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New US LGBTQ-rights envoy sees reasons for hope and worry

New US LGBTQ-rights envoy sees reasons for hope and worry

Jessica Stern will soon become the State Department’s special diplomatic envoy for LGBTQ rightsBy DAVID CRARY AP National WriterJuly 2, 2021, 8:14 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleNEW YORK — Jessica Stern, soon to become the State Department’s special diplomatic envoy for LGBTQ rights, sees a mix of promising news and worrisome developments almost everywhere she looks, both at home and abroad.In the United States, Stern’s admiration for President Joe Biden’s moves supporting LGBTQ rights is offset by her dismay at other developments. These include persisting violence against transgender women of color and a wave of legislation in Republican-governed states seeking to limit sports participation and medical options for trans youth.“I don’t think there’s a country or region that’s all good or all bad,” she told The Associated Press on Friday. “When you look around the world, you see progress and danger simultaneously.”Stern, whose new post was announced by Biden last week, has served since 2012 as executive director of New York-based OutRight Action International, which works globally to prevent abuses of LGBTQ people and strengthen their civil rights. She expects to start the State Department job in September.From her vantage point at OutRight, she’s been monitoring far-flung threats to LGBTQ people: recent mass arrests in African countries such as Ghana and Uganda, three killings within a week in Guatemala, and legislation in Hungary that has been assailed by many European leaders and human rights activists as denigrating LGBTQ people.Stern is also worried that LGBTQ people in Myanmar are suffering disproportionately amid the military’s violent suppression of demonstrators and opposition groups.Regarding the United States, she said, LGBTQ developments this year have reflected deep-seated contradictions.She hailed Biden for moving to bolster transgender rights, including lifting a Trump administration ban that blocked trans people from joining the military. And she welcomed the ground-breaking appointments of LGBTQ people to important administration posts –- including Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, as transportation secretary, and Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender, as assistant secretary of health.“At the same time, the work in the U.S. for the safety and security of transgender Americans is far from complete,” said Stern. She urged Congress to pass the Equality Act, a bill that would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people. The bill is stalled in the Senate for lack of Republican support.“There’s no country that has gotten this right,” she said. “We all have work to do to ensure we are free from discrimination and violence. … We’re all in this together.”She does see reasons for optimism, even in Africa, where South Africa is the only one of 54 nations to have legalized same-sex marriage.In Nigeria, for example, she said a recent poll showed 25% of the public opposes discrimination against LGBTQ people — a substantial increase from a few years ago,“There’s no doubt it’s a slower journey for LGBTQI rights in any place where conservative religions play a dominant role, but progress is happening,” she said.“Every day I get an email from a new organization — maybe starting a film festival or an arts festival,” she said. “As long as LGBTQI civil society is strong, it’s only a matter of time before we see a change in attitudes and even in law and policy.”

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts suffer huge declines in membership

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts suffer huge declines in membership

