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Coronavirus keeps volunteers away, but Arkansas Catholic Charities plans help for tornado victims

Little Rock, Ark., Mar 31, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- An EF3 tornado blew through Jonesboro, Arkansas, this week, and although no deaths have been reported, Catholic Charities of Arkansas is gearing up to help those whose livelihoods will be affected by the disaster.

Patrick Gallaher, director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas, told CNA that he anticipates that their involvement with the disaster in Jonesboro will involve long term case management to help uninsured and underinsured families recover and settle into permanent housing.

Typically, with a tornado like this, Catholic Charities will work with Habitat for Humanity to help get underinsured people into a Habitat for Humanity house, he said.

“We have been in contact with the parish in Jonesboro, Blessed Sacrament Church, and with their local Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council, but have not received any reports of damage or need at this moment. Once we begin receiving information from Jonesboro, we will be able to craft a response to meet the specific needs,” Gallaher said.

The tornado damaged nearly 200 structures, including several factories. Governor Asa Hutchinson has declared a state disaster and the state is seeking a federal designation from the national government.

Though Catholic Charities of Arkansas is not part of the immediate emergency response, Gallaher clarified, first responders in the county, with state assistance, have set up an emergency shelter with care being taken not to spread the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Craigshead County, where Jonesboro is located, has eight confirmed COVID-19 cases. The state as a whole has around 500.

Gallaher said the main difficulties in helping victims of the tornado is a lack of volunteers and funds amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Most of my volunteers, my disaster volunteers, are elderly people. And I wasn't even going to call them, I don't want to take a chance," Gallaher told CNA.

He also noted that fundraising has been made more difficult by the suspension of public Masses in the Diocese of Little Rock.

About three percent of the state's population is undocumented immigrants, who will not be eligible for federal or state unemployment assistance, Gallaher said. With Jonesboro as a manufacturing hub, and much of the city's factory capacity destroyed, Gallaher said he expects Catholic Charities will likely start receiving requests for assistance with food.

“I expect that as the protocols put in place to contain the epidemic continue, we will be hearing from families unable to meet their daily needs because of lack of employment. Although the federal and state response regarding unemployment insurance and direct payments will help most, there will be a segment of our population that is ineligible and will need assistance,” Gallaher said.

Kentucky AG aims to declare abortion 'non-essential' under coronavirus bans

CNA Staff, Mar 31, 2020 / 06:30 pm (CNA).- Kentucky’s attorney general has joined the national controversy over whether abortion clinics can continue to operate at a time when other surgeries and procedures have been canceled or delayed to conserve medical resources to combat the novel coronavirus.

“Abortion providers should join the thousands of other medical professionals across the state in ceasing elective procedures, unless the life of the mother is at risk, to protect the health of their patients and slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron said March 27.

The attorney general has asked Kentucky’s Acting Secretary of Health and Family Services Eric Friedlander to certify that abortion providers are not essential under the governor's executive order barring non-essential medical procedures. The certification is necessary to act against any abortion clinics in violation.

According to Cameron, the certification would advance the goals of conserving medical supplies and advancing the “social distancing” deemed necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

“Acting Secretary Friedlander is on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am confident that he understands, better than anyone, the necessity of ending abortion procedures during this health crisis,” Cameron said. “His certification will immediately trigger action by our office to stop elective procedures during the pandemic.”

The only remaining abortion clinic in the state is EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. It continues to perform abortions.

Cameron, the current attorney general, is a Republican. He made the request to the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, who was Kentucky Attorney General from 2016 to 2019.
Beshear campaigned on a pro-abortion rights position and defeated deeply controversial incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by about 5,000 votes in the November 2019 elections.

State legislators have proposed a bill to allow the attorney general's office to proceed with legal action without a certification from the health and family services department, the CBS affiliate WLKY reports.

The State Senate could consider the legislation, House Bill 451, on Wednesday. A floor amendment could bar abortions during the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

CNA contacted the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

Federal judges in Texas, Alabama, and Ohio on Monday halted state rules that would limit or halt entirely abortions during the coronavirus pandemic on the grounds they are non-essential surgeries. On Tuesday the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily reinstated the Texas rule.

Indiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa have similarly acted to limit abortions. A hearing on the Iowa law is pending and the others too could be challenged in court.

For their part, officials in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oregon have said abortions may continue.

In Utah, judgment about the medical necessity of an abortion will be left to the doctor, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health told the pro-abortion rights website Rewire News.

