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Muslim-led parents’ group protests LGBT curriculum mandate in Maryland school system

Parental and religious freedom rights advocates, including a group of Muslim parents, on June 6, 2023, protest a Maryland school system policy that removes parents’ authority to opt their children out of homosexual and transgender coursework. / Credit: The Religious Freedom Institute

Washington D.C., Jun 8, 2023 / 09:30 am (CNA).

A group of Muslim parents joined parental and religious freedom rights advocates Tuesday to protest a Maryland school system’s new policy that removes the parents’ authority to opt their children out of coursework that promotes homosexuality and transgenderism.

The June 6 protest at the Montgomery County public school district’s headquarters was led by a group called Family Rights for Religious Freedom. About 50 parents and activists carried signs that read “family rights” and “restore the opt-out” while chanting slogans such as “protect our children” and “religious freedom now.”

Maryland law requires that school districts allow parents to opt out of coursework that deals with “family life and human sexuality.” However, the school district decided in March that it does not consider reading materials that discuss subjects related to homosexuality, transgenderism, and other aspects of gender ideology to be a part of “family life and human sexuality instruction.” 

For this reason, beginning on May 1, the school district no longer notifies parents of such material in the coursework and will not allow them to opt out.

“We don’t want to be put aside as basically irrelevant,” Wael Elkoshairi, who leads Family Rights for Religious Freedom, told CNA.

The school district has approved several books that discuss subjects related to homosexuality and transgenderism for students as young as 3 or 4 years old. This includes a book called “Pride Puppy!”, which seeks to teach children the alphabet through a story about a homosexual pride parade and introduces them to words like “drag queen,” “leather,” and “zipper.” It also introduces them to Marsha B. Johnson, who was a drag queen, a gay rights activist, and, temporarily, a prostitute. 

Elkoshairi told CNA that he had opted his daughter out of this type of coursework in the past, but the current policy will no longer allow him to do that. His daughter is in second grade.

“We were always afforded the right to opt out,” Elkoshairi said.

Elkoshairi emphasized that the rally was not anti-LGBT and that they did not protest the school district for introducing these books. He said their only request is to “allow us to opt out because the state of Maryland has that provision in it.”

“We’re not anti-LGBT, but we are pro-family rights [and] we are pro-religious freedom,” Elkoshairi added.

Family Rights for Religious Freedom began primarily with Muslim parents, but Elkoshairi said a lot of Christian groups have reached out to them and they are growing their coalition membership.

Lindsey Smith, a member of Moms for Liberty Montgomery County, which also took part in the event, told CNA that her organization teamed up with other parents “to rally with parents who are standing up for parental and religious rights to opt out of sexual orientation curriculum being used in English literature classes and social studies in pre-K and up.”

“So far the BOE has stated multiple times that they are standing firm in their decision to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion and not honor their own religious policy giving the rights to the parent to opt out of any sexual orientation teaching,” Smith added. “We will continue to empower parents and stand beside like-minded organizations making known that we do not co-parent with the government but that we are the parents and advocates for our children, not any educational governmental agency.”

Parental and religious freedom rights advocates, including a group of Muslim parents, on June 6, 2023, protest a Maryland school system policy that removes parents’ authority to opt their children out of homosexual and transgender coursework. Credit: The Religious Freedom Institute
Parental and religious freedom rights advocates, including a group of Muslim parents, on June 6, 2023, protest a Maryland school system policy that removes parents’ authority to opt their children out of homosexual and transgender coursework. Credit: The Religious Freedom Institute

Montgomery County is located within the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and is home to the largest public school district in the state of Maryland, with more than 160,000 students enrolled.

Some of the protesters testified about the policy at the school board meeting held at the site.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that protects the conscience of all people,” a former MCPS student who did not provide her full name testified to the board.

“Religion is not just private worship,” she continued. “It involves public expression on social and moral issues. … The issue of gender and sexuality are influenced by our faith and we should not be caricatured as intolerant and our faith to be subversive because it doesn’t align with your beliefs. Intolerance of the faith community threatens to erode support for religious freedom, therefore eroding the benefits it provides for everyone: religious and nonreligious.”

Becket Law, a legal nonprofit that defends religious liberty, filed a federal lawsuit on May 24 to demand the state Board of Education and the county Board of Education respect the parents’ right to opt out from this coursework, which they argue is required by state law and the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian parents. 

“The law already provides the right of parents to opt out,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel for Becket Law, told CNA. 

Baxter said the state law “applies generally to all instruction on family life and human sexuality” and is not limited to only health classes discussing sexual education. 

“All we’re asking is to restore the opt-outs,” he said.

“This is an issue that crosses political lines [and] it crosses religious lines,” Baxter said. 

