1. Aid for Immigrants on Desert Trek Stirs Religion-Freedom Fight, ‘Trespasser’ group in court trying to toss federal charges over their relief effort.

By Jacob Gershman, Wall Street Journal Online, December 6, 2018, 5:30 AM

A federal magistrate judge in Arizona is deciding whether a group of border-aid volunteers accused of trespassing on a national wildlife refuge near Mexico has a religious right to help immigrants making dangerous treks across the Sonoran Desert.

The nine defendants—mostly 20-something volunteers for a relief group associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson—admit they lacked permits when they ventured into the desert in pickup trucks loaded with jugs of water and cans of beans. But they argue that they were on a sacred mission to save human lives.

The defendants say they didn’t get permission to enter the refuge because of new rules adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forbidding Cabeza Prieta visitors from leaving behind food, water bottles, blankets, medical supplies or other personal possessions.

A central question in the case is whether the defendants are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan law signed by President Clinton in 1993.

Under the statute, the federal government may not hinder a person from exercising sincerely held religious beliefs without a compelling and unavoidable reason.

Department of Justice lawyers say enforcement of the permit rules serves important government interests: protecting the wilderness character of Cabeza Prieta—the third largest national wildlife refuge in the continental U.S.—and deterring illegal immigration. Accommodating the relief workers would lead to a flood of religious-exemption requests that would create regulatory chaos and threaten wildlife, the government has argued.


2. Federal contract with HIV research hub is facing threat, Conservatives, abortion foes aligned with Trump target fetal tissue studies.

By Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post, December 6, 2018, Pg. A18

The Trump administration has thrown into doubt a multimillion-dollar research contract to test new treatments for HIV that relies on fetal tissue — work targeted by antiabortion lawmakers and social conservatives aligned with the president.

The turmoil over the National Institutes of Health contract with the University of California at San Francisco is part of a building battle between conservatives opposed to research using fetal tissue and scientists who say the material is vital to developing new therapies for diseases such as AIDS and Parkinson’s.

Since President Trump took office, congressional conservatives and antiabortion activists have ratcheted up pressure on the administration to stop government support of fetal tissue research. They contend that such studies use what they characterize as “body parts” from “unborn babies” and that alternatives exist.

The tissue comes from elective abortions. Researchers say its use has not led to an increase in the prevalence of abortion and has spurred scientific advances that could not have been made otherwise.


3. Republicans are taxing churches. Really.

By E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, December 6, 2018, Pg. A27, Opinion

Republicans tax churches to help pay for big corporate giveaway.

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a headline from the Onion or the fantasy of some left-wing website. But it’s exactly what happened in the big corporate tax cut the GOP passed last year.

Now — under pressure from churches, synagogues and other nonprofits — embarrassed leaders of a party that casts itself as religious liberty’s last line of defense are trying to fix a provision that is a monument to both their carelessness and their hypocrisy.

The authors of the measure apparently didn’t even understand what they were doing — or that’s their alibi to faith groups now. It’s not much of a defense. And the fact that Republicans increased the tax burden on nonprofits, including those tied to religion, so they could shower money on corporations and the wealthy shows where their priorities lie.

At stake is a provision in the $1.5 trillion Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that directed not-for-profits of all kinds — houses of worship but also, for example, universities, museums and orchestras — to pay a 21 percent tax on certain fringe benefits for their employees, such as parking and meals.


4. Secular groups ring in season by taking on Nativity scenes.

By Valerie Richardson, The Washington Times, December 6, 2018, Pg. A1

For as long as anyone can remember, a Nativity scene has been displayed during the Christmas season in front of the public library in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, but not this year.

After Americans United for Separation of Church and State dangled the threat of a lawsuit, the borough agreed reluctantly to end the tradition this year. The scene has since found a new home on Main Street outside the Emmaus Moravian Church.

For atheist and secular rights groups, the holiday season has become the busiest time of the year as they ring in the winter solstice by taking on public Christmas and Hanukkah displays seen as violating church-state separation.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her organization has handled hundreds, if not thousands, of such cases over its 40-year history. The foundation now has nine attorneys and two legal assistants on staff.

“All we do in December is this kind of thing,” said Ms. Gaylor. “People will be driving past their city hall on Christmas Eve and send us an email with a picture because they’re offended. It goes on all through December and into January.”


5. Pope to visit UAE for February interfaith meeting.

By The Associated Press, December 6, 2018 6:40 AM

Pope Francis plans to visit the United Arab Emirates in February, adding another trip to an already busy 2019 for foreign travel.

The Vatican said Thursday that Francis would be participating in an interfaith meeting during the Feb. 3-5 trip to Abu Dhabi.

The theme of the trip is peace, with the logo featuring a dove carrying an olive branch, suggesting Francis will be making a strong appeal for Christian-Muslim dialogue and peace in the region.

The 81-year-old Francis will make the trip just a week after returning home from Panama, where he is due to visit Jan. 22-27 to participate in the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day rally.

In March, Francis is due to travel to Morocco, while a 2019 trip to Japan is also under consideration.


6. Australian archbishop cleared of child sex abuse cover-up.

By The Associated Press, December 6, 2018

An Australian appeal court on Thursday overturned a conviction against the most senior Catholic cleric ever found guilty of covering up child sex abuse.

New South Wales state District Court Judge Roy Ellis upheld former Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s appeal against his May conviction in a lower court for concealing the sexual abuse of two altar boys by a pedophile priest in the 1970s. Ellis found there was reasonable doubt that the 68-year-old cleric had committed the crime, which is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Wilson has served almost four months of a year-long home detention sentence at his sister’s house outside Newcastle. He was to become eligible for parole after serving six months.
The judge also dismissed a prosecution appeal against the leniency of the sentence.


7. Pro-Choice Caucus Preps for Democratic Majority, Members hope to push back on abortion.

By Sandhya Raman, Roll Call, December 5, 2018, 11:15 AM

An influential House caucus hopes to use the Democrats’ majority next year to counteract Republican efforts to restrict abortion and family planning, although the group still faces an uphill battle against a Republican Senate and administration with strong ties to the anti-abortion lobby.

The Pro-Choice Caucus has been recently overshadowed by its conservative rival, the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, which counts Republican leadership and lawmakers from the influential Freedom Caucus among its members.

The past eight years of Republican House leadership provided ample opportunities to push for bills that limit abortion, though House-passed bills like a 20-week abortion ban faced hurdles to Senate passage.


8. Pope expresses condolences for death of former President Bush.

By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, December 5, 2018, 8:18 AM

Pope Francis expressed his condolences for the death of the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent a telegram to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, telling him the pope was “saddened to learn of the death” of the former president.

“Pope Francis offers heartfelt condolences and the assurance of his prayers to all the Bush family,” he said in the telegram published by the Vatican Dec. 5.

“Commending President Bush’s soul to the merciful love of almighty God, His Holiness invokes upon all who mourn his passing the divine blessings of strength and peace,” Cardinal Parolin wrote.