 

Maine priest encourages 'Pine Sunday' where there are no palms

Portland, Maine, Mar 31, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- With public Masses cancelled across the United States, ahead of Palm Sunday this weekend, some Maine Catholics are being encouraged to adopt a substitute devotional practice: pine branches. 

Traditionally, Catholics receive blessed palm branches during Mass on Palm Sunday, this year celebrated on 5 April, to mark Christ’s arrival into Jerusalem and the start of Holy Week. That will not happen this year, due to the coronavirus outbreak and the nationwide suspension of public Masses.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be blessing any palms in this year’s celebration because we won’t be able to process with them, nor can we distribute them so that you can place blessed palms in your home after Mass,” said Fr. Louis Phillips of the Diocese of Portland (ME) said. 

Instead, he has suggested to his parishioners at his three parishes to go outside--in a socially-distant manner--and clip a small pine branch to place behind a crucifix.

Phillips dubbed the idea “Pine Sunday,” and he is encouraging it among Catholics at St. Anne Parish in Gorham, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham. 

He told CNA that the idea of people came from a conversation he had with friends living in Florida. He realized that they would be able to grab a palm--albeit a non-blessed palm--from one of the naturally growing palm trees, and place it in their homes. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, too bad we don’t have any palm trees in Maine,’” said Phillips. “Then I got to thinking. I was looking outside, and thinking ‘but we do have plenty of pine trees.’” 

Maine’s official state nickname is “The Pine Tree State” and the trees are ubiquitous throughout the region.

“So I got to thinking that the people of Jesus’ time when they welcomed Him into Jerusalem that day, that first Palm Sunday, what they were doing in essence was laying out a red carpet for him,” said Phillips. Palm branches were readily available in Jerusalem, he explained, so they were a natural choice.

Phillips said that he hopes the presence of the pine branch will serve as a reminder of the Passion of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross, as well as a remembrance of the unusual time that was Lent 2020. 

“I think this will be a Holy Week that none of us will forget, but that might just bring to mind the blessings and the challenges that we're facing today. Maybe when we look back on it in retrospect in months to come, we'll find some meaning in it all,” said Phillips. 

“So I thought maybe those pine branches could help do that, and still connect us really not only with the events of Holy Week but connect us with one another. If we kind of do this collectively, even though we are separated physically, there's something to be said when still we come together to pray together and celebrate our faith together through this simple thing,” he added.

The palms that were set to be delivered and distributed to the parishioners at Phillips’ three parishes will instead be used to decorate the church where Mass is live-streamed. Phillips said that this year, pine branches will also be a part of those decorations. 

At least one other priest in Maine has endorsed the concept of “Pine Sunday” for this year.

Fr. Seamus Griesbach, the director of vocations for the Diocese of Portland, approved of the “Pine Sunday” idea, and thought it was an excellent substitute for the traditional Palm Sunday tradition. 

“I was like, that is an awesome idea,” said Griesbach, when he learned of Phillips’ suggestion. 

YouTube, Griesbach said, half-jokingly, that the process of clipping a pine branch could also be a way to promote handwashing, as pine sap is incredibly sticky. 

“That stuff is nasty, it never comes off,” said Griesbach. “If you can wash that pine sap off your hands, you know that the coronavirus certainly isn’t surviving.” 

How college students can spend their time during the coronavirus

Denver, Colo., Mar 31, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- The coronavirus pandemic has led colleges across the country to close their dorms, and offer classes online. As students return home with time on their hands, Catholics involved in campus ministry have offered advice on how to spend this time wisely.

Father John Ignatius, SJC, who served as chaplain at the University of Denver, and Peter Nguyen, a FOCUS missionary for Harvard University, have emphasized the important role of community, spiritual life, and charitable actions amidst quarantine.

Ignatius, who also leads the Servants of Christ Jesus religious community, told CNA that displaced students should prioritize prayer, community, and exercise, while making efforts to limit their screen time.

“It'll be so easy to binge on episodes [on] Netflix. [They should] decrease screen time and extracurricular time to be more relational,” Fr. Ignatius said.

“College students would do well to stay in touch with each other via phones … Hopefully it's a live conversation by phone or by Skype or FaceTime or any of the mediums you're actually having face time with peers that are at a distance.”

Fr. Ignatius said displaced students should also make time for charity, especially by picking up the phone.

