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Christian filmmakers win right to sue against Minnesota human rights law

Minneapolis, Minn., Aug 23, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A federal court has reversed a decision dismissing a lawsuit brought against the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In a decision issued Friday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims that the law violates free speech and freedom of religion in a case brought by two Christian filmmakers who refused to make same-sex wedding videos.

The case was brought by Carl and Angel Larsen, the owners Telescope Media Group, both of whom are devout Christians. The Larsen’s intended to expand their business by filming weddings, but were told by state officials that if they produced films celebrating marriages in accord with their own beliefs, they would also have to create films promoting same-sex marriage.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Larsens, called the decision a “significant win.”

“The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs. Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages,” Tedesco said in a statement.

“All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”

The initial suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and appealed to the 8th Circuit in October, 2018. The Larson’s told the court that they “gladly work with all people—regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other classification.” 

Because they are Christians, the Larsons said they only decline requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs, including any that, in their view, “promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.”

The 2018 Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits vendors from “to intentionally refusing to do business with, to refuse to contract with, or to discriminate in the basic terms, conditions, or performance of the contract because of a person’s . . . sexual orientation.”

According to the state’s argument, the law regulates the Larsen’s business conduct and not their speech, and they would need to make both traditional marriage and same-sex wedding films, or none at all in order to comply, otherwise they could face tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and up to 90 days in jail.

In the decision published Aug. 23, the 8th Circuit held that the First Amendment prevented the Larsons from being compelled to “mouth support for views they find objectionable,” and that their film productions are a form of free speech protected by the Bill of Rights, saying that “the videos they do wish to produce will convey a message designed to affect public attitudes and behavior.” 

The judges also cited the Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a Christian baker refused to create custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

“If Minnesota were correct,” the judges wrote, “it could use the MHRA to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe ‘My religion is the only true religion’ on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service.” 

The decision orders the District Court to review the case again, and to consider if the Larson’s case merits a preliminary injunction against the state law.

Arizona bishops welcome tuition break for undocumented students

Albuquerque, N.M., Aug 23, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Arizona’s Catholic bishops issued a statement Thursday in support of a change in policy that will offer a discounted college tuition rate to resident high school students who are undocumented immigrants. 

“We are glad that these undocumented students, who were brought here through no fault of their own, will now have more opportunities to better their lives after they graduate from our high schools and eventually become productive members of our society,” said the statement, which was co-signed by the state’s four bishops. 

The new policy, announced Aug. 22, sets the state college tuition rate for non-legal resident students at $16,000, which is $5,000 more than the in-state rate for legal Arizona residents. The tuition rate for out-of-state students is $30,000. Previously, undocumented students had to pay the out-of-state rate. 

“Today's action allows these students, as well as other Arizona high school graduates who have left the state, to join immigrant students who are in the DACA program and pay a much lower tuition rate that reflects the actual costs at our public universities,” the bishops said. 

Several states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduated from a high school in the state. 

The announcement came on the same day that Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, who chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement condemning a newly-published Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security rule that concerns the care and custody of immigrant children. 

That new rule allows for families, including minors, to be detained for longer than the previous 20-day limit allowed under the Flores settlement. 

Vasquez said the rule is “unlawful and inhumane” and will harm “countless children.” 

“This rule will have heartbreaking consequences for immigrant children – those whom Pope Francis has deemed ‘the most vulnerable group’ among migrants,” said Vásquez in the statement, which was published on the USCCB’s website. 

“It is an attempt by the [Trump] Administration to circumvent existing obligations and undermine critical protections for these children. This rule will jeopardize the well-being and humane treatment of immigrant children in federal custody and will result in children suffering long-lasting consequences of being held for prolonged periods in family detention.”

The new rule will take effect 60 days after its publication.

Exorcists to Jesuit head: Satan is real

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 11:49 am (CNA).- An international organization of Catholic exorcists said Thursday that the existence of Satan as a real and personal being is a truth of Christin doctrine.

“The real existence of the devil, as a personal subject who thinks and acts and has made the choice of rebellion against God, is a truth of faith that has always been part of Christian doctrine,” the International Association of Exorcists said in an Aug. 22 press release.

The organization’s release came in response to recent remarks on the devil from Jesuit superior general Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, which the organization called “grave and confusing.”

The exorcists said they released their statement to provide “doctrinal clarification.”

Sosa made headlines earlier this week when he told Italian magazine Tempi that “the devil exists as a symbolic reality, not as a personal reality.”

The devil “exists as the personification of evil in different structures, but not in persons, because is not a person, is a way of acting evil. He is not a person like a human person. It is a way of evil to be present in human life,” Sosa said.

Citing a long history of Church teaching on the nature of Satan, including several citations from Pope Francis and his recent predecessors, the exorcists’ organization said that Catholics are bound to believe that Satan is a real and personal being, a fallen angel.

