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Australian bishops: religious discrimination bill has merit, but flaws should be fixed

Canberra, Australia, Feb 14, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- Australia’s Catholic bishops have welcomed changes to a proposed religious discrimination bill to protect religious believers and institutions from discrimination and needless legal action, but they said more work is necessary for an Australia-wide law.

“The draft laws are an important way to help people of faith and the organizations they establish as communities of faith to manifest their religious belief in the service of others,” Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement, said in his Jan. 31 submission to the Australian government on behalf of the bishops’ conference.

The bishops offered suggested changes but said they support the intent of the legislation because of their concern “to ensure that the rights of Catholics and other people who have a religious faith or none are not discriminated against because of their beliefs or activities.”

Australia’s ruling Liberal-National Coalition government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also wants to ensure that groups which reject same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status. The bill’s provisions also aim to stop employers from policing employees’ expression of their religious views in their spare time.

The Catholic bishops of Australia had criticized the first version of the bill, saying it did not go far enough to protect religious freedom, a “crucial component of a free society.” They said this freedom includes worship but also public expression of beliefs in charitable work, hospitals, social services, education, and engagement in public life.

They faulted the second draft, in part, because it gives weaker protections to religious employees of small business than to employees of large companies, and no protections whatever to government employees.

Allowing religious discrimination to avoid “unjustifiable financial hardship” to employers, they said, would render religious freedom not a universal human right but “something which depends on where a person works.” The provision would allow boycotts, sponsorship withdrawals and similar pressure to create such financial hardships on employers that would then be used to justify discrimination against a religious employee.

Stronger federal protections are needed for healthcare workers and institutions with conscientious objections, the bishops said, especially in states or territories that do not recognize this “universal human right.”

“Catholic healthcare agencies decline to provide some particular services because of their religious ethos, but where services are offered they serve all people equally,” the bishops said, citing the record of Catholic institutions in the country.

More than 60% of Australians profess a religious faith and more than 20% are Catholic. The Catholic Church provides about 10% of the country’s health care services and is the largest non-government grouping of hospitals and elder services and community care services. Its social services help more than 450,000 Australians annually, while 1,700 schools educate 760,000 students and two Catholic universities serve 46,000 students.

Australia’s many organizations run by religious communities need assurance that they can continue to operate in accordance with their beliefs, the bishops said. The legislation has a complicated task to ensure it does not unintentionally curtail religious freedom, such as by requiring a religious organization to “employ a person who was opposed to its religious and ethical beliefs.”

“Religious schools, health services and welfare agencies need to be able to hire staff who support their religious mission and to set employee conduct stand,” said Australia’s bishops. They said it is “alarming” that some political parties seek to amend legislation to ensure that proposed protections will have “little effect” in their state. They backed a universally applicable law.

The bishops faulted the current law’s treatment of religious objections simply as exceptions or exemptions, which wrongly give the impression that “religious freedom rights are somehow subordinate to other concerns.” They praised the proposed legislation for putting forward “a positive expression of the right to religious freedom.”

Michael Stead, an assistant bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and chair of its religious freedom reference group, has also praised the bill but called for changes.

The Anglican Church sees the second draft as a “significant improvement.” However, it suggested that the bill’s definition of a religious body was “very clumsy” and should be defined as “a body which has the purpose of advancing religion” regardless of whether it is a charity. This would be a more satisfying way to determine which religious bodies may still prefer staff of the same religion.

At the same time, Stead said the definition is still limited to non-profit entities and would not protect commercial service providers such as Christians who bake cakes, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, a government-funded but independent NGO, has said that while it supports the prohibition of religious discrimination, it objected that its provisions “provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights.” The bill is not an appropriate way to apply international human rights law and its provisions limit other human rights in a way that is “unnecessary and disproportionate or otherwise inconsistent with international law.”

The commission backed religious protections in employment decisions only where it is an “inhterent requirement of the job,” like a religious minister. Where religious bodies provide a public service with government funding it should be done “in a non-discriminatory way.”

Ed Santow, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, said the bill does not protect “the entire community equally.” The exemptions are too broad and protect “the right to religion for some at the expense of religious equality of others,” he objected.

Stead, the Anglican bishop, said there are precedents for many religious protections. He said criticisms of protections of religious speech put forward by the Australian Human Rights Commission and LGBT advocacy groups were “so extreme as to be laughable.”

“The kind of ‘right to be a bigot’ cited in some submissions is not the reason why religious communities are asking for these protections,” he said. “We want them to ensure religious people are not going to lose their job, be excluded from courses or professional bodies merely because of expressing religious beliefs.”

Stead characterized the proposal as “a sensible balance between the right of freedom of religion with other rights.”

The Australian Medical Association said the bill would allow some doctors to suffer employment discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Dr. Chris Moy, chair of the association’s ethics and medical-legal committee, said current law allows doctors to conscientiously object, including to matters like contraception provision, but changes could allow them to “just walk away” from patients.

