took questions on various issues including abortion, COVID-19 vaccines, race and the Catholic Church, the clergy sex abuse crisis, the death penalty, and workers’ rights.

When asked if the Church has recently “softened” its teaching on abortion, Cardinal Gregory said the Church’s teaching has not changed.

“Our Church has not changed its position on the immorality of abortion, and I don’t see how we could, because we believe that every human life is sacred. Every human life is sacred,” he said.  

Gregory was then asked about the death penalty. The execution of Texas death row inmate John Henry Ramirez is scheduled for Wednesday evening, Sept. 8.

Ramirez has appealed to the Supreme Court to have his Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him in the execution chamber. Texas officials, while allowing his pastor inside the chamber, have denied Ramirez’s request for vocal prayer and physical contact.

“Should he be allowed to meet his creator, having the support of a pastor? I say yes,” Gregory stated.

While noting he did not know all the details of the case, the cardinal added that “if this man wants to pray with his minister, and his minister pray with him, it might very well be a sign that there is some reconciliation, conversion, going on within him.”

He went on to comment on the broader issue of the death penalty, saying it “has also been proven flawed.”

“There’s too many cases where people have been sentenced and, unfortunately, I think, put to death. And then with the development of scientific research, it’s been proven – or least raised to a serious doubt – that maybe the trial itself was flawed,” Gregory said.

He then explained the “consistent life ethic” of his mentor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Gregory served as auxiliary bishop of Chicago from 1983-1994.

“Life issues are linked,” he said. “They’re not at the same level. There are life issues that are predominant.”

“The conception of a child is the first life concern,” he said, adding that “those life issues have to extend to all the other moments of human existence as well,” such as to prisoners, immigrants, the elderly, and people with handicaps.

“Is he [Bernardin] saying that a prisoner that has been found guilty of multiple criminal behavior – is he to be equated with an infant in the womb who is just trying to live or to be born, literally? Oh no, he’s not saying that,” Gregory noted. “He’s saying they are linked, not because they are the same, but they are linked because they are all human.

As archbishop of Washington, Gregory has been at the center of discussion in recent months over whether pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be admitted to Communion. He told a reporter last year that he would not deny Communion in such cases.

In January, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference issued a lengthy statement on the day of Biden's inauguration as president, noting some of his positive policies but also warning that some of his proposed policies would "advance moral evils." Gregory thought the statement “ill-timed,” according to NBC’s Al Roker, who reported in February that Gregory had emphasized “dialogue” with the new administration.

During the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in June, Gregory cautioned against drafting a teaching document on the Eucharist that would include language on worthiness to receive Communion, especially among Catholic public figures. Some bishops critical of the motion warned that it would be interpreted as a partisan denunciation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, especially President Biden.

Gregory pointed to the “unusual” circumstances of bishops meeting remotely and not in-person, due to the pandemic. He warned that drafting the document at the time could “well further damage” unity.

Afghan Christian’s plea to CNA: ‘You are my last hope’

Taliban fighters gather along a street during a rally in Kabul on August 31, 2021 as they celebrate after the U.S. pulled all its troops out of the country to end a brutal 20-year war. / Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 15:12 pm (CNA).

He says the Taliban executed his father. And his brother. Now, they are hunting for him.

“Please do something,” he wrote in a plea to CNA.

He is a young Afghan, one of countless thousands still desperate to escape his country.

He is a doubly marked man. First, because he briefly worked for the U.S. military and other allied forces. Second, because he is a Muslim convert to Christianity. That is a capital crime in Afghanistan.

“I hope you save my life.”

His pseudonym is Kareem. CNA can’t publish his full name because of the peril he faces.

Kareem first contacted CNA Aug. 24. By that time, he had bid a painful goodbye to his family and joined throngs of other Afghan civilians at the gates to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Along the way, he said, his mother called him with the news that the Taliban had killed his father and brother because both men, who were Muslim, had worked with allied forces during the war.

Kareem shared his passport and other documents with CNA to corroborate his identity. Since then, two CNA officials — Kelsey Wicks, the news outlet’s operations manager, and Alejandro Bermudez, CNA’s executive director — have kept in regular contact with Kareem via email and WhatsApp, an instant messaging platform, while working in concert with humanitarian aid groups, religious liberty leaders, and others to try to help him.