“The Church, founded on Sacred Scripture and on Apostolic Tradition officially teaches that the devil is a creature and a personal being, and she cautions those who, like Father Sosa, consider him only a symbol.”

Sosa’s remarks are “outside the ordinary and extraordinary-solemn magisterium” of the Church, the exorcists said.

The International Association of Exorcists is an “association of the faithful” formally approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in 2014. Among its founders was well known exorcist Fr. Gabrele Amorth, who died in 2016.

Sosa, 70, was elected the Society of Jesus’ superior general in 2016. A Venezuelan, he has a pontifical licentiate in philosophy and a doctorate in political science. He served as a Jesuit provincial superior in Venezuela from 1996 to 2004, and in 2014 began an administrative role at the general curia of the Jesuits in Rome.

Sosa has offered controversial comments about Satan in the past. In 2017, he told El Mundo that “we have formed symbolic figures such as the Devil to express evil.”

After his 2017 remark generated controversy, a spokesman for Sosa told the Catholic Herald that “like all Catholics, Father Sosa professes and teaches what the Church professes and teaches. He does not hold a set of beliefs separate from what is contained in the doctrine of the Catholic Church."

Analysis: Pell, and the politics of Rome

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 11:15 am (CNA).- This week’s decision by the Court of Appeal in Victoria marked the apparent conclusion of the criminal trial of Cardinal George Pell in Australia.

While the cardinal may yet exercise his final right of appeal to the country’s High Court, legal experts and those close to Pell are skeptical that such a petition would even be accepted, let alone return a verdict in his favor.

With no further civil progress likely, and Pell almost sure to remain in prison for the foreseeable future, attention now shifts to Rome, where a canonical process has been pending.

Given the questions raised about his treatment by the Australian courts, how that process plays out will be of defining significance, not just for Pell, but for how credibly the Church can still claim to operate an independent legal system that dates back to the Roman Empire.

Pell will face a canonical process at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on charges of crimes of sexual abuse of minors – the same charges brought against him in Victoria. But what sort of process he will receive, and when, remain unanswered questions.

With concerns raised from experts and observers about the strength of the evidence against him, it seems highly unlikely Pell would face the kind of abbreviated administrative procedure like the one used to handle the case of Theodore McCarrick.

The shorter administrative process is reserved in canon law for cases where the facts are reasonably clear, or the proof nearly self-explanatory. In many instances of cases of clerical sexual abuse, a civil conviction is taken by the canonical authorities as effective proof as they decree into evidence all the acts of the civil case.

Yet, because of the reporting ban in place for Pell’s two jury trials (which returned two very different results), little of that original evidence is in the public domain, and would need to be brought to the canonical process as-new.

Also, unlike Theodore McCarrick, Pell did not leave a string of legal settlements behind him in his former dioceses, nor does he face anything like the sheer number of accusers over a sustained period of time – he was convicted in Victoria on the testimony of a single man.

The contentious nature of the result, which came complete with a dissenting opinion from a respected judge, means that public interest and scrutiny remain at fever pitch, and a rushed process would likely raise serious concerns in the Church’s own legal community.

All signs point to Pell receiving a full canonical trial, a process which can, if allowed to fully develop, stand next to any secular court system for legal probity. But that is a big “if.”

The first hurdle will be the access to primary evidence and testimony. Pell’s accuser would need to testify again before the canonical tribunal, and canonists from both sides have the opportunity to put questions to him – there is no guarantee he would be interested in participating.

Also, while it is likely that most if not all of the witnesses in Pell’s defense would make themselves available to testify again, Pell himself is in prison, making it hard for him to appear in front of a tribunal.

But assuming that a canonical court could receive all the evidence and access it needs, Pell’s supporters and legal scholars may have as many concerns about the justice of a canonical process as they do about the criminal proceeding in Victoria.

In the ordinary mechanism, Pell’s trial – like that of any bishop - would be handled by a panel of three or five judges, usually cardinals or archbishops, specially selected by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, under the authorization of the pope.

These judges are normally chosen for their legal expertise and judicial experience and the trial is conducted independent from the ordinary business of the CDF. But, whatever conclusion the deliberations of such a panel might reach in Pell’s case, it would unlikely be the final word.

Pope Francis has in the past exercised his prerogative to judge high-profile cases himself, and, given Pell’s stature and the significance of any possible outcome, he may find it impossible to delegate a final decision in the matter.

If the case arrives on the papal desk, Francis would likely find himself receiving advice that is as much diplomatic as legal.

While the CDF’s legal process can be set up to resist outside pressures, many in the Secretariat of State view Pell’s situation as a potential diplomatic crisis to be resolved.

If a Vatican court were to acquit Pell of the charges on which he was convicted, it would be perceived by many as an indictment of the Australian justice system and a tacit acknowledgment of charges that Pell is imprisoned by anti-Catholic sentiment.