Ghassan Kassisieh, legal director of the LGBT group Equality Australia, characterized protections for religious organizations as a “blanket exemption” in elder care, hospitals and charity services. He objected that the bill would ban only statements which “seriously intimidate,” while the current law bans “when degrading or humiliating things are said in the workplace, or in schools or during the provision of services.”

For Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter, the proposal would ensure that people “can’t be the subject of a discrimination act complaint for the mere statement of religious belief.” Employer conduct codes cannot constrain employees from making “non-malicious non-vilifying statements of religious belief in their spare time.”

“People of religion would, I think, rightly consider saying what they believe is a necessary part of their religiosity,” he said, according to The Guardian.

The proposed legislation follows controversy over the treatment of Israel Folau, a devout Christian and professional rugby star, who was fired by Rugby Australia in May 2019 after a post on Instagram. The post listed “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” above the statement “Hell awaits you.”

Folau cited the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, saying he was expressing a Biblical idea. Upholding his religious beliefs, he said, “should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club or country.”

Some religious group opposed protections.

“We don't discriminate and don't believe others should have the right to discriminate or, in fact, engage in any bigotry in the name of religion,” said Bronwyn Pike, chief executive of the Uniting Church’s Victoria and Tasmania community services group Uniting Vic.Tas.

Pike told SBS News the bill is “a stalking horse for people who want to promulgate homophobic and misogynist views in the name of religion.”

There are strong signs that the opposition is unlikely to support the government’s bill, The Guardian reports.

In November, opposition leader Anthony Albanese told the Labor caucus, “we support freedom of religion but we don’t support increasing discrimination in other areas.”

However, Porter has claimed there are a variety of views inside the Labor Party. He said suggested changes can’t detract from the bill’s central purpose “to protect Australians of religion from real world circumstances … which detract from their ability to be free from discrimination based on their religion.”

In the United States, a strong push against religious freedom protections has drawn millions of dollars in grants to university programs, legal groups, and LGBT and pro-abortion rights groups. Catholic adoption agencies in some states have been shut down or barred from taxpayer funds because they cannot in good conscience place children with same-sex couples. Lawsuits and legal complaints have targeted professionals in the wedding industry whose religious beliefs bar them from serving same-sex ceremonies.

There have been few U.S. proposals to protect employees from hostile employment action based on their religious statements outside of work.

US bishops praise pope's 'clarion call' for nuclear disarmament

Washington D.C., Feb 14, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The bishops of the United States released a statement on Friday calling for the United States and other nuclear powers to dismantle their arsenals and praising Pope Francis for drawing the world’s attention to nuclear weapons.

“The Committee on International Justice and Peace is grateful to the Holy Father for this renewed effort to bring about a world of peace and justice that is not based upon fear or the threat of nuclear annihilation but justice and human solidarity,” said the statement released Feb. 14. 

The statement was co-signed by the eight bishops who comprise the committee, as well as the two bishop consultants to the committee. The chairman of the committee is Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford. 

The bishops referenced Pope Francis’ November visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki while he was in Japan. Both cities were attacked with atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The bishops said the pontiff “spoke forcefully” on the issue. 

“Speaking at Nagasaki, he emphasized the need for a wide and deep solidarity to bring about security in a world not reliant on atomic weapons,” said the bishops.

They quoted the pope calling on “individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations” to work together to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In Hiroshima, the bishops recalled, Pope Francis stated that the use of nuclear weapons is always immoral, as is their possession.

“The words of Pope Francis serve as a clarion call and a profound reminder to all that the status quo of international relations, resting on the threat of mutual destruction, must be changed,” they said. 

The bishops noted that the continued existence of nuclear weapons “weighs on the consciences of all to find a means for complete and mutual disarmament based in a shared commitment and trust that needs to be fostered and deepened.”

“As such, we also call upon our own government to be part of and indeed renew its primary responsibility in that effort.” they said. In addition to the United States, the other nations possessing nuclear weapons “must take the lead in mutual reduction” of their stockpiles.  

“The international community [has] recognized the need to move away from the threat of mutual destruction and toward genuine and universal disarmament,” said the bishops. 

Currently, eight countries--the United States, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United Kingdom--are known to possess nuclear weapons. Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons, but has refused to confirm the matter. 

The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, along with South Africa, have all disarmed themselves of nuclear weapons.

Harare archdiocese releases pastoral plan for small Christian communities

Harare, Zimbabwe, Feb 14, 2020 / 04:26 pm (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Harare has released a pastoral plan to instigate smaller community cells aimed at fostering an intimate Christian experience.

Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare encouraged these small communities to focus on scripture, liturgy, and charity.

