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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 ProLifeWhistleblower.com would be taken down for violating GoDaddy policies. After the law went into effect on Sept. 1, ProLifeWhistleblower.com 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. 

Book Review: Visually rich compilation of Marian apparitions is full of spiritual ‘gems’

null / "The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"

Denver Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 11:50 am (CNA).

Sophia Institute Press and Polish theologian Wincenty Laszewski have successfully completed the task of creating the most ambitious, graphic-rich and beautifully printed compilation of Marian apparitions to date.

In its colorful 405 pages, "The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today" immerses the reader in occasions in which the Virgin Mary either authoritatively or probably has shown signs of her presence and her love for us.

"The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"
"The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"

Adam Blai, the author of "The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit" (Sophia Institute Press, 2021), sets the theological stage for the unique experience provided by the pictures, graphics and testimonies that Laszewski has curated with great care.

Blai explains that Marian apparitions generally include four components: the visionary, the experience, the message, and the miracles.

“But within this framework, there has been a wide variety,” he writes. 

“The messages are almost always centered on prayer and repentance, but sometimes they include dire warnings for the world. The accompanying miracles vary widely, from enduring images to onetime spectacles, but they are almost always testable by outside experts, so the Church and the world have some proof that something extraordinary happened."

Blai provides a key to understand some of the Marian messages included in the book, such as the possible apparition of Trevignano Romano in Italy in 2019, in which the Virgin Mary is said to have warned: “Pray for China, because new diseases will come from there.” 

"What most people do not know is that, although only a handful of apparitions have been officially approved — ten by local bishops and sixteen by Rome in some way — there have been hundreds of accounts of Marian apparitions down through the centuries,” Blai explains.

“Sometimes the supposed apparitions generated some local interest, but no investigation was undertaken; sometimes there has been disagreement between diocesan and Vatican authorities." 

The ongoing case of Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, from 1981 to today is a complicated version of this latter case, explains Blai.

"As of 2020, Rome has approved pilgrimages to the site, but final full approval has been withheld until the apparent visions conclude and the case can be studied in its entirety,” Blai writes.

Laszewski and the editors carefully navigate this complex reality and provide the images and the facts, using a cautious, conditional presentation when necessary. Thus, the book includes a visible legend next to each of the 48 reported apparitions, based on nine different qualifications, ranging from "A revelation recognized by the Vatican" to "A revelation accepted by the belief of pilgrims."

This beautiful book can be read and reread with true spiritual freedom. In the process, you are sure to find many gems, as I found in this statement attributed to the Blessed Mother: “I feel in my heart — and it fills me with great sorrow — with what falsity and hypocrisy the holy Rosary is recited. Prayer cannot be a careless tune. It has to be sweet music flowing from the heart.”

Justice Department pledges to 'protect' women seeking abortions in Texas after pro-life law takes effect

Attorney General Merrick Garland / Justice Department

Denver Newsroom, Sep 7, 2021 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday vowed to “protect” women seeking abortions in Texas, days after a new state law went into effect aiming to prohibit most abortions after six weeks. 

While the Justice Department “urgently explores all options to challenge” Texas’ new law and “protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion," the agency will enforce a 1994 law prohibiting the obstruction of abortion clinics, Garland said in a Sept. 6 statement.

“We will not tolerate violence against those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services, physical obstruction or property damage in violation of the FACE Act,” Garland wrote. 

Texas’ new “heartbeat” law does not allow physical intimidation or harm against women seeking abortions. Rather, the law allows for private citizens to sue over abortions performed after the detection of a fetal heartbeat - which can occur as early as six weeks gestation. 

Citizens may take legal action against those performing or assisting in illegal abortions, including against those providing financial assistance. However, those who impregnated the women undergoing abortion through “rape, sexual assault, incest, or any other act” may not bring a lawsuit.

The law allows for at least $10,000 in damages in successful lawsuits. Women seeking abortions cannot be sued under the new law. 

Last Wednesday, a Supreme Court majority ruled that the abortion providers challenging the Texas “heartbeat” law had not made a sufficient case for relief from it, and declined to block the law in a 5-4 decision. 