America’s most iconic youth organizations – the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA – have been jolted by unprecedented one-year drops in membership, due partly to the pandemic, and partly to social trends that have been shrinking their ranks for decades.While both organizations insist they’ll survive, the dramatic declines raise questions about how effectively they’ll be able to carry out their time-honored missions — teaching skills and teamwork, providing outdoor adventure, encouraging community service.Membership for the BSA’s flagship Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA programs dropped from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020, a 43% plunge, according to figures provided to The Associated Press. Court records show membership has fallen further since then, to about 762,000.The Girl Scouts say their youth membership fell by nearly 30%, from about 1.4 million in 2019- 2020 to just over 1 million this year.Both groups, like several other U.S. youth organizations, have experienced declining membership for many years. The Girl Scouts reported youth membership of about 2.8 million in 2003. The BSA had more than 4 million boys participating in the 1970s.Reasons for the drop include competition from sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned, and busy family schedules. The pandemic brought a particular challenge.In Lawrence, New Jersey, 8-year-old Joey Yaros stopped attending meetings while most in-person gatherings were shut down, and might not go back, even though his father and three brothers all earned the elite Eagle Scout rank. Joey was already struggling with virtual school classes, and the family didn’t pressure him to also participate in virtual Cub Scout activities.“If there are den meetings in the fall, we’ll see if he gets back in the swing of it,” said his father, high school history teacher Jay Yaros. “There are a lot of interesting things for kids to do these days, and scouting doesn’t seem to be keeping up.”The Boy Scouts’ problems are compounded by their decision to seek bankruptcy protection in February 2020 to cope with thousands of lawsuits filed by men who allege they were molested as youngsters by scout leaders. The case is proceeding slowly in federal bankruptcy court as lawyers negotiate creation of a trust fund for victims that will likely entail hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from the BSA and its 252 local councils.To provide those funds, some councils may have to sell cherished camp properties, the BSA’s president and CEO, Roger Mosby, told the AP.“We understand that this is a difficult and often emotional decision, but in some instances may be a necessary step as we work toward our shared imperatives of equitably compensating survivors and continuing Scouting’s mission.” Mosby said in a written reply to AP’s queries.The pandemic, the membership drop and rising costs of liability insurance have strained BSA finances. A disclosure statement in the bankruptcy case says its gross revenues dropped from $394 million in 2019 to $187 million last year.In response, the Boy Scouts’ annual youth membership fee will rise from $66 to $72 on August 1. The BSA also says some councils may merge to consolidate resources.The Girl Scouts have bureaucratic complications of their own. There is ongoing litigation pitting the national headquarters against two of the 111 local councils— based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Nashville, Tennessee — which refuse to implement a nationwide technology platform.Despite the varied challenges, Mosby and other Boy Scout officials, as well as the Girl Scouts’ leadership, say there’s reason for optimism. They say their summer camps are full, special events are sold out, and they’re expecting many thousands of families – some new to scouting, some who left during the pandemic – to sign up now that activities are occurring in-person rather than virtually.“We knew some girls would take a pause,” said Girl Scouts spokeswoman Kelly Parisi. “But as the pandemic goes in the rear-view mirror, we’ve seen a substantial rebound… We feel really good going into the fall recruitment.”Membership in the Boy Scouts’ Longhorn Council, which serves parts of Central and North Texas, dropped by 44% from 2019 to 2020, said its chief executive, Wendy Shaw. But she is buoyed by surging interest this year from families considering their first foray into scouting; the council has scheduled 12 special events for them.Manny Ramos, chief executive of the BSA’s Seattle-area council, said pandemic-related restrictions on group activities were rigorous in his area — a factor in recruiting only 500 scouts last fall instead of the normal 3,000 or more. To maintain interest, his staff held numerous outdoor activities, including winter camping, and now anticipates a large influx of families who skipped scouting last year.Bryan Koch of Madison, Wisconsin, has been an adult leader for more than a decade as two sons went through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. He believes the programs have invaluable benefits: teaching leadership skills, offering adventures such as a 78-mile hike at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico that his eldest son completed as a 14-year-old.“I’m a firm believer in what scouting can be,” Koch said. “It helps us develop more well-rounded and aware young men and women. That’s sorely needed in our country right now.”Yet he says membership in his Boy Scout troop dropped by 30% in recent years as boys and parents turned to other activities.“There’s not really a passive way to go through scouting and get the full experience,” Koch said. “It takes a lot of time for the scout, for the parents.”Josh Garner has been scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 30 in Jackson, Mississippi, for six years; his oldest son will soon be an Eagle Scout. Troop membership has dropped by 25% during his tenure, and even more sharply in the Cub Scout pack that’s also sponsored by St. Richard Catholic Church.Garner said the BSA’s national leadership “has a lot of baggage right now” and needs to devise better recruitment strategies. Yet he’d hate to see the organization fold.“I’ve watched boys learn all kinds of skills, from welding to giving speeches,” he said. “It’s a fantastic program — too important to a lot of people for it to just go away.”

Rift on Communion policy as US Catholic bishops open meeting

Rift on Communion policy as US Catholic bishops open meeting

Divisions have flared up among U.S. Catholic bishops as they opened a national meeting highlighted by a sensitive agenda item: a possible rebuke of Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, who receive Communion while supporting abortion rightsBy DAVID CRARY AP National WriterJune 16, 2021, 11:16 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleDivisions flared quickly on Wednesday as U.S. Catholic bishops opened a national meeting highlighted by a sensitive agenda item — whether to take initial steps toward a possible rebuke of politicians, including President Joe Biden, who receive Communion while supporting abortion rights.Some said the issue was so important and contentious that all the more than 260 participating bishops should have an opportunity to address it during the three-day meeting that’s being held virtually.Others derided that proposal as a delaying tactic by those who are skeptical of the initiative. They said bishops would have ample time to comment at a later meeting when the full draft of a new statement on Communion would be presented for consideration.After an extended exchange, 59% of the bishops voted against a motion by St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski to allow more speaking opportunities at this week’s meeting.At stake is a proposal that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ doctrine committee draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the church that would be submitted for a vote at a future meeting, probably an in-person gathering in November.Some conservative bishops say such a statement should signal to Catholic politicians that support of abortion rights should disqualify them from receiving Communion.Yet there are scores of bishops who oppose any swift or aggressive action on the issue; some cite a letter from the Vatican urging the USCCB to take a cautious, collegial approach. Nearly 70 bishops last month signed a letter to USCCB president and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez urging him to delay the discussion until the bishops convene in person, but that request was not granted.Gomez, in his opening address Wednesday, did not mention the Communion debate but stressed the importance of unity in a time of heightened political and social divisions.“It’s not realistic to expect the church to stay immune from the pressures of division,” he said. “And we are living in a secular society where politics is becoming the substitute religion for a lot of people. So we need to guard against the temptation to think about the church in simply political terms.”“Only a church that is united can heal the brokenness and challenge the injustices that we see more clearly now in the wake of this pandemic,” he added.Gomez noted that Pope Francis also has emphasized unity within the church — a point driven home in an address to the bishops by the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre.“Pope Francis is convinced that dialogue is the best way to realize what always ought to be affirmed and respected,” Pierre said. “Our commitment to this type of dialogue, one which produces unity of faith and action, and not merely talking about things endlessly, will strengthen the church’s credibility.”Some bishops have expressed concern that the debate is being used as a political weapon to embarrass Catholic Democrats — such as Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who hold high office and support abortion rights.One of Wednesday’s participants, retired Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, openly assailed Biden for recent moves to expand and protect abortion access. Pfeifer’s request to add this specific topic to the agenda was rebuffed, but Gomez said that some of the contentious aspects of the president’s policies would be raised later in the meeting by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, head of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.Biden is the country’s second Catholic president and the first to hold that office while espousing clear-cut support for abortion rights.Naumann has said such a stance by a public figure is “a grave moral evil,” and he has advocated for a public rebuke of the president.Among other subtopics, a Communion document would likely address the issue of who among Catholic public figures is worthy of receiving the sacrament. However, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chairman of the doctrine committee, said it would not mandate a national policy and instead leave decisions about specific churchgoers up to individual bishops and archbishops.Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has made clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion at churches in the archdiocese.———Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Southern Baptists' new leader: long career as bridge builder