‘You are my last hope’

CNA’s efforts on Kareem’s behalf are part of a larger story that has unfolded behind the scenes during and after the U.S. government’s chaotic air evacuation of American citizens, journalists, military personnel and endangered Afghan civilians.

More than 120,000 people were flown out of Kabul prior to the completion of the U.S. pullout Aug. 31, the U.S. government says. To date, some 40,000 Afghan refugees have arrived at U.S. military bases in the United States.

But countless other endangered Afghans, including many Christians like Kareem and others in the Taliban’s crosshairs, were left behind.

In the frenzy leading up to the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 exit deadline, Afghan civilians and their advocates turned to aid groups, well-connected insiders, and anyone else they could think of asking for help, before it was too late.

Their questions followed a similar script. Do you know anyone who can help? What about Glenn Beck’s planes? What do you know about the Pineapple Express?

“We're getting desperate calls, either from Afghanistan or from people who are getting them from Afghanistan, and we're all reaching out to all of our contacts,” Susan Yoshihira, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot who heads a non-profit humanitarian organization, the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security, told CNA Sept. 3.

In many instances, this fevered networking has yielded positive results.

A group of nuns from the Missionaries of Charity and the disabled Afghan children they cared for were rescued and flown to Italy, for example. And an Afghan high school girls robotics team managed to make it to Qatar, and some all the way to Mexico.


Yet in the tense countdown to the final U.S. pullout, such happy outcomes were offset by the gnawing realization that there simply wasn’t enough time or back-channel leverage to help countless others like Kareem.

“Everybody's exhausted,” Yoshihira said. “They haven't slept, they're tired, they're fraught, they're getting frantic, desperate emails.”

Kareem sent one of those desperate pleas to CNA.

“Please help me,” he wrote. “I have no one without you. You are my last hope.”

Helping a ‘brother in Christ’

Helping Kareem is complicated for a number of reasons.

While he worked at a U.S. military base, he was employed there for less than the one year of service time required to receive a Special Immigrant Visa for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.

And even if he had worked the necessary time frame and had all the required documents to prove it, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that was processing visa requests has closed.  

Additionally, it is possible Kareem could make a case for what is called a Priority 2 (or P-2) visa, which applies to vulnerable "minority populations," among others, but that eligibility category does not explicitly mention Christians or other religious minorities, a fact that has sparked widespread criticism. 

For Wicks, CNA’s operations manager, Kareem’s plight lent a deeply personal dimension to the raw humanitarian disaster she saw unfolding in the news.

“This man is our brother in Christ, and in his humanity, and he deserves all the love, the time, the attention in assisting him to safety that any member of our family would,” Wicks explained.

Kareem’s pleas to CNA coincided with rising aggravation with the Biden administration among refugee advocates for what they saw as a lack of resolve to help vulnerable Christians get out of Afghanistan.

“I’ve got a list of hundreds of individuals desperate to get out … now being hunted by the Taliban or other groups,” Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s religious freedom ambassador, told Real Clear Politics last week.

Two charities headed by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, The Nazarene Fund and Mercury One, raised more than $28 million to charter 20 airliners capable of ferrying thousands of Afghan Christians to safety.

But Beck repeatedly charged that officials within the State Department and the U.S. military were obstructing the airlift, though he said that the charities still managed to fly some 5,100 Afghan Christians and other civilians to countries other than the United States. Beck’s rescue claims have not been independently verified.

More recently, others have made similar allegations about State Department interference in charter flight rescue operations. A Sept. 6 report by Fox News cited three aid group officials who said they have been unable to secure the necessary approval from the State Department to land charter flights in a nearby country.

And Rep. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who served on a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, made the same claim in a series of tweets last week.

The State Department has denied that it is obstructing refugee charter flights, and on Sept. 7 Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pledged to assist non-government organizations and other groups working to transport Afghan civilians out of the country. Yet Blinken acknowledged that the logistics of doing so have become more difficult since the U.S. withdrawal.

"Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through. We’re conducting a great deal of diplomacy on this as we speak,” Blinken said during a visit to a refugee staging facility in Doha, Qatar.

