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Exemptions for Religious Gatherings During Pandemic Cause Confusion

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  • About a dozen states that have issued stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic have also made exemptions for religious gatherings.
  • A combination of mixed messaging from leaders, misreporting by the media, and overlapping decisions made at the state, county, and city levels have led to confusion about the exemptions.
  • Even in states with very clear bans, several religious leaders have continued to hold gatherings, arguing that banning them violates the first amendment.
  • Some churches in Arkansas, California, Illinois, and other states have already reported outbreaks that spread among members after they held large gatherings.

Religious Exemptions in States

With the Easter holidays rapidly approaching, state-wide exemptions for religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have sparked confusion, concern, and a heated debate about religious freedoms.

Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many places that have shelter in place orders also have exemptions for religious gatherings. 

According to the New York Times, “41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.”

In some places, like California, in-person religious gatherings have been outright banned throughout the whole state. In others, it is not as clear-cut.

This is not helped by a large amount of misreporting on how many states have religious exemptions.

Some of the misreporting and confusion is due to the fact that while some states explicitly list religious gatherings as exempt, others, like Alabama and South Carolina, just provide a list of entities that have to close. Those lists do not include religious organizations.

Around a dozen states have some kind of religious exemption for stay-at-home orders.

Florida, Texas & Religious Freedoms

There’s also an issue with overlapping authority regarding decisions made at the state level versus the county and city levels.

For example, last week, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services despite the shelter in place order in Hillsborough County, where his church was.

A few days later, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis implemented a state-wide safer and home order that explicitly allowed religious gatherings.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people spread 10 feet apart, so we definitely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines, but I think, in times like this, the service they are providing is very important for people,” DeSantis said, despite the fact that there was no clear indication in his order that social distancing rules needed to be followed.

Following DeSantis’ announcement, Howard-Browne said he will keep his church shut down because he received death threats, though he still pushed back against the county’s now-defunct order.

“The First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly,” he said in a statement. “There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination.”

Religious institutions are largely believed to be protected from regulations in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that a law cannot “unduly burden” a religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”

But whether or not the pandemic can be considered “compelling” is a much bigger and more complicated constitutional debate, as there is no precedent for a pandemic in the modern world of this scale and magnitude.

Florida is not alone here. Last week, three pastors in Texas filed a lawsuit against Harris County, where Houston is located, after a stay-at-home order that barred religious gatherings was put in place.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a statewide shelter in place order that allowed religious gatherings a few days later, and like in Florida, the state-wide order in Texas effectively made the local orders moot.

Mixes Messages & Ignored Orders

Mixed messaging from leaders has also added to the confusion.

The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio generated viral buzz Sunday after a CNN report showed numerous cars leaving a Palm Sunday service. When one of the drivers was asked if she was concerned about spreading the virus, she responded, “No, I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”

According to reports, the town’s mayor had specifically asked that the church stop holding in-person services, a request which it rejected.

The point was also echoed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

“Any pastor who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”

That, however, was confusing to some, because DeWine was the one who issued the order allowing for religious exemptions in the first place.

But even in places where there are very clear-cut orders explicitly banning religious gatherings, some churches are outright ignoring them.

In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church held services Sunday despite the fact that he had been arrested for violating the state’s order and holding services just a few days earlier.

In Sacramento, the Bethany Slavic Missionary megachurch reportedly continued to hold services even after 71 members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus. The church was shuttered as of this weekend.

Hotspot for Spread

The Bethany Slavic Missionary church was not the only religious institution that has made way for the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, several religious gatherings have proven to be hotspots for the contraction and spread of the virus.

In February, six people who attended a church conference at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky tested positive. North Carolina public health officials have said “multiple cases” of the virus are connected to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at another hotel Durham.

Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine cases that were traced to one church, and at least 10 members of a church in a suburb of Chicago got sick after a March 15 service.

In Arkansas, more than three dozen people who attended a children’s event at a church tested positive at the end of March.