The resulting diplomatic fallout could well fuel calls by international leaders to end the Holy See’s sovereign status under international law.

On the other hand, if Pell were canonically convicted, those in the Church who believe the cardinal’s Australian trial was fundamentally unjust might conclude that the Church no longer really has an independent legal system, and that bishops and priests the world over should not look to Rome for a fair hearing.

That outcome could lead to dissension among an already embattled global episcopate.

Diplomatic considerations to one side, Pell, in particular, may already have reasons for concern.

As prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell was openly loathed by many of the other curial leaders.

The Australian cardinal’s efforts to deliver financial transparency and accountability to the curia in the first years of the Francis pontificate met with internal Curial resistance – in one famous incident, the Secretariat of State maneuvered without Pell’s knowledge to cancel an announced independent audit. Since his return to Australia, Pell’s reforms have largely been reversed by those who would take the closest interest in his case in Rome.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s increasingly omnipotent Secretary of State, has been known for years to “check in” on CDF cases which he considers to be of wider importance to the Holy See. Canonists charged with handling the administration of justice have long complained about “pressure” being applied from across St. Peter’s square.

One high-ranking Churchman in Rome familiar with several Vatican trials told CNA that Parolin’s attempts to involve himself in cases have been extensive.

“When [the CDF] was told to basically stop talking to State, [Parolin] started calling nuncios to monitor correspondence between the Congregation and places where cases were in progress. It was a serious problem.”

As the pope’s chief advisor on nearly all aspects of Church governance, Parolin’s advice could prove decisive in any decision the pope makes on Pell.

In March, Parolin called the news of Pell’s conviction “shocking and painful.” On Feb. 28, he told L'Osservatore Romano that Pell’s case “is an incentive to continue in the pope's line: to fight against this phenomenon and pay attention to the victims."

While there is no certainty about how Parolin might counsel the pope, one member of the Vatican’s diplomatic staff told CNA that Parolin is a pragmatist.
 
“Innocent or guilty, the reality is Pell is convicted in an Australian prison,” he said.

“The cardinal puts the stability of the Holy See’s diplomatic status first in line - if you don’t believe it, ask the Chinese,” he said, in reference to the number of Chinese bishops and priests imprisoned by Beijing, despite a landmark 2018 deal between China and the Vatican.

If Pell appeals his case to Australia’s High Court, his canonical case will be delayed until its conclusion. But, whenever it does come to Rome, Pell and his advocate might discover that the Vatican politics he left behind in 2017 still have bearing on his future.

Agreement reached on permanent Holy See representative to Vietnam

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 10:08 am (CNA).- A Holy See-Vietnam diplomacy working group, which met inside the Vatican this week, reached an agreement on establishing a permanent resident papal representative to the southeast Asian country.

A resident papal representative is considered an intermediary step in diplomatic relations, below an apostolic nuncio.

The Holy See and Vietnam have never had full diplomatic relations, but have been engaged in formal bilateral discussions since 2009. The Aug. 21-22 summit was the eighth meeting of the working group, which had previously met in Hanoi in December 2018.

Since 2011, the Holy See has had a non-resident pontifical representative to Vietnam. At the 2018 meeting in Hanoi, the delegations had agreed to upgrade this representative from a non-permanent, non-resident to a permanent, resident status.

According to a joint statement Aug. 23, the Holy See-Vietnam working group discussed the regulations to underly such an agreement “in view of the setting up of the Office at the earliest possible date.”

In the meeting, the Holy See also expressed appreciation for the State’s assistance to the Catholic community in Vietnam. The State gave its assurance of its continued commitment to improve consistent policy for respect of freedom of belief and religion.

“The two sides also expressed their commitment to continuing dialogue based on trust and respect for the mutually agreed principles governing the bilateral relations. They underscored the importance of further promoting contacts, including at high levels, between the two sides,” according to the statement.

The Vietnamese delegation also met with Pope Francis, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

The delegations are headed by Mons. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican under-secretary for relations with states, and To anh Dung, Vietnam's deputy minister of foreign affairs.

The position of non-resident papal representative to Vietnam is held by the nuncio to Singapore, who is currently Archbishop Marek Zalewski.

Catholics are estimated to make up about 7% of Vietnam’s population of 97 million. Predominant religious practice is of folk religions, followed by Buddhism.

Vietnam’s religious freedom law has been under discussion since 2013, when the Vietnamese constitution was revised. The law guaranteed freedom of belief to people, and formally guarantees religious freedom.

However, Catholic communities have experienced several limitations under the communist regime that took power in 1976.

According to the 2019 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, religious freedom conditions in the country regressed from 2018 to 2019, and despite small improvements, the government of Vietnam continues to persecute religious individuals and organizations.