Stuck outside the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, the main checkpoint for evacuees, Kareem was convinced prior to the Aug. 31 deadline that his life hinged on getting on one of the U.S. military and civilian airplanes he watched taking off, one by one, some only half-full. 

“Please help me,” he wrote in his first email to CNA. 

“I will be shot or hang(ed) I don't know but talibaans looking also for afghans converted to christians. They will find me. I am begging you for help, any kind of help. I don't want to die. Save my life.” (CNA has edited some of the punctuation in his messages for clarity.)

On the morning of Aug. 27, Wicks was exchanging messages with Kareem when she began receiving news bulletins about a suicide bombing at the Abbey Gate, the same location where Kareem was waiting for a miracle.

“There has been a blast at the airport,” Wicks wrote.

“Are you okay? 

“[Kareem] are you there?”

There was no response. 

The suicide bomb attack by a regional affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS-K, killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghans. Scores more were injured.

An hour passed with no word from Kareem. Then two. Then three.

Wicks feared the worst.

Finally, a new message flashed on her laptop screen.

“Yes I here still hoping after blast on refugees gate. I was on that gate at morning.”

“Oh my gosh,” Wicks wrote back. “I thought you were dead.”

“No I got lucky or maybe your prayer,” Kareem replied. “I would send pictures but talibaans beating people.”

Hours later, Wicks received a voice message from Kareem. He said he was hiding in the corner of a building near the airport.

In the brief recording, his weak voice is shot through with loneliness and fear.

“I am so hopeless that there is no one coming for me, to help me and save my life,” he said.

‘What will they do to me?’

Kareem’s despair deepened as the hours and days passed by, with no fresh hope of rescue.

In one especially trying period, Kareem developed a fever and began to consider surrendering himself to the Taliban.

“Please do some thing,” he wrote. 

“Does Christian Life matters or not,” he asked. “I am suffering every hour every day. I don’t know what Jesus decided for me.” 

Wicks and Bermudez tried to encourage him to hold on, and continued reaching out to their contacts. “We keep working and fighting. Stay hopeful, brother,” Bermudez wrote.

But Kareem was terrified. His mind fixated on rumors that the Taliban were torturing people with what he called “skin punishments.” At one point, Taliban soldiers were whipping people outside the airport gates with cables, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Taliban Wolfs are around me. They will hunt and eat me,” he wrote. “My heart is swelling. What will these animals do to me? Oh god,” he said.

“I am a human. I have rights. I am a human,” he wrote. “I’m not ready to die. I want to live my life.”

Wicks said later compared her experiences communicating with Kareem with keeping vigil at the bedside of a loved one preparing for death.

“Each of us is called to accompany the Suffering Christ. It might be someone you’re close to, someone in your family,” she said.

“God, in his Providence, asked that it be this person, 5,000 miles away.”

It was difficult “to encounter such darkness and to see the depths of this evil so closely, that a man would be hunted for his faith,” she said.

Kareem, for his part, clung to his human lifeline. “Please just stay with me [a] little more. Just talk to me,” he wrote.

Kareem remains in periodic contact with CNA, but it is now too dangerous for him to communicate on WhatsApp, especially in English.

Wicks and Bermudez continue to advocate for him, but there is little else they can offer him now other than their prayers.

Kareem told Wicks and Bermudez he is grateful for their efforts to help him.

“You two [are] keeping me hopeful and strong these scariest days of my life,” he wrote.

“I wish Jesus give me more life to meet you one day,” he continued.

“I will never blame you for this. You tried everything possible I know,” he told them.

“I love you two and others who tried to help me.”

Most recently, Kareem sent a video message to CNA, asking that it be made public if he should die.

“It is hard to survive in this hell, because this land is not for Christians,” he says in the nearly 8-minute-long video.

He says that the Taliban have the names of Christian converts whom they are hunting. 

“I know I am one on that list,” he says. “But I’m not afraid. Jesus is with me … Jesus is watching me.”

In last-minute plea to Supreme Court, lawyers beg for prayer in execution chamber

Pastor Dana Moore / Second Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas

Washington D.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 14:04 pm (CNA).

Religious freedom advocates are urging that Texas honor the request of a death row inmate to be prayed over in the execution chamber.

