It’s outrageous and heartbreaking that George Zimmerman was not held accountable for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin at point-blank range. This injustice affected Americans so deeply because it emblemized numerous intersecting pathologies of our society: a rampant culture of gun violence, inexcusable gun laws, deeply ingrained racism, and the devaluation of young black men’s lives.
At times like this it can be difficult to picture the day when tragedies like Trayvon’s killing no longer occur. But abolition and integration were once considered pipe dreams too, and the largely peaceful nationwide outpouring of grief after Zimmerman’s acquittal is a testament to faith leaders’ power to channel outrage into peaceful action, as Rev. William Barber II did at Moral Monday in North Carolina. While our hearts are troubled, our spirits must remain strong.
Catholic colleges call a path to citizenship ‘moral, urgent, practical’
A new group of influential leaders from the faith community weighed in on the immigration debate today. A press teleconference call this morning organized by Faith in Public Life unveiled a letter signed by 93 Catholic college presidents calling on Catholic members of the House of Representatives – including House Speaker John Boehner – to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a road to earned citizenship. The letter also ran as an ad in today’s print edition of Politico, as well as in targeted online ads. It said in part:
Our broken immigration system, which tears parents from children, traps aspiring Americans in the shadows and undermines the best values of this nation, is morally indefensible.
We hope that as you face intense political pressure from powerful interest groups, you will draw wisdom and moral courage from our shared faith tradition. Catholic teaching values the human dignity and worth of all immigrants, regardless of legal status. We remind you that no human being made in the image of God is illegal.
The letter is signed by nationally prominent Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown and the Catholic University of America, as well as many colleges in districts represented by strategically important Republican lawmakers. As House Members weigh whether to support, obstruct or dilute reform that includes a roadmap to citizenship, the chorus of voices calling for a path to citizenship is growing louder.
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It’s hard to describe the relief I felt when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act.
The outcome of the case was literally a matter of life and death for struggling families and people discriminated against by health insurance companies. Thanks to Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan, Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Breyer, tens of millions of Americans will no longer be at risk of getting cut off from the care they need. Roberts, who has a very conservative record, shocked observers of all stripes by breaking ranks with the right wing and upholding the law. Dozens of nationally prominent faith leaders expressed strong approval of the decision.
Unfortunately one of the Affordable Care Act’s most important features – the expansion of Medicaid to cover all Americans who make less than 133% of the poverty level – was weakened by Roberts’s opinion. States may now opt out of this provision easily even though federal funding covers the overwhelming majority of the expense and refusing to accept it would take healthcare coverage away from struggling families.
Some Republican governors appear eager to deprive their constituents of healthcare. Already five GOP governors – Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida and Terry Branstad of Iowa – have announced that they will refuse federal funding to expand Medicaid. This could deprive up to 1.4 million people of coverage. Numerous other GOP leaders are threatening to follow suit. Taking away people’s access to quality, affordable healthcare isn’t just cynical, it’s sinful. Putting the ideological demands of the Tea Party before the well-being of families isn’t
principled, it’s cowardly.
One of the reasons Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in the first place was because clergy and faith-based community organizers lifted up the human consequences and moral issues at stake. We can make the same impact now as we did back then.
The “Nuns on the Bus: Nuns Drive for Faith, Family and Fairness” tour, which concluded with an inspirational rally and press conference in Washington yesterday, strongly rebuked Congressman Paul Ryan’s immoral federal budget priorities and presented a faithful alternative. The Sisters on the bus received overwhelming popular support and extensive media coverage during their nine-state journey as they confronted Members of Congress who voted for the Ryan plan. As governors play political games with the well-being of vulnerable families, faith leaders need to mount this kind of pressure again and again in state after state.
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This week, several Supreme Court decisions will have profound effects on our nation’s future, and people of faith are speaking up.
Yesterday the court overturned key sections of Arizona’s SB 1070, the anti-immigrant law faith leaders fought because it subjects Latinos to harassment, discrimination and profiling. Unfortunately, the court didn’t strike down one of the most dangerous parts of the law – the “show me your papers” provision requiring law enforcement officers verify the immigration status of people they stop. Religious leaders responded by expressing disappointment that the ruling still allows racial profiling, but also commended the justices for striking down the other provisions.
Thursday, the justices will announce their verdict on the Affordable Care Act. The outlook isn’t good. In a survey of 21 top legal scholars last week, 19 said the law’s individual coverage mandate was constitutional based on legal precedent, but only eight thought the justices will uphold the law in its entirety. The potential consequences are grave. Access to health insurance for tens of millions of people, the stability of our healthcare system, and the fate of people with pre-existing conditions and serious illnesses hang in the balance. If the law is overturned or weakened, Republicans who fought for repeal of “Obamacare” face an immediate moral responsibility to pass policies that ensure no one is harmed because of their partisan agenda.
