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Freethinking news you may have missed in August

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Labor Day News 23 ALG SQ Freethinking news you may have missed in August

Pope Francis: Ricardo Stuckert / CC 2.0
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick: World Economic Forum / Andy Mettler / CC 2.0

In case you were recently vacationing, here’s a quick recap of news of interest to freethinkers and secularists that you may have missed. 

Disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick evades prosecution. It was announced last week that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 93, has dementia and therefore will not stand trial for charges that he sexually assaulted a teenaged boy in 1974 during a wedding reception at Wellesley College and on other occasions. McCarrick is the highest-ranking American Roman Catholic official to face criminal charges for sexual abuse. “In spite of the criminal court’s decision today, many clergy sexual abuse victims feel as though former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is and will always be the permanent personification of evil within the Catholic Church,” commented attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents the survivor. The Vatican defrocked McCarrick in 2019 following an investigation finding that he sexually molested adults and children, and had fondled a man in 1977 at a cabin in Lake Geneva, Wis. This April, McCarrick was charged with sexually assaulting that 18-year-old man in Wisconsin. The accuser said McCarrick had repeatedly sexually abused him since he was 11, even horrifyingly sharing him with other abusers at parties.

McCarrick may indeed have dementia, but it is the institutional cover-up and countenancing of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy that is truly demented. Those who have covered up such abuse, not just the abusers, must be prosecuted in order for justice to prevail and the abuse to stop.

Don’t give the pope too much credit. While it’s always satisfying to witness some internecine squabbling between top Roman Catholic officials, don’t give Pope Francis too much credit for his recent remarks about “reactionary” U.S. Catholics. The pope, at a private meeting with Portuguese Catholics in Lisbon in early August, reportedly commented to a priest asking about hostility to the pope’s leadership on the part of many U.S. Catholic officials: “You have seen that in the United States, the situation is not easy: There is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized, and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.” 

The pope’s most vocal U.S. critics favor traditional worship. They also dislike the pope’s “Who am I to judge?” comment in 2013 about gay priests — wherein the pope notably followed up his remark that no one “should be discriminated against” by calling homosexuality a “sin.” Most of the differences between the pope and his critics are about form, not substance. Pope Francis was selected to be liberal window-dressing after the doctrinaire Pope Benedict had stirred up too much internal dissension, and in carrying out that charade, Pope Francis has rubbed some traditionalists the wrong way.

But no doctrine has changed since Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s promotion to pope. At the upcoming year-long Synod of Bishops in Rome, he didn’t even place the crisis of the endemic, institutionalized sexual abuse of minors by church officials on the agenda — an obscene dereliction. The pope is all talk, no action. What’s new?

USA becomes tourist pariah due to anti-LGBTQ states. The Canadian government last week issued an advisory against travel to the United States by LGBTQ-plus individuals, thanks to more than 20 states passing hostile legislation. 

“Some states have enacted laws and policies that may affect 2SLGBTQI+ persons,” reads the announcement. “Check relevant state and local laws.” (The prefix “2S” means”two-spirit,” an Indigenous term for an individual with both a masculine and a feminine spirit.) At least 500 pieces of legislation have been introduced this year alone in the United States to limit or revoke rights for LGBTQ-plus people, with at least 75 enacted, according to Human Rights Campaign, and corroborated by the work of FFRF Action Fund. These assaults are almost entirely led by groups with religious missions. Asks the director of an LGBTQ rights group in Toronto about U.S. travel: “Is this the best place to spend my money?”

What a black eye for the United States — but we shouldn’t be surprised. Already, the NAACP has advised that Florida is openly hostile to African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ-plus individuals. Human Rights Watch seconded this earlier this summer when it declared a “State of Emergency” for LGBTQ-plus American travelers due to the unprecedented legislative assaults. This is a scary time in American history, especially for young LGBTQ-plus persons.

White Christian nationalism and racism. White Christians are the most apt to view claims about nonexistent racial discrimination as a bigger problem than actual racism, according to Pew Research Center. Seventy-two percent of white evangelists, 60 percent of white Catholics and a slight majority, 54 percent, of white mainline Protestants, believe nonexistent racism, not actual racism, is the biggest problem. It’s distressing that even 35 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans and 31 percent of non-Christian religious Americans also agreed with that backward assessment, but these are still the largest blocs to detect racism (aside from Black believers).

“Among white unaffiliated adults, 61 percent say people not seeing racial discrimination where it does exist is the larger problem for the country, while 39 percent say the opposite,” a Pew spokesperson told Religion News Service. “Among non-white unaffiliated adults, 71 percent say overlooking racial discrimination is the bigger issue, compared with 29 percent who give the opposite answer.”