"I urge you to form and establish standardised Small Christian Communities in all parishes, to foster membership, belonging and active participation of all parishioners and also to make the Word of God, Liturgy, Catechesis and charity the thrust of Small Christian Communities,” he wrote in a foreword to the pastoral plan.

The Small Christian Communities will gather regularly at a parishioner’s home. The members will participate in formation, camaraderie, and solidarity. Among other events, the community will share the word of God, celebrate feast days, and band together in times of trouble, like sickness or mourning.

"Small Christian Communities are meant to form a family of God, a people whose hearts beat together- sharing life and sharing about God,” said Father Kizito Nhundu, pastoral vicar of the archdiocese.

The groups will consist of 10 to 15 families from the same region. If a group expands to 20 families then it will split into two separate groups. Nhundu emphasized the importance of smaller groups to ensure intimacy.

"The smaller, the better, we are forming a family of God, that is, people who are united, who share life, who share about God. So the involvement of all the faithful in the Church's life is important," said Fr Nhundu.

The project will be monitored by a pastoral council and the progress will be reviewed in March. It is part of the archdiocese’s focus on youth's formation and vocational discernment, which has been a major emphasis for the archdiocese in the last two years.

“[SCCs] will also serve to accompany young people in their journey of faith, so one will no longer be accompanied by their family only, but also by the community,” he said.

"These SCCs will also serve to accompany young people in their journey of faith, so one will no longer be accompanied by their family only, but also by the community,” he added.

Vatican, Chinese diplomats discuss deal on bishop appointments

Munich, Germany, Feb 14, 2020 / 04:13 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, met Friday with Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, discussing their states' 2018 agreement on episcopal appointments.

The Feb. 14 meeting took place in Munich on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“In the course of the colloquy, which took place in a cordial atmosphere, the contacts between the two parties were evoked, which have developed positively over time,” according to a Holy See press office communique.

“In particular, there was highlighted the importance of the Provisional Accord on the nomination of bishops, signed 22 September 2018, renewing the willingness to continue the institutional dialogue at the bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people,” the Holy See press office wrote.

The press office also said that “appreciation was expressed for the efforts being made to eradicate the coronavirus epidemic as well as solidarity with the affected population.”

The Vatican has sent between 600,000 to 700,000 face masks to three provinces in China since Jan. 27 to help contain the spread of coronavirus, and Pope Francis prayed for those infected during his Jan. 26 Angelus prayer.

The press office communique closed saying that “a desire for greater international cooperation to end of promoting civil coexistence and peace in the world was called for, and considerations on intercultural dialogue and human rights were exchanged.”

The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-sanctioned organization.

The September 2018 agreement between the Holy See and Beijing was intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics and unify the underground Church and the CPCA. The agreement has been roundly criticized by human rights groups and some Church leaders, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong.

Cardinal Zen told CNA Feb. 11 that “the situation is very bad” in China, and added that “the bad things come from [Parolin].”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin is Vatican Secretary of State, and Archbishop Gallagher is one of his top deputies.

According to Cardinal Zen, Cardinal Parolin is so optimistic about the so-called ‘Ostpolitik’, the compromise.”

But, the cardinal told CNA, “you cannot compromise” with the Chinese Communist Party, whom he called “persecutors” of the faith.

“They want complete surrender. That’s communism.”

“More and more, the Church [is] under persecution,” Cardinal Zen said, “both the official Church, and the underground.”

Guidance from the Vatican recognizes the choice of those who feel that they cannot in good conscience register with the government and accept sinicization. However, reports indicate that those who decline to register are facing harassment and persecution.

A report by the Congressional China Commission, issued in January, noted that human rights abuses intensified in China during the 2019 reporting year, and the persecution of Catholics worsened after the Vatican-China deal was reached.

“After the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement with the Holy See in September 2018 paving the way for unifying the state-sanctioned and underground Catholic communities, local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increasing persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy” the report read.

In December 2019 Bishop John Fang Xingyao of Linyi, president of the CPCA, said that “love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church and the law of the country is above canon law.” He was speaking at a Beijing meeting sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party.

New restrictions on religious groups in China went into effect Feb. 1. These include a mandate to implement socialst values, spread the principles of the Chinese Communist Party and support its leaders, and adhere to the path of Chinese socialism.

Religious freedom is officially guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, but religious groups must register with the government, and are overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. The Sinizication of religion has been pushed by President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2013 and who has strengthened government oversight of religious activities.

In 2017, Xi said that religions not sufficiently conformed to communist ideals pose a threat to the country’s government, and therefore must become more “Chinese-oriented.” Since he took power, crosses have been removed from an estimated 1,500 church buildings.

And a government official who oversees religious affairs said in April 2018 that government restrictions on bishop appointments are not a violation of religious freedom, as he emphasized that religions in China must “adapt to socialist society.” The official, Chen Zongrong, added that “I believe there is no religion in human society that transcends nations.”