“Just consider the consolation and the blessing that a grandson or a granddaughter could give to someone who's isolated and scared. It makes all the difference in the world to have just a 15 or 20 minute conversation with the grandparents and just think beyond one's own interests,” he said.

The priest added that students might also consider offering virtual tutoring to children they know have been displaced from school, or, if local laws permit it, offering snacks or essentials to homeless people while taking a walk.

Fr. Ignatius emphasized that the pandemic is an opportunity to reignite a neglected prayer life. He suggested students might pray the Liturgy of the Hours, or spend time reading scripture. He also pointed to resources from groups like FOCUS, which have made spiritual resources available online.

Nguyen, the FOCUS missionary, also stressed the importance of reinvigorating a prayer life, noting that too much free-time can become its own kind distraction from prayer. He said during these difficult times, it is important to rely on the Lord.

“I think the notion of free time is a little scary because [in] school they have all these activities and they have classes and they have their  sacramental life ….It's scheduled out and so there's a certain safety and security in order that we as Catholics know is there,” Nguyen told CNA.

“If we're in the crucible right now with the Lord, the one thing that will help sustain us is daily conversation and prayer with him.”

Nguyen pointed to some of the virtual options the students have available for them at Harvard. He said FOCUS at the university has started online events, including Bible studies and virtual praise and worship sessions, which last Sunday drew around 200 hundreds views from students.

“We believe the word of God is so effective, especially in this trying time. I think … people are kind of longing for a sense of spiritual nourishment,” he said.

While FOCUS has launched its discipleship program online as well, he said, the most important aspect is to focus on accountability and personal investment through consistent contact with these students, Nguyen said..

“In this time, we're still doing virtual things in order to continue to minister to our students who we encourage to their friends through the use of Zoom and in conversation on the phone, et cetera… Personal investment is probably the most important thing that we can be doing right now,” he said.

 

Texas coronavirus abortion rule back in effect, after court grants stay

CNA Staff, Mar 31, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- A Texas order prohibiting most abortions during the novel coronavirus pandemic is temporarily back in effect, after the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a stay on a federal district court ruling on Tuesday.

After the Western District Court of Texas on Monday allowed elective abortions to continue in the state of Texas during the coronavirus pandemic through a restraining order, a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit issued the temporary stay on the district court’s ruling on Tuesday.

“UPDATE: Victory at 5th Circuit - Abortion ruling stayed!” tweeted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the result.

Paxton had previously filed for appellate review at the Fifth Circuit, after the Western District Court of Texas on Monday halted the state’s executive order from going into effect that would have restricted most abortions during the new coronavirus pandemic.

The stay issued by the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday will give the court more time to consider Texas’ executive order, the judges wrote. 

However, University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck saw the circuit court’s decision as a sign that the case will soon make its way to the Supreme Court. In 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court decided in favor of Louisiana’s abortion safety regulations, which require that an abortion doctor have admitting privilges at a nearby hospital. That case is now being considered by the Supreme Court.

Circuit court judge James Dennis dissented from the panel’s ruling, noting that “[a] federal judge has already concluded that irreparable harm would flow from allowing the Executive Order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued the executive order (GA 09) on March 22 halting non-essential surgeries and medical procedures during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in order to free up resources and medical personnel to treat COVID patients.

Abbott clarified that the order would apply to “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, filed an emergency lawsuit in a federal district court to continue elective abortions in Texas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the court granted a temporary restraining order to allow abortions to continue. Federal judges in Ohio and Alabama also halted similar state restrictions on elective abortions from going into effect.

Paxton then filed for appellate review at the Fifth Circuit court on Monday. He said in his petition to the Fifth Circuit that the district court’s decision “endangers lives and hinders the State of Texas’s efforts to combat the deadly novel coronavirus.”

“The State of Texas faces today its most serious public-health emergency in over a century,” he wrote, noting that the executive order halting non-essential surgeries and procedures was meant to conserve “personal protective equipment (PPE)” for the expected surge in new coronavirus patients at hospitals.

“Exempting abortions from the three-week pause that applies to everyone else would deplete scarce PPE, reduce hospital capacity, and risk spreading COVID-19 to hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals across the State,” he wrote.

Majority of Americans praying for end to coronavirus, survey finds

CNA Staff, Mar 31, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- A majority of Americans say they have prayed for an end to the novel coronavirus, including some who say they rarely or never pray, a new survey reports.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, published on Monday, 55% of Americans have prayed for an end to the pandemic, including slightly more than two-thirds (68%) of Catholics.