Congress Must Act Against Online Child Exploitation, U.S. Bishops Say


Congress must act against online child exploitation, U.S. bishops say

null / Shutterstock.

Denver, Colo., Jun 8, 2023 / 08:50 am (CNA).

Congress must act to help prevent the exposure of children to online pornography and to combat online exploitation and abuse of children and other vulnerable people, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said Wednesday.

“Online child exploitation threatens the safety and well-being of our young people and destroys families and communities,” four leading bishops of the USCCB said in a June 7 letter to members of Congress. “The ability of a child to grow into adulthood in peace and security is both a human right and a demand of the common good: The dignity of the human person requires protections for our young people so that they may flourish as they mature.”

Signers of the letter were Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Protection of Children and Young People; Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of Boston, who chairs the Committee on Communications; and Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.

The bishops’ letter alluded to Catholic failures to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy in the U.S., failures that have only been brought to light in the last two decades.

“As pastors, we have seen the destructive effects of the reprehensible offenses of child exploitation firsthand,” they said. “And as leaders of an institution that, for many years, failed to meet its responsibility to protect all children, we know all too well the consequences of a culture that fails to give adequate attention to the problem of child sexual exploitation.”

The bishops voiced concern that research indicates social media use can negatively affect young people’s mental health. They stressed the need for young people to have the opportunity to “mature to adulthood in safety and security” and to avoid pornography.

“Being exposed to pornography can be traumatic for children and youth,” the bishops said. “Seeing it steals their innocence and gives them a distorted image of sexuality, relationships, and men and women, which may then affect their behavior, including addiction to pornography. Because children lack mature understanding of appropriate behavior, pornography makes them more susceptible to victimization by sexual abuse and maltreatment.”

A majority of young people have viewed pornography, accidentally or intentionally, by the age of 13.

The bishops did not comment on any particular legislation. However, the REPORT Act passed the Senate Judicial Committee on June 1. The legislation would require websites and social media platforms to report crimes that violate federal trafficking and enticement of children laws. It would increase fines for companies that knowingly and wilfully fail to report child sexual abuse material (CSAM), according to a June 1 statement from the office of U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia.

The bishops’ letter called for safeguards to ensure that pornography “causes minimum harm.” Such safeguards include prosecution of those who coerce others to produce pornographic materials and giving victims the power to remove unlawfully created pornography from internet platforms.

The bishops lamented that children and young people are coerced into the production of pornography, which is “illegal, abusive, and a form of human trafficking because of a child’s inability to consent.”

Despite parents’ efforts, the bishops said, the internet can be a dangerous place for children. 

There is an “immediate need for effective safeguards” to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. Legislation should help parents protect their children online and ensure they have “the tools necessary to monitor their children’s online activity.”

The bishops’ letter noted the dangers of abuse, extortion, and blackmail online. This includes the coercion of sexual favors or money accompanied by threats to release sexual images or money.

“Legislation should ensure that social media platforms do not permit abuse by predators or undermine the rights of parents to protect their children from harm,” they said.

Researchers have sought to determine whether and to what extent popular social media sites help spread illegal pornography and CSAM.

Instagram, owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, has many user accounts that seek to purchase sexual content depicting underage persons. Investigators and researchers with the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst analyzed these accounts and how Instagram treats them.

They found sexually explicit hashtags and pornographic accounts purporting to be run by children or minors themselves. Some Instagram accounts appear to allow other users to commission custom works of illegal pornography or to meet children in person. The social media platform algorithm appears to promote the accounts through recommendation systems that identify shared interests among users, researchers and investigators found.

“Child exploitation is a horrific crime,” the company said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re continuously investigating ways to actively defend against this behavior.”

Promoting underage sexual content violates both Meta policy and federal law. Meta said it has an internal task force dedicated to policing this content. In the past two years, it said, it has removed 27 networks for distributors of pedophilic material and has blocked thousands of hashtags that sexualize children. The company is also seeking to prevent algorithms and recommendation systems from helping to connect adults with possible interests in CSAM.

Alex Stamos, who was chief security officer at Meta through 2018 and is now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told the Wall Street Journal that a sustained effort is needed to combat the material.

“That a team of three academics with limited access could find such a huge network should set off alarms at Meta,” he said, voicing hope that the company reinvests in human investigators.

Other researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, based on their analysis of 100,000 Twitter posts from March to May, have reported that the social media platform appears to have failed to block dozens of known images of child pornography, despite the availability of screening software, databases, and other best practices to combat CSAM.

Pope Francis is Recovering in Same Hospital Room Where Pope John Paul II Was Treated


Pope Francis is recovering in same hospital room where John Paul II was treated

A large statue of St. John Paul II at the entrance of Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where Pope Francis is recovering from surgery he underwent on June 7, 2023. / Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jun 8, 2023 / 08:20 am (CNA).

