In the News (June/July 2021)

Atheists have lowest coronavirus death rate

Data on Covid-19 death rates in England has revealed that atheists, as a group, were the least affected, experiencing 336.6 deaths per 100,000 among men and 218.2 among women.

Muslims are by far the worst-affected religious group, with death rates twice as high as among Christians, and nearly three times higher than the atheists.

Data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed that, up to the end of February, 4,191 Muslims had been killed by the virus.

Muslim men had a death rate of 966.9 per 100,000 people, while that of women was about 519.1 per 100,000.

Muslims were followed by Hindus — 605.2 among men and 346.5 for women; Sikhs — 573.6 and 345.7; Jews — 512.9 and 295.4; and Christians — 401.9 and 249.6.

However, after factoring in other risk indicators such as age, wealth and location, it said: “After adjustments, the Hindu population and Muslim men were disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic.”

Experts have suggested that ethnic minorities are more likely to have low incomes and work in public-facing jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. 

Bishops may push Biden to stop taking Communion

At the national meeting in June of U.S. Catholic bishops, they may decide to tell President Biden, a Catholic, to not take communion if he continues to advocate for abortion rights, according to a report by Religion News Service.

Such a stance by a public figure is “a grave moral evil,” according to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Wis. AG announces probe of clergy sex abuse

Attorney General Josh Kaul on April 20 announced an investigation into clergy sexual abuse across Wisconsin. 

The state Department of Justice will lead the probe and focus on abuse allegations against Catholic clergy and other faith leaders — many of which date back decades and involve religious officials who are now dead. Prosecutors will request documents from the dioceses and religious orders as part of the investigation. 

Wisconsin is home to five dioceses and religious orders such as the Norbertines. 

45 dead in stampede at Israeli religious event

At least 45 people were killed and 150 more injured in a crush April 30 at a religious festival of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel, where tens of thousands of faithful had convened in one of the country’s largest events since the pandemic began.

The event, at Mount Meron, is the festival of Lag BaOmer, which features bonfires and dancing around the Galilee tomb of a second century rabbi.

According to witnesses, in an area of the complex where the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community of Toldos Aharon was holding its celebration, participants were pushing through a slippery staircase. Suddenly, a row of people fell to the floor, piling atop  one another. People were asphyxiated or trampled in the tightly packed corridor.

Evangelicals are losing their climate skepticism

White evangelicals have become more willing to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change over the past decade, according to a Climate Nexus poll, as reported by Religion News Service.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that just 28 percent of white evangelicals attributed global warming to human activity. In October 2020, though, 44 percent of them said climate change was due “mostly to human activities.” 

While they remain less concerned about the issue than other major American religious communities, the poll showed them to be closer to mainstream opinion than previously.

Abortion bills on huge upswing in U.S.

In the first four months of 2021, state lawmakers have introduced an incredible 536 abortion restrictions, including 146 bans, with 61 of those bills being signed into law.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization that tracks abortion bills in the states, assessed the situation in a report.  

Previously, 2011 was the most brutal year for abortion rights in recent history. In the 12 months after the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans enacted 92 abortion restrictions across 24 states, kicking off a “war on women” that shut down dozens of abortion clinics across the country and dominated the national political conversation through 2014.

Florida expands private school voucher program 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 11 signed into law a $200 million school choice plan that will allow about 61,000 new students to become eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers that will help families pay for private tuition and other education expenses.

The measure is a continuation of a decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida, a move Republicans support and most Democrats have fought as they advocate for more oversight and accountability for private schools that get state-funded vouchers.

The law, which takes effect July 1, will allow families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 to qualify for awards, up from the current $79,500 threshold. And students will no longer need to attend a public school before receiving a state voucher.

Christian school seeks ‘ministerial exception’ 

A 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on May 11 took up a case to test the limits of an exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious schools.

Faith Christian Academy in Colorado claims the exemption should apply broadly to “teachers, chaplains and other leaders,” according to a report by Reuters.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty will urge the panel to rule that the “ministerial exception” shields the school from a former faculty member’s claims that he was fired for organizing a chapel service focused on combating racism.

A federal judge in Denver earlier had said a jury should decide whether the exception applied to Gregory Tucker, who was the director of student life at Faith Christian Academy, and denied the school’s motion for summary judgment in his 2019 lawsuit.

German Catholics bless gay unions despite ban

Germany’s Catholic progressives openly defied a recent Vatican ruling that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country in mid-May, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The blessings at open worship services are the latest pushback from German Catholics against a document released in March by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”

Pope Francis, who has championed a more decentralized church structure, reminded the German hierarchy that it must remain in communion with Rome during its reform process.”

Study: Young Jews are moving to opposite views

A new survey of U.S. Jews shows the group’s youngest adults are increasingly dividing in polar-opposite directions: secularism and orthodoxy, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The study from Pew Research Center is a follow-up to its 2013 study, and many of the trends outlined have remained constant. U.S. Jews represent 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, a slight rise from 2.2 percent in 2013.

Nearly three-quarters of Jews identify as Jews by religion (73 percent), but a growing number do not consider themselves religiously Jewish (27 percent), instead identifying as Jewish ethnically, culturally or by ancestry. 

This group is particularly large among Jews ages 18 to 29, where 40 percent consider themselves Jews of no religion. While Orthodox Jews represent 9 percent of the overall American Jewish population, the survey found, they represent 17 percent among the 18 to 29 age group.

Conviction overturned in ‘holy spirit’ case

A federal appeals court on May 5 overturned the conviction of former Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, ruling that a judge was wrong to remove a juror in her trial who said the “holy spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-4 decision, said that Brown, who was found guilty in 2017 on 18 felony counts connected to using a phony charity as a personal slush fund, deserved a new trial on the corruption charges.

Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the majority, said the decision of a district judge to remove the juror after deliberations had already begun in the trial was wrong because there was no evidence that the juror had engaged in misconduct or would have ultimately held out against a conviction.

“Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens,” Pryor wrote. “The removal of Juror No. 13 — a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her — deprived her of one.”