The survey of 11,537 U.S. adults was conducted between March 19 and 24, and asked Americans about their attitudes during the coronavirus outbreak, including their prayer life.

There are more than 823,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University, including more than 175,000 cases in the U.S.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were 2,860 deaths from the virus as of 4 p.m. EDT Monday.

According to the survey, 15% of those who “seldom or never pray” also say they have prayed for an end to the pandemic, and even 36% of those whose religion is “nothing in particular” say they have prayed about the virus.

In line with stay-at-home orders active in many places, the Pew survey also found fewer people are attending religious services in person; 59% of those who normally attend services at least once or twice per month said they had scaled back their attendence. But, among the same group, a simialry percentage —57%—reported watching religious services online or on TV during the pandemic instead of attending services in person.

And among Catholics who attended Mass at least once or twice a month, 55% said they have attended less often during the coronavirus, and 46% said they were watching Mass online or on TV instead of attending in person.

Catholic bishops around the country began suspending public masses in March, with the Seattle archdiocese as the first to do so on March 11, followed by all other dioceses in the U.S.

As bishops have halted public Masses during the pandemic, however, they have also exhorted Catholics to deepen their own prayer lives.

Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated on March 13 that “[n]ow is the time to intensify our prayers and sacrifices for the love of God and the love of our neighbor,” and called on Catholics to pray in unity with Pope Francis for the sick, health care workers, and civic leaders.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh issued a pastoral letter on March 20 “The Other Side of Corona,” noting that the mass closures of offices and schools, mass layoffs and the suspension of public Masses as a result of the coronavirus “is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with Jesus.” He called on Catholics to pray to God for protection from the virus and for comfort for all those afflicted.

Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia asked Catholics to join Pope Francis in prayer for an end to the pandemic on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation.

On March 27, Pope Francis gave an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, “to the city and the world,” from St. Peter’s Basilica during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love,” Pope Francis said during a holy hour that included Eucharistic adoration and the blessing.

Churches closed in Maryland, not Virginia, after governors’ orders

CNA Staff, Mar 31, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Baltimore has closed all churches to private prayer and instructed priests to only offer sacraments in cases of “impending death.”

The decision, announced Monday by Archbishop William Lori, is in response to the “Stay-at-Home” directive issued by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan on March 30. 

“Like Governor Hogan, I want to take every precaution and every step necessary to ensure the health of the people we serve,” Archbishop Lori said on Monday.

Under the stay-at-home order, all Marylanders are instructed to remain in their homes and may only leave for certain reasons, such as daily exercise, travelling for medical reasons, going to the grocery store and conducting other “essential” business. 

Churches and other houses of worship are not classified as “essential” by the Maryland order. 

As a result, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that all church buildings and offices in the archdiocese are to close, and priests are to cease the regular distribution of all sacraments, including confessions, until further notice. Until Monday, churches in the Baltimore archdiocese were permitted to open for private prayer, but only to for 10 people or less at a time.

“While no bishop wants to ever close a church to one seeking closeness to God," Lori said, "I pray that in doing so we prevent further suffering, further death and will be closer to the day when we can reopen our church doors to the people we so deeply love and miss.”

In a Facebook post on the official account for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, it was clarified that there would be no sacraments at this time and that priests were not allowed to privately meet with parishioners. 

“No confessions or other sacraments except in cases of impending death. No in-person appointments. All parish offices remain closed as well,” said the archdiocese.

Maryland Catholics are further prohibited from traveling to a nearby diocese that is still offering sacraments. According to Hogan’s website, “No Marylander should be traveling outside of the state unless such travel is absolutely necessary. Those who have traveled outside of the state should self-quarantine for 14 days.”

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., which also has parishes in Maryland, has yet to announce any new measures in response to the governor’s order. The archdiocese did not respond to a request from CNA for comment by the time of posting. 

A similar executive order in neighboring Virginia permits residents to travel to church. 

Places of worship are now listed as an acceptable reason for Virginians to leave their homes during a statewide stay-at-home directive. 

Executive Order Fifty-Five, also issued on Monday, from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, requires that Virginians remain at their homes and to practice social distancing if they do go outside. The Virginia order went into effect on March 30, and has an end date of June 10, although that may be shortened or extended if necessary. 

The executive order lists nine permissible reasons for people to leave their homes, including “Traveling to and from one’s residence, place of worship, or work.” 

However, places of worship are still not permitted to hold services with more than 10 people in attendance.