Restrictions put in place in February 2018 made it illegal for anyone under age 18 to enter a church building.

Muslims, too, have come under pressure from the Chinese government. It is believed that as many as 1 million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnoreligious group in China's far west, are being detained in re-education camps where they are reportedly subjected to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination.

Experts warn Canadian medical suicide law is 'most permissive in the world'

Ottawa, Canada, Feb 14, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- A new report has warned against expanding access to euthanasia in Canada to those with mental illnesses. The Expert Advisory Group released the report on Medical Assistance in Dying on Thursday, suggesting various safeguards the Canadian government should adopt in order to protect vulnerable populations. 

The Feb. 13 document was written in response to a recent assessment released by a think tank that endorsed MAiD for patients who have a mental illness as their sole underlying medical condition. “MAiD” is the legal term in Canada for the procedure commonly referred to as euthanasia or assisted suicide.

“Unlike other medical conditions with a known, predictable course, evidence shows that mental illnesses can never be predicted to be irremediable,” says the report, titled Canada at a Crossroads: Recommendations on Medical Assistance in Dying and Persons with a Mental Disorder.

“MAiD policy and legislation should explicitly acknowledge that determinations of irremediability and irreversible decline cannot be made for mental illnesses at this time, and therefore applications for MAiD for the sole underlying medical condition of a mental disorder cannot fulfill MAiD eligibility requirements,” says the report’s core recommendation. 

The EAG report was released in response to recommendations from the Halifax Group, published Jan. 30, was titled “MAiD Legislation at a Crossroads: Persons with Mental Disorders as Their Sole Underlying Medical Condition.” That report was published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. 

Dr. K. Sonu Gaind, a psychiatrist from Toronto who coordinates the EAG, said as “evidence shows it’s impossible to predict irremediability of mental illnesses,” it would dilute the public’s view of MAiD, and result in discriminatory practices. 

“Society would think people were being helped to die with MAiD to relieve suffering from an irremediable illness, but in reality we would be ending their lives because of loneliness, poverty, and all sorts of life suffering,” Gaind said in the release.

Unlike an illness such as terminal cancer or degenerative neurological disorders, it is possible to get better from a condition such as loneliness, he added.

“I don’t think Canadians would support that sort of discrimination,” he said. 

Unlike the Halifax Group, which is made up of panelists from the Council of Canadian Academies, the EAG sought to include those with “lived experience with mental illness.” None of the members of the Halifax Group met this criteria, which the EAG deemed a “key omission.” 

Mark Henick, a member of the EAG who has lived with mental illness and depression for two decades, said in a press release that he would have “absolutely” chosen to end his life through MAiD had the option been available at the time. 

“My suicidal-self wouldn’t believe my well-self now,” he said in the release, “but that’s exactly why I’m so glad that I didn’t have access to an immediate solution to my suffering. I would have lost out on so much that I then never imagined could someday be possible, but now am very, very grateful for life.”

“Everybody deserves that opportunity,” said Henick. 

The EAG’s report refuted the Halifax Group’s claim that denying euthanasia to those with mental illnesses would be discriminatory.

“In fact, allowing MAiD for mental disorders that cannot actually be determined to be irremediable, while claiming it is being provided for an irremediable condition, would be the ultimate form of discrimination,” says the report. 

In September, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that MAiD should not be restricted only to those with a terminal illness or a “reasonably foreseeable death.” The Canadian federal government announced that they do not intend to appeal the decision and will let it stand. The law will go into effect in March. 

Prior to this decision, a Canadian would have to be an adult with a “reasonably foreseeable death” in order to be eligible for an “assisted death.” There is no legal requirement for a patient to receive a prognosis of a certain number of months or weeks left to live in order to receive “assisted death.” 

The EAG report warned that these incoming changes will result in Canada becoming “the most permissive jurisdiction in the world for MAiD, with the fewest safeguards against unwanted deaths, unless additional safeguards are introduced.” 

In other countries, the report explains, patients are required to show a “lack of reasonable alternatives” prior to being approved for euthanasia. Canada would be the only jurisdiction to lack this safeguard. 

The EAG is recommending that a “non-ambivalence criterion should be required for MAiD in situations when death is not reasonably foreseeable,” as well as a criterion for “lack of reasonable alternative” for potential MAiD patients who do not have a reasonably foreseeable death. 

During the first 10 months of 2018, about 1.1% of all deaths in Canada were a result of euthanasia. Unlike in the United States, where assisted suicide patients must self-administer the drugs, a patient can opt to have the doctor administer the lethal medication, and the vast majority of Canadian MAiD patients do not self-administer.

If a similar ratio of deaths were recorded in the United States, approximately 30,000 people--the equivalent of the total number of gun deaths each year--would die each year at the hands of doctor or nurse administered dosages.

ZENIT News in Text Format

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