During the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010, Faith in Public Life and key religious partners mounted a multifaceted campaign to provide quality, affordable health care for all Americans. Within hours of the public launch of our effort, the conservative Family Research Council called it an “anti-faith, anti-family, anti-freedom agenda.” Throughout the debate Republican leaders and the Religious Right relentlessly distorted the legislation, calling it a “government takeover,” claiming that it included “death panels” and alleging that it provided taxpayer funding of abortion.
By the time the law finally passed, pro-health reform faith leaders had generated scores of vigils, hundreds of visits to Congress, thousands of media hits, millions of prayers, and crucial rebuttals to the Right’s dishonest rhetoric. It wasn’t in service of a partisan agenda, it was in accordance with our belief that all people, created in the image of God, deserve medical treatment for the illnesses and injuries we all face over the course of life. This conviction leads us to pray that the Supreme Court does the right thing on Thursday, and spurs us to action if they don’t.
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Not Backing Down
Someone recently described Catholic sisters as having “a spine of steel and a compassionate heart.” I can think of no better description for women who selflessly dedicate their lives to the most vulnerable while confronting injustice.
Embroiled in a tense dispute with the Vatican and U.S. bishops over promoting “radical feminist themes,” the sisters are not backing down. On the contrary, they are launching a nationwide bus tour to assert their Gospel-driven mission by standing up for the poor and speaking out against Rep. Paul Ryan’s reckless budget proposal. Traveling to social service agencies, soup kitchens, and health clinics run by Catholic sisters, the bus tour will highlight nuns’ contributions to the common good and call for a more faithful budget proposal.
The Bishops Agree
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees with the sisters’ message of economic justice. They have repeatedly warned Congress not to slash food stamps, social services block grants, the child tax credit and other vital programs targeted in the House Republican budget. In their guidance to lawmakers, bishops have stated: “The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.” Rep. Ryan has dismissed these concerns and continues to insist that a disproportionate share of cuts must come from programs that serve lower-income Americans even as the wealthy are coddled with more tax breaks.
Will the Bishops Get on Board?
Part of the Catholic sisters’ strategy, then, is to encourage the bishops to use their megaphone and the bus tour opportunity to speak out more boldly against the Ryan budget. They plan to invite bishops whose dioceses they pass through to join them at events. But given that the bishops are dedicating enormous resources during that same time towards their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to protest the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, that plea may fall on deaf ears. In fact, the bishops’ overheated rhetoric has caused many to ask whether that campaign is just a thinly veiled partisan effort in an election year. It’s even causing some backlash among Catholics in the pews.
As the political courtship of Catholic voters heats up in this contentious election year, Catholic sisters are remaining true to their mission and elevating our values debate. I’m grateful for their courage and persistence.
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In a move that escalated the political controversy about contraception and religious liberty, 44 Catholic bishops and colleges filed lawsuits last week challenging the requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control without a copayment.
But it’s also notable that relatively few leaders participated – only 13 of America’s 195 Catholic dioceses joined the suits. And in a move that was little noticed outside religious media, a prominent bishop expressed concern that the entire debate is being co-opted by right-wing groups bent on attacking President Obama.
That might sound like inside baseball, but it’s a clear sign of significant internal fissures over the Catholic bishops’ increasingly politicized confrontation against the Obama administration. As Republican politicians accuse the president of waging war on religious freedom and extremist religious leaders compare the administration to totalitarian dictatorships, a warning against partisanship is welcome news.
Amid all the hyperbolic claims about supposedly grave threats to religious liberty, it’s worth taking another look at the facts of the contraception coverage debate.
Last year the independent Institute of Medicine reviewed medical research and public comments about which health care services should be classified as essential preventive services to be covered without a copayment in health insurance plans. Contraception was identified as one of these services. This was an evidence-based health policy decision, not an ideological attack on religious liberty.
Recognizing that some religions consider contraception wrong, the Department of Health and Human Services carved out an exemption to this requirement for religious institutions. After many moderate faith leaders criticized the exemption as too narrow, the Obama administration offered a further accommodation ensuring that institutions such as religious schools, charities, social service providers and hospitals won’t be required to pay for contraception coverage for their employees. Final versions of these regulations are being formulated right now. Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in this debate either pretend this accommodation was never offered or inaccurately dismiss it as an “accounting gimmick.”
This controversy isn’t going away, and it’s not just a Catholic issue. Some evangelical leaders have suggested that they will join the Catholic bishops’ upcoming “fortnight for freedom” campaign to mobilize Christians nationwide to stand against alleged threats to religious liberty. I hope moderate voices who prefer dialogue and good-faith negotiation over litigation and inflammatory rhetoric become more influential. The debate we’re having now is rooted more in politics than it is in reality.
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