“All public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals are prohibited. This includes parties, celebrations, religious, or other social events, whether they occur indoor or outdoor,” said Northam in the order. 

Previously, an executive order from Northam did not include churches in a list of essential locations, and any “non-essential” business--including churches--found to have more than 10 people inside would be subject to criminal penalties. 

“Virginians are strongly encouraged to seek alternative means of attending religious services, such as virtually or via “drive-through” worship,” states a webpage of frequently asked questions about Executive Order 53 on the state government website. 

“Places of worship that do conduct in-person services must limit gatherings to 10 people, to comply with the statewide 10-person ban.”

Both of Virginia’s Catholic dioceses have already suspended the public celebration of Mass in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and parishes are instructed to allow no more than 10 worshippers in churches at any time. 

Parish buildings largely remain open for private prayer, and some parishes have continued to offer confessions while observing social distancing.

Federal judges stop states designating abortion 'non-essential'

CNA Staff, Mar 31, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Federal judges in Texas, Alabama, and Ohio on Monday halted state rules that would either limit or halt entirely certain abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal court for the Western District of Texas on Monday granted a temporary injunction against the state’s order designating most abortions in the state as non-essential procedures. Gov. Greg Abbott on March 22 signed an executive order that halted non-essential surgeries and medical procedures in the state, in order to free up resources for hospitals to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas state attorney general Ken Paxton clarified later that the order included most abortions as non-essential procedures, allowing only for abortions when the life or health of the mother was deemed to be at risk.

A coalition of abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Lawyering Project, filed a lawsuit against the executive order saying Paxton’s enforcement of the order was a “blatant effort to exploit a public health crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda.”

In two other states, Ohio and Alabama, federal judges stopped from going into effect similar state orders that abortions be stopped as non-essential procedures.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers have also sued to block similar orders in Iowa and Oklahoma.

On Monday, Paxton stated that he was “deeply disappointed” at the decision and would be seeking appellate review “to ensure that medical professionals on the frontlines have the supplies and protective gear they desperately need.” 

In a brief filed with the Western District Court of Texas on Monday, Abbott argued that the state “faces its worst public health emergency in over a century,” and that the governor’s order would help slow the spread of the coronavirus through unnecessary human contact and free up resources including personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers.

“But Plaintiffs—a collection of abortion clinics and one abortionist physician—ask this Court to grant them a special exemption, claiming a right to deplete or endanger precious PPE resources and hospital capacity in the name of providing abortions. They have no right to special treatment,” Paxton argued.

Dioceses announce staff cuts, but federal aid could help

Washington D.C., Mar 30, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- As Catholic dioceses and parishes begin to cut staff during the coronavirus pandemic, they could be eligible for unprecedented federal relief to keep their employees on their payrolls.

Bishops across the United States have suspended public liturgies and closed church buildings in response to state-issued public safety policies, and Catholic leaders have warned of an immediate revenue shortfall. Consequences of that shortfall include staff reductions, furloughs, and decreased hours.

The Diocese of Buffalo, which had already declared bankruptcy last year and announced plans for a reorganization, said on March 19 that it was “accelerating” the reorganization process for its Catholic Center. In all, 21 positions are being eliminated and three more positions moved from full-time to part-time staff.

Employees whose positions were eliminated are eligible to apply for unemployment compensation and will have health insurance until the end of April.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh had also begun a process of reorganizing before the coronavirus pandemic. A long-term decline in mass attendance and donations was exacerbated by new clergy sex abuse allegations made in the summer of 2018, and in 2019 the diocese began closing parishes and consolidating others.

On March 26, the diocese warned that “cost-cutting methods, including layoffs at the parish and diocesan level may be needed.” The diocesan newspaper, Pittsburgh Catholic, in continuous publication since 1844, saw all of its positions terminated and operations have been suspended indefinitely. The diocese also started an emergency fund.

Staffers at parishes in Pittsburgh and Trenton, New Jersey, meanwhile, told CNA that they had already been furloughed or laid off.

Riley McCullough, media coordinator for the Catholic Community of Wexford in the diocese of Pittsburgh, told CNA she had been furloughed on March 27.

“None of us are the exception to the impacts of this pandemic,” she said. “None of us are the exception to our lives being changed.”

On March 24, the Diocese of Joliet cut wages and hours for diocesan and parish employees, the Joliet Patch reported.