Southern Baptists' new leader: long career as bridge builder

As ideological divisions wracked the Southern Baptist Convention this year ahead of a pivotal national meeting, one of the leading candidates for its presidency, Ed Litton, embraced a role as the man best equipped to build bridges and promote unity.“From time to time, every family has disagreements and tensions,” Litton said in a campaign video. “Because we’re a family, we don’t give up on one another.”On Tuesday he prevailed in a runoff against Georgia pastor Mike Stone to become the next leader of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, winning about 52% of the votes among more than 15,000 delegates at a meeting roiled by controversy and a power play by the SBC’s ultraconservative wing.In doing so, Litton bested a better-known rival in the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Stone, who ran an aggressive campaign fueled by some of the SBC’s most prominent hard-line conservatives.Among Litton’s notable attributes are a long record of hard work promoting racial reconciliation, and his perseverance in the face of personal tragedy. Litton’s wife of 25 years, Tammy, was killed in an automobile accident in 2007; two years later, he married Kathy Ferguson, the widow of another SBC pastor killed in a 2002 car crash.“We both have a profound sense of pain and suffering in our live that has changed us, and I think changed us for the better,” Litton said at a news conference after his victory.Litton, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and theater from Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university in Phoenix, and later received a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.He spent the early years of his ministry in Texas and Arizona, and since 1994 he has been senior pastor of an SBC church — now known as Redemption Church — in Saraland, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile.For the past six years, he’s been active in a Mobile coalition called the Pledge Group, a movement of leaders from different racial, religious and vocational backgrounds who want to shrink the city’s racial divide.Litton was nominated for president at Tuesday’s SBC meeting by pastor Fred Luter, who in 2012 became the SBC’s first and thus far only Black president. Luter said he’d known Litton for more than 20 years, initially teaming up to preach on behalf of racial reconciliation.That cause has been an enduring one for Litton, who has built strong relationships with many Black pastors.Late last year, racial tensions in the SBC were heightened when the presidents of the SBC’s six seminaries — all of them white — issued a statement repudiating critical race theory, a term used to describe critiques of systemic racism. In response, a diverse group of Southern Baptists, including Litton and Luter, co-signed a statement asserting that systemic racial injustice is a reality.Critical race theory “is a reality in the culture,” Litton said Tuesday. “We need to understand it. We need to help seek justice.”During the campaign, Litton identified unity and diversity as two of his top priorities.Without unified commitment to the Gospel, he said in one video, “We will stumble into opposing factions, differences of opinions and turf battles that squander precious time and resources.”As for diversity, he noted that Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans increased their presence in the SBC over the past 20 years even as white membership declined.“I want to continue broadening ethnic diversity on our boards to reflect who we actually are and who we’re becoming,” he said. “I want to build bridges. Where necessary, we have to repair burned bridges.”He noted that some Black pastors are asking why they should remain in the SBC.“My answer: because we want you and need you,” Litton said.One of the SBC’s most prominent Black pastors, Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas, had threatened to leave the denomination if Stone or Mohler had won. He was elated by the outcome.“What a day of rejoicing! Couldn’t help but do a Baptist Holy Dance, when Litton won,” McKissic tweeted. “God has a plan for the SBC & I want to be a part of it. Truly, racism was rejected 2day!”———Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.