We just passed the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, but sadly attitudes have not changed much in this nation. It’s clear religion is not the answer; rather it gets in the way of combating racist attitudes when it’s not actively promoting white supremacy (as happens with Christian nationalists).

Clarence Thomas’ inadequate non-mea culpa. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in late August released his 2022 financial disclosure form that actually reported on some of the gifts he has received, including three trips on billionaire and GOP megadonor Harlan Crow’s jet. Thomas justified using Crow’s jet for a roundtrip jaunt because of “increased security risk” following the leak of the high court’s abortion opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. One trip was part of his usual Adirondacks vacation — all expenses paid by Crow. Thomas excused the fact that he didn’t disclose the 2014 purchase by Crow of Thomas’ mother’s home (which Crow has improved, pays for and where she still lives) because it was a “capital loss.” The justice also contends that he wasn’t derelict in reporting decades of freebies, including  vacations around the world on Crow’s luxury yacht, because only this year did the judicial conference clarify its rule on personal hospitality.

As FFRF has repeatedly pointed out, the Supreme Court appears incapable of policing itself. That’s why Congress must pass the Supreme Court Ethics and Transparency Act.

What will become of women in Afghanistan, Iran . . . and Israel? Where patriarchal religion rules, women beware! It’s been two years since the Taliban regained power after the disastrous American pullout. The Guardian reports that “thousands of female fugitives still live in fear and poverty,” having served in the Afghan military system under the previous government. Gender apartheid and persecution, what the U.N. Human Rights Council calls “a crime against humanity,” has made Afghanistan the worst place to be female, who are once again sentenced to burqas and house arrest, and a ban on almost all education for girls. Heartbreaking.

The first anniversary of the criminal death of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 16, is approaching. It is chilling to know that ahead of that anniversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran has expedited arrests not only of women’s rights activists, but Amini’s family members. Between 300–500 people, including more than 40–70 children, have died, and thousands arrested in a year of massive nationwide protests. There have been seven executions of demonstrators, according to the United Nations. It was first exhilarating to watch from afar the street protests — with women waving their oppressive hijabs over their heads, hair blowing free — and then horrifying to witness the brutal crackdowns. Ten months after Amini’s death, the so-called “morality police” have resumed enforcing female submission.  

Now, women’s rights are at risk in another religion-led Middle Eastern country: Israel. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cynical coalition with extremist and ultra-Orthodox parties, women’s political empowerment ranking in that country has dropped below Pakistan’s. Already, the Orthodox rabbinical courts decide divorce for all Jews, where only men can formally dissolve a marriage. A bill has been proposed to expand the reach of the rabbinical courts, who allow no female judges. Kudos to the thousands and hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been marching for months against Netanyahu’s power grab. Women there warn, “Our rights will be harmed first.” 

But let’s end with some good news. . .

Big shoutout to Penn. Gov. Josh Shapiro for his leadership. Late last week, Gov. Josh Shapiro announced that the state plans to end its 29-year contract with a nonprofit group funding anti-abortion centers. Last year alone, Real Alternatives received about $7 million in taxpayer dollars, which it distributed to more than 70 anti-abortion counseling centers. Almost 30 years ago, at the instigation of anti-abortion Democrat Gov. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania became the first state to fund Real Alternatives. The public largesse has been distributed ever since to various anti-abortion groups, including to Catholic Charities and so-called crisis pregnancy centers. 

While this is a great victory, taxpayer monies continue to flow to anti-abortion groups in other states, such as Tennessee, which recently approved $20 million funding for a grant program. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed doubling funds for crisis pregnancy centers, to $1 million. The Florida Legislature has increased the funding available in the Sunshine State from $4.5 million to a whopping $25 million. Associated Press reports that Arkansas and West Virginia will be spending $1 million on anti-abortion counseling centers in the next fiscal year. Crisis pregnancy centers invariably have a Christian mission behind them. It’s particularly lamentable to see state legislatures that have passed abortion bans siphon millions of taxpayer funds to anti-abortion groups cashing in on the deprivation of basic reproductive rights. (FFRF Contributing Writer Barbara Alvarez has written frequently about deceptive crisis pregnancy centers.)

In other good news, Colorado lawmakers have made it a “deceptive trade practice” for a group to advertise that they offer abortion care or emergency contraceptives when they do not. A similar Illinois law was unfortunately blocked by a Trump-appointed federal judge just last month. However, Massachusetts has allocated $1 million for a public education campaign warning about misleading claims by crisis pregnancy centers. And in Vermont, such centers will be subject to consumer protection laws barring deceptive advertising, pending litigation.

So, folks, roll up your sleeves. We who value reason and our secular Constitution have a lot of work to do this fall gearing up for 2024.

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