“Precipitating this decision are the anticipated losses in revenue to our parishes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the governmental restrictions undertaken to halt the spread of the disease,” the diocese stated. The action was also taken “to avoid laying off diocesan or parish employees as a result of the crisis,” the diocese stated.

In Boston, blogger Rocco Palmo tweeted on Sunday evening, the archdiocese has advised parishes to make long-term financial plans and that staffing reductions might be necessary, as the archdiocese could only provide them limited and temporary financial relief.

Many parishes are not equipped for online giving and dioceses are already facing hefty financial settlements for clergy sex abuse lawsuits. In the diocese of Pittsburgh, “only about 10% of our parishes are set up for online giving,” stated communications director Jennifer Antkowiak in a March 26 release. 

The diocese set up an emergency fund for the coronavirus crisis, as did other dioceses and archdioceses such as Trenton and Chicago. However, in anticipation of reduced incomes, dioceses and parishes have already begun cutting or furloughing staff.

But as dioceses across the country work to scale back payrolls, one lawyer who works with religious institutions says that new federal policies that could pay for employee leave and provide emergency loans to non-profits, and bishops and pastors should consider their options before making any major staffing decisions.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Eric Kniffin, a partner in the religious institutions practice group at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie law firm, told CNA on Monday. Congress is essentially subsidizing businesses and nonprofits to keep people on payroll, Kniffin said, “making extraordinary, unprecedented offers.”

Kniffin referred to two new laws passed by Congress before members left Washington, D.C. for the next several weeks, in the new coronavirus pandemic.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law on March 18, provides for up to 12 weeks of paid leave. It offers to pay the salary of workers on leave for 12 weeks and pay the employer’s share of health insurance premiums.

The government foots the bill, Kniffin stressed, by providing a tax credit to employers that covers their Medicare tax, their share of the employee’s health insurance premium, and the employee’s pay.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed Congress last Friday and signed into law by President Trump on March 27, makes small business loans available to non-profits at two-and-a-half times their monthly payroll, Kniffin said. 

The loans can turn into grants under certain conditions: if they are used to cover payroll, mortgage or rent, and utility payments, if they are spent within eight weeks of issuance, and if the employer maintains payroll for one year by keeping the same number of employees and not reducing wages by more than 25%.

Even if dioceses and parishes are not able to maintain these conditions over time, there are formulas to determine loan forgiveness, Kniffin said.

Under another provision of the law, taxpayers can make a $300 donation to the charity of their choice and use it as a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their 2020 taxes.

“These laws are brand new, and so of course it’s important to make sure how they apply to individual organizations,” he said. “But every ministry ought to take a close look at these before they start making big payroll decisions.”

NYC mayor threatens 'permanent' closure of churches defying coronavirus ban

CNA Staff, Mar 30, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday, March 27 threatened to “permanently” shut down houses of worship that continue to hold public services in violation of the city’s ban on gatherings of any size. 

The mayor cited a "small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues,” that are continuing to hold religious services despite a prohibition on anyone being within six feet of a person they do not live with. The restrictions were made in an attempt to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, which has infected thousands of New Yorkers and has killed over 1,000 people in the state. 

De Blasio warned that if these communities were found to be holding religious services, “our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.” 

The religious congregations would also be subject to other punishments for continued defiance of the stay-at-home order, de Blasio added. This “additional action” that would be taken includes fines, as well as “potentially closing the building permanently.”

Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, which cover all five boroughs of New York City, suspended the public celebration of Mass on March 14 and March 16, respectively. New York’s “stay-at-home” order was issued on March 22, and was recently extended through April 15. 

De Blasio’s threat to shut down religious buildings “permanently” provoked criticism from religious liberty experts, his legal authority to do so.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Further, the New York State Constitution states, “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind.” 

"Mayor de Blasio surely didn’t mean what he said, because there’s no way he or any other government official would ever have the power to shut down a church, synagogue, or mosque permanently,” said Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. 

Rienzi said that, given the context, the mayor “appears to be talking about the temporary need to ensure proper social distancing in a time of crisis,” which Rienzi said was a “valid governmental interest.” 

Rienzi called the phrasing of de Blasio’s comments “unfortunate,” and said they were not helping to soothe the fears of religious groups, particularly as those same religious groups are providing emergency relief work to those impacted by COVID-19. 

“Right now, we need religious groups and the government to continue working together to keep everyone as safe as possible,” said Rienzi. “The First Amendment will protect against any needless targeting of religious groups in a time of crisis.”