Pope Francis is recovering from abdominal surgery this week in the same hospital room where St. John Paul II was treated throughout his pontificate.

The Vatican said on June 8 that Francis is “in good general condition, alert and breathing naturally” one day after his three-hour surgery to treat an incisional hernia.

Pope Francis is expected to remain for several days in Gemelli University Hospital, located atop Monte Mario, the highest hill in Rome. The Vatican has canceled all of the pope’s scheduled audiences through June 18.

The pope’s hospital room is situated on the 10th floor of the sprawling polyclinic in a wing reserved for papal medical emergencies.

It is the same room where John Paul II stayed during many of his hospital treatments, including for a colon surgery in 1992 and his hospitalization after being shot in an assassination attempt in 1981.

A large statue of St. John Paul II at the entrance of Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where Pope Francis is recovering from surgery he underwent on June 7, 2023. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
A large statue of St. John Paul II at the entrance of Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where Pope Francis is recovering from surgery he underwent on June 7, 2023. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

St. John Paul II was admitted to the hospital so many times during his more than 25-year pontificate that he once referred to Gemelli as the “third Vatican” after Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo, the popes’ summer residence.

A chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II inside Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA
A chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II inside Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Family members and patients who come to the hospital’s chapel in search of consolation can now pray before a relic of St. John Paul II, located on the chapel’s right wall.

Relic of St. John Paul II in Gemelli Hospital chapel. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA
Relic of St. John Paul II in Gemelli Hospital chapel. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Pope Francis has been treated at the Gemelli Hospital three times in the past two years. The 86-year-old pope was hospitalized for four days in March for a lung infection and has also dealt this year with a recurrence of diverticulitis, a painful inflammation of bulges in the large intestine following his colon surgery in July 2021.

Religious leaders around the world have expressed their well-wishes and prayers for Pope Francis as he recovers in hospital.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, asked Catholics to continue to pray for the pope’s healing.

“As Pope Francis recovers from surgery, he is strengthened by faith in the healing power of our merciful God,” he said.

“Please keep Pope Francis and all those in the hospital in your prayers today and every day. Jesus always walks with us and is even closer whenever we need healing and comfort.”

Office of Gov. Ron DeSantis confirms sending migrants to Catholic Charities in California

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, California. / Credit: Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 8, 2023 / 07:50 am (CNA).

Officials in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration confirmed Tuesday that they were responsible for sending 16 migrants from the southern border to the Diocese of Sacramento’s Catholic Charities headquarters in California.

The South American migrants were flown to California from the Texas border and dropped off at the Catholic Charities headquarters last Friday, June 2. 

The Florida officials also claimed responsibility for a second plane carrying 20 migrants that arrived in Sacramento a few days later. 

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said in a statement to Fox News that the migrants’ travels to California were “voluntary.”

According to the statement, the migrants were sent to the California Catholic Charities to receive care because it is a federally funded charity in a sanctuary city.

“From left-leaning mayors in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, the relocation of those illegally crossing the United States border is not new. But suddenly, when Florida sends illegal aliens to a sanctuary city, it’s false imprisonment and kidnapping,” the spokesperson told Fox. 

The relocation of these migrants to California caused a significant uproar.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his administration would be opening a kidnapping investigation of those responsible.

In response to the Florida officials’ admission, Newsom told Politico that “all this does is reinforce the cruelty of this act and the manipulative nature of the act and the stunt that this is — the shameful nature of it.” 

“We are very serious about pursuing action if the facts dictate it. And Mr. DeSantis should know that,” Newsom said.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a statement Saturday saying: “While we continue to collect evidence, I want to say this very clearly: State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting.”

Katie Valenzuela, a Sacramento city councilmember, called the migrants’ relocation a “monstrous act of cruelty.” 

This comes as border states like Texas have faced record surges of illegal migrants under the Biden administration, with more than 2.76 million crossing last year alone.

Border residents have expressed concern and even dismay to CNA that the situation in border communities is becoming untenable.

“It’s going to impact the city greatly, and also those coming over,” one El Paso resident named Rosario Reynolds told CNA in May. “I don’t think the city is prepared to receive them. Yes, there are shelters in place, there are different federal, local, and state help in place, but it’s not enough.”

According to a separate Tuesday statement from DeSantis’ office, Florida officials have made contact with over 5,800 undocumented migrants while assisting Texas officials at the southern border. 

DeSantis is one of several Republican governors who have sent aid in the form of resources and law enforcement officials to the Texas border in response to a May call for assistance from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

In his letter to governors, Abbott said: “The flood of illegal border activity invited by the Biden administration flows directly across the southern border into Texas communities, but this crisis does not stop in our state. Emboldened Mexican drug cartels and other transnational criminal enterprises profit off this chaos, smuggling people and dangerous drugs like fentanyl into communities nationwide.”