John Henry Ramirez, 37, is set to be executed on Wednesday evening, Sept. 8. He wishes to be prayed over by his pastor, who would lay hands on him as he dies. Both of those requests have been denied by Texas prison officials, who say that the audible prayer and physical contact amount to distractions and security risks within the execution chamber. 

Ramirez has appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution so his case can be considered. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on Tuesday filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to block Texas' restrictions, or halt Ramirez's execution to more fully consider his case.

“For centuries, clergy have prayed aloud at the time of execution,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, told CNA on Wednesday. “We hope the Court will recognize this long standing tradition and tell Texas to allow prayer in the death chamber.”

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. He now seeks to have Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi present with him as he receives lethal injection, and laying hands on him as he is dying. 

The “laying on of hands” is a Christian practice of blessing someone. Moore has been Ramirez’s spiritual advisor for the last five years.

Becket's amicus brief, filed by attorneys Rassbach and Chris Pagliarella, argued that Ramirez’s requests are not unreasonable, and that Texas’ denial of his request is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

“The right of a condemned person to the comfort of clergy—and the corresponding right of clergy to comfort the condemned—are among the longest-standing and most well-recognized religious exercises known to civilization,” said Becket’s brief, filed on Sept. 7. 

“And in multiple emergency-docket cases, this Court has spoken clearly on these rights in the modern death chamber: comfort of clergy is a religious exercise, and prohibiting it is subject to strict scrutiny,” they said. 

While Texas did not permit any spiritual advisors in the execution chamber for a two-year period from April 2019 until April 2021, it does now allow for personal religious ministers to accompany the inmate inside the chamber. However, they cannot pray aloud or make physical contact with the inmate.

​​The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, was asked on Wednesday about Ramirez’s request. 

“Should he be allowed to meet his creator, having the support of a pastor? I say yes,” Gregory stated at a luncheon of the National Press Club.

While saying he did not know all the details of the case, Gregory added that “if this man wants to pray with his minister, and his minister pray with him, it might very well be a sign that there is some reconciliation, conversion, going on within him.”

The state had previously banned spiritual advisors from the chamber, following Patrick Murphy’s request for a Buddhist chaplain to join him at his execution in 2019. At the time, Texas only allowed state employees in the death chamber, and the state did not employ a Buddhist chaplain. 

After re-admitting spiritual advisors to the death chamber in April, however, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed policy and “abruptly added a rule that would bar clergy from praying aloud,” says the Becket brief. 

“By a letter dated August 19, it took the position not only that the chaplain would have a ‘No-Contact’ policy, but also a ‘No-Speaking’ policy—which Texas now explains as disallowing any ‘audible prayer’ with and for the condemned,” Becket said. 

“Given that focus on history, and the long tradition of audible prayer by clergy at the moment of death, the scope of the constitutional right is clear—audible prayer should be allowed,” the attorneys explained. 

Tradition that predates the founding of the United States upholds “respectful, nondisruptive—but audible—prayer at the time of executions,” said the brief. “Such expression was key to both the solace and spiritual help sought by the condemned and the guiding role the clergy sought to provide.”

The state of Texas said that audible prayer in the execution chamber would amount to “disruptive conduct.”

This argument, “fails on its face, and is particularly odd in light of evidence that prayer has been allowed in the execution chamber without incident in multiple jurisdictions, including the federal government and Texas itself in the past,” the Becket brief stated. 

Ramirez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on Aug.12 in federal district court, claiming that the state is violating his First Amendment rights in denying him the “direct, personal contact” of his pastor. The laying on of hands is a “a long-held and practiced tradition in Christianity in general and in the Protestant belief system Mr. Ramirez adheres to,” the complaint stated.

In the 2004 murder of Castro, Ramirez and two women attempted to rob Castro for money to buy drugs. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. Castro had $1.25 on him, which the three took. 

The women were arrested the night of Castro’s murder, and both were sent to prison in 2006. One of the women, Christina Chavez, was convicted of three counts of aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. The other, Angela Rodriguez, was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of murder. Rodriguez was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole in 2035.

Ramirez was arrested nearly four years later, in February 2008. He was found near Brownsville, Texas, near the border between the United States and Mexico.