Switzerland plans cautious easing of pandemic lockdown from March

By John Revill and John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland plans to make its first “cautious steps” towards ending its coronavirus lockdown next month, the government said on Wednesday, contrasting with neighbors that are sticking with many restrictions.

In the first step, shops, museums and libraries are due to reopen from March 1. Zoos, gardens and sports facilities will also be reopened, with a final decision to come on Feb. 24.

Ministers have been caught being caught between health experts supporting stricter limits and struggling businesses calling for a reopening, but an easing in the number of infections has allowed the government to change course.

“The efforts of the last few months are now paying off, the population has been very disciplined,” said Health Minister Alain Berset.

“New infections have halved within a month, so the situation is not so bad. We would all like to do more activities again, such as sports.”

With the initial reopening, private events with up to 15 people would also be allowed, said the government, up from the current limit of five.

Switzerland’s reopening contrasts with neighboring Austria which will decide on March 1 on a potential loosening of pandemic restrictions that happen around Easter, at the earliest.

“We’re taking a risk, but we think that’s acceptable as long as everybody plays along,” Berset told a press conference in Bern.

Additional easing from April 1 could follow if infections remain low, he added.

Measures to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic will push Switzerland into a 15.8 billion Swiss franc ($17.59 billion) deficit for 2020, due mainly to higher spending and lower tax receipts.

Still, the government said it would expand its spending to deal with the pandemic, which has so far claimed 9,128 lives.

It has decided to expand support package for large companies hit hard by the crisis, ramping up a compensation scheme to 10 billion francs, from 5 billion francs previously.

($1 = 0.8981 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by John Revill and John Miller, editing by Mihcael Shields)

Protective gear, cellphone, video chats: How America’s clergy minister to COVID-19 patients

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Reverend Manuel Dorantes closed his eyes, took a breath to calm his fear and prayed when word came that Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich had put out a call for volunteers.

Cupich, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, needed two dozen young priests to take on the sacred duty of administering the last rites to those dying from the new and highly contagious coronavirus.

For the priests, like doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, it means putting their lives at risk to care for the sick in hospitals.

“I know the consequences,” said Dorantes, 36. “We are called to do this.”

Throughout history, priests and other clergy have risked their lives ministering to the dying through population-decimating plagues and on the battlefields of wars.

But in the face of COVID-19, which has killed more than 150,000 people worldwide and about 33,000 in the United States, the Vatican last month waived the requirement for in-person worship and sacraments, including a special dispensation for believers who cannot receive the last rites.

Many faiths and denominations in America have taken similar unprecedented actions, as the coronavirus has upended one of the most sacred duties of clergy of most major faiths – ministering to the dying and comforting the bereaved.

The disease has forced clergy to rely on technology. Cell phones or iPads are held at the bedsides of very ill patients by nurses and orderlies.

During funerals, they preach to empty pews during services shared using sites such as Zoom and FaceTime. Graveside prayers can be attended by the barest few, sometimes just three mourners.

For clergy, this is the new normal, said United Methodist Bishop Thomas Bickerton, a member of the denomination’s ruling council of bishops, which has halted in-person worship services.

JUMP SUITS AND MASKS

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, said many hospitals won’t allow bedside visits by anyone, including clergy.

“We don’t even bother to ask,” said Kirshner, 46, who leads a conservative congregation of about 800 families. “It’s too dangerous.”

But the rabbi asks nurses or orderlies to hold an iPad so patients can see it. They then pray together. “It’s very, very important that we at least offer that.”

Some burials that under Jewish tradition should be held within a day have to wait a week or more, the rabbi said, in places where cemeteries and funeral homes are beyond capacity.

One Muslim imam said many funeral homes in the United States are no longer allowing the Islamic ritual of washing the body before burial, for fear of spreading the disease.

“For the family it’s tough because they cannot mourn the same,” Daoud Nassimi, an imam in Washington D.C., told the online publication Middle East Eye.

About 3 million Americans identify as members of the Episcopalian Church, which is largely relying on video chats and phone calls by priests to make that last connection with those on the brink of death, according to Reverend Lorenzo Librija of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

A few weeks ago, he came up with a plan to organize the effort. It is called “Dial-a-Priest” and is aimed at helping people who do not have a relationship with a local church, but still want to receive the last rites.

“We picked that name because it’s easy to remember and easy to Google,” said Librija.

His group has about 100 retired ministers who have volunteered to man telephones around the clock, ready to give the ritual ministration of death from the Book of Common Prayer.

The Archdiocese of Chicago, with its 24-member last rites team, is one of the few places in the nation where in-person visits to patients near death have continued in hospitals.

Dorantes, pastor of Chicago’s Saint Mary of the Lake parish, said he has conducted several bedside rituals since he volunteered in late March.

He and the other priests don protective jump suits and N95 respirator masks. Wearing gloves, they take a dab of blessed oil and make the sign of the cross on the patient’s forehead and hands using a Q-tip.

“Laying on of hands and anointing, this is the sacrament of the church, a visible sign of invisible grace,” he said. “I could see it in their eyes, incredible moments of grace.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

President Trump signs Religious Liberty Executive Order on National Day of Prayer

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017.

By Kami Klein

On the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence signed a new executive order focusing on Religious Liberty.  White House officials declared “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”  Today, President Trump made good on his promise to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

Many friends of Morningside were already in Washington D.C. for the National Day of Prayer. Prophetic and influential leaders such as Paula White, Jentezen Franklin, Samuel Rodriguez, Pastor Ramiro Pena, Franklin Graham and Anne Graham were there for this historic moment.  Also in attendance were Alveda King, Ravi Zachariah, Rev. Maldonado, Dr. David Jeremiah, Dr. Jim Garlow and Pastor Frank Amedia.

In a signing ceremony at the White House, President Trump said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more.”  The President continued by saying, “ No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

This executive order will allow non-profit organizations, hospitals, educational institutions and businesses to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons.  An example of this would be Christian Groups like Little Sisters of the Poor from being forced to pay for abortion or contraception services.

Under the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, organizations that are non-profit, tax exempt status are not allowed to participate in political campaigning or supporting any one candidate for elective office.   Trump’s order guides the IRS to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.”

A White House official told Fox News, “I think how the President feels about the Johnson amendment is that politicians and unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t have the power to shut up their critics just because they are church leaders or charities.”

“We don’t have any plans to discriminate, we’re about not discriminating against religious organizations!”

The following is the full text of Trump’s Executive Order :  

 

PROMOTING FREE SPEECH AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom. Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.

Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

Sec. 3. Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate. The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.

Sec. 4. Religious Liberty Guidance. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.

Sec. 5. Severability. If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

 

Sources:  Fox news, Reuters, CNN, CNBC, Washington Examiner