The court majority emphasized that it was not judging the constitutionality of the law itself, but rather the case for relief from the law.

In response, President Joe Biden – a Catholic – directed his administration to examine “what steps the Federal Government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions.” 

Biden said he was directing his White House Gender Policy Council, as well as the White House counsel, “to launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision,” reviewing “what legal tools we have to insulate women and providers from the impact of Texas' bizarre scheme of outsourced enforcement to private parties.”

In recent weeks, the pro-abortion groups suing over the law, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, had failed to successfully block the law in the lower courts. Among the groups challenging the law is the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple, 

Texas Right to Life’s website, which included a link soliciting tips on alleged illegal abortions, was reportedly flooded with fake tips, spam and pornography last week before hosting site GoDaddy shut it down for allegedly violating its terms of service. The pro-life organization has since moved its site to another host, the group said; the website, prolifewhistleblower.com, now redirects to the group's main page.

As the new law went into effect, pro-life groups said they were ready to assist women facing unexpected pregnancies.

“NIFLA’s network of more than 1,600 pregnancy centers and medical clinics stands at the ready to help mothers and babies in a post-Roe America. We are here to empower the choice of life,” said Thomas Glessner, president of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. The group provides legal counsel, education, and training to more than 1,600 pregnancy centers nationwide.

US bishops launch 'Civilize It,' answering Pope Francis' call for 'a better kind of politics'

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City (Left) and Bishop James Wall of Gallup (Right) pray before the afternoon session of the 2019 USCCB General Assembly, June 12, 2019. / Kate Veik/CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 7, 2021 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

The U.S. bishops’ conference on Monday launched a new initiative to promote civility amid political polarization, appealing to Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti.

“My hope is that this initiative will assist all of us as we seek to ‘become neighbors to all,’ as the Holy Father calls us to do, and take up the challenges of encounter, dialogue, truth-seeking, and creative problem-solving, in order that all Catholics can work together for the common good,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, on Monday.

The bishops’ new campaign “Civilize It: A Better Kind of Politics,” seeks to promote Catholic social teaching within evangelization efforts, equipping Catholics to respond to current political debates. It includes an examination of conscience, short reflections, prayers, and a guide for Catholics to be “bridgebuilders.” Materials can be found at the conference website CivilizeIt.org.

Catholics can take a pledge on the website for “charity,” “clarity,” and “creativity.” The pledge includes promises to practice charity, to form one’s conscience well and be open to dialogue, and to work with others on “creative” solutions for society. The campaign’s goal is to reach 5,000 such pledges.

The initiative is based off of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, or “brothers all.” The encyclical’s paragraph 154 calls for “a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good.”

“In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers a different way forward based on Gospel values, justice and truth,” Archbishop Coakley said.

Polarization and division are even found today within the Church, he noted.

“Such division among the faithful compromises the Church’s ability to effectively witness to the life and dignity of the human person in the family, parish, workplace, and political sphere,” he said.

Fratelli tutti was issued in October 2020, as a call for unity and fraternity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The title means means "All brothers" in Italian, citing the writings of St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis signed the encyclical in Assisi, Italy.

"Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident," Pope Francis said in the introduction to his encyclical. "For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all." 

He also addressed global problems including the pandemic, the "throwaway culture" that includes abortion and euthanasia, neglect of the elderly, discrimination against women, and slavery. He criticized the current political discourse, encouraging instead authentic dialogue.

The urged greater acceptance of refugees and migrants, and also called for an end to the use of the death penalty.

State's bishops 'celebrate every life saved' by Texas abortion law

null / Unsplash.

Austin, Texas, Sep 7, 2021 / 11:11 am (CNA).

Bishops around the country reacted with praise to a Texas law banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, and noted that women experiencing a crisis pregnancy have resources available, instead of abortion.

“We celebrate every life saved by this legislation,” said the Texas Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of Texas’ 16 Catholic dioceses and 20 bishops, in a Sept. 3 statement.

The Texas bishops said that opponents of the law, who have described a fetal heartbeat as “electrically induced flickering of embryonic tissue” or “embryonic cardiac activity,” are making a “disturbing” effort to “dehumanize the unborn.”

“Abortion is a human rights issue; the most fundamental human right is the right to life,” said the Texas bishops. “Abortion is not healthcare. Abortion is not freedom. Abortion does not help women. Abortion is never the answer. It is always the violent taking of innocent human life.”

The statement dismissed the notion that abortion is a privacy right.

“We cannot turn away and say that, since the killing of another person takes place within the body of a woman, we as a society should not care, any more than when someone is killed within the privacy of a home or in a public venue,” said the Texas bishops.

The Texas Heartbeat Law went into effect Sept. 1 after the Supreme Court refused to issue an injunction. This is the first time since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that the Supreme Court has not blocked a piece of pro-life legislation while the law is being contested in lower courts.

The lawl prohibits abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. A provision awarding damages to people who report illegal abortions, or those who aid and abet the procurement of an abortion, has drawn significant controversy.

The Texas bishops wrote that “hundreds of millions of dollars” have been invested in abortion alternatives programs for pregnant women and their families, and that there are “hundreds of pregnancy and parenting support programs and adoption services” in the state.

“Pregnant and parenting moms in need are in our parishes and our neighborhoods,” said the Texas bishops. “As Pope Francis reminds us, our parishes must be ‘islands of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference.’ Everyone in the parish should know where to refer a pregnant woman in need.”

The two bishops of neighboring Oklahoma issued a similar statement lauding the bill.

“This week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to permit Texas’ heartbeat abortion ban to remain in effect marks a critical turning point in our decades-long battle to defend unborn life,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa in a joint statement published Sept. 6. The governor of Oklahoma signed a similar “heartbeat bill” into law on April 26, 2021, but it has not gone into effect due to legal battles.

The bishops said, “it is estimated that as many as 4,000 lives each month will be spared” as a result of the law, and added they “pray that the courts in Oklahoma will follow suit and allow our state’s recently-enacted heartbeat law to go into effect.”

“One doesn’t need to be Catholic to believe that abortion is an offense against human dignity and the taking of an innocent life,” they said. “We are not only opposed to abortion because the Church tells us to oppose it (as a matter of faith), but because it is morally repugnant and inconsistent with respect for human life.”

The Texas law prompted President Joe Biden (D) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to consider some sort of federal intervention that would keep abortion legal thorughout a pregnancy.

Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives will vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act when they return from recess. The bill would create a law allowing abortion throughout a pregnancy, and would forbid states from enacting their own pro-life restrictions on abortion.

Biden, in a statement published after the law was allowed to go into effect, directed his administration to examine “what steps the Federal Government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, warned that these actions by Catholic politicians could warrant excommunication.

In a Washington Post op-ed published Sept. 5, Archbishop Cordileone, who is Pelosi’s ordinary, noted that in the 1960s, prominent Catholic segregationists were excommunicated by then-Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans for refusing to embrace racial integration.

The three excommunications, he said, were an example of a legitimate Catholic response to “a great moral evil” of that time period, and were not “weaponizing the Eucharist.”

“Rummel recognized that prominent, high-profile public advocacy for racism was scandalous: It violated core Catholic teachings and basic principles of justice, and also led others to sin,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

The same, he said, is true of prominent Catholics who support abortion rights.

“You cannot be a good Catholic and support expanding a government-approved right to kill innocent human beings. The answer to crisis pregnancies is not violence but love, for both mother and child,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

“This is hardly inappropriate for a pastor to say,” he said. “If anything, Catholic political leaders’ response to the situation in Texas highlights the need for us to say it all the louder.”

Archbishop Cordileone’s essay drew strong reactions from his brother bishops.

“Thank you for speaking up, Archbishop,” said Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler. “I am with you 100% as are many Catholics and others who know that life is sacred.”

His comments were echoed by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois, who said it was an “excellent op-ed.”

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln wrote, “It is impossible to deny the humanity of the unborn child. Catholic politicians must uphold the human rights of these tiny citizens,” and encouraged people to “take some time to read this excellent piece by Archbishop Cordileone.”