See what others are saying: (ABC News) (The Hill) (The Guardian)

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Juror Accuses Kentucky AG of Misrepresenting Deliberations in Breonna Taylor Case

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  • On Monday, an anonymous grand juror on the Breonna Taylor case filed a complaint alleging that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron misrepresented the jury’s deliberations and failed to offer them the option to bring homicide charges against the officers.
  • Last week, Cameron announced to the public that the grand jury had not filed any charges against the officers for Taylor’s death. Instead, the jury only brought charges against one officer for firing his weapon recklessly, sending shots into a neighboring apartment.
  • In his announcement, Cameron repeatedly said that while he knew people would be upset with the decision, it was simply his job to present all the facts to the grand jury and let them decide. 
  • However, the complaint accused Cameron of using the jury “as a shield to deflect accountability and responsibility.” It requested that the jury recordings be released and that the jurors be permitted to discuss the case publicly.
  • Also on Monday, a judge ordered the recordings to be released, and Cameron said he would honor the request.

Grand Juror Files Complaint

A grand juror in the Breonna Taylor case filed a complaint in court Monday claiming that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron misrepresented the jury’s discussions and never offered them the option to bring homicide charges against the officers who shot Taylor in her apartment.

The complaint, which was filed anonymously, also requests that all recordings and transcripts from the jury deliberations be released and that the jurors on the case be permitted to speak about it publicly.

The filing comes just a week after Cameron announced that none of the three Louisville Metro Police officers involved in Taylor’s death were charged for the actual killing of the 26-year-old EMT in what has largely been described as a botched drug raid.

Louisville police were serving a warrant because they believed an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s was using her apartment to receive packages. Both Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, did not have any prior drug arrests or convictions, and no drugs were found in the apartment.

Police say they knocked and identified themselves before entering, but Walker claimed they did not. As a result, he said he thought they were an intruder, and when they entered by force, he fired a weapon, hitting one of the officers in the leg and prompting them to unload more than two dozen rounds into the apartment. 

One of the officers, Detective Brett Hankison, blindly fired shots into the apartment which also traveled into neighboring apartments. Last week, the grand jury charged him with three counts of wanton endangerment, though not in connection with the death Taylor, but because of the shots he fired into the neighboring apartment. 

The two other officers present, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, do not face any charges.

Following Cameron’s announcement of the grand jury’s findings, Taylor’s family, their lawyers, and many others said they did not believe the attorney general advocated on behalf of the young woman. Many have also called for more information regarding how Cameron presented the case to the jury.

However, Cameron refused to release any grand jury transcripts or recordings, arguing that it could interfere with other ongoing investigations. 

Complaint Allegations vs. Cameron’s Public Statements

The grand juror complaint filed Monday also echoed those calls for transparency concerning the information presented to the jury, and accused Cameron of using the jury “as a shield to deflect accountability and responsibility.”

In his remarks to the public, Cameron said that he knew many people would be unhappy with the decision but repeatedly emphasized that his role was to pursue the truth, present all the facts to the grand jury, and let them decide.

Regarding those facts, he said there were six possible homicide charges that could have been filed, but added that those charges “are not applicable to the facts before us because our investigation showed — and the grand jury agreed — that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in the return of deadly fire after having been fired upon.”

Cameron also said that the officers’ claim that they knocked and announced themselves was backed by an independent witness.

When a reporter asked why the testimony from just one witness was so credible — especially because out of a dozen witnesses they had spoken to only one said they heard police knock — he said that the jury “got to hear and listened to all the testimony and made the determination that Detective Hankinson was the one that needed to be indicted knowing all of the relative points that you made.”

Perhaps most significant, when asked if he ever presented manslaughter or homicide charges to be considered by the jury, Cameron refused to answer, citing the secrecy of the proceedings, but placed the decision firmly on the jury.

“What I will say is that our team walked them through every homicide offense, and also presented all of the information that was available to the grand jury,” he said. “And then the grand jury was ultimately the one that made the decision about indicting Detective Hankinson for wanton endangerment.”

In the complaint, however, the juror claims that Cameron’s public remarks about the decisions the jury made “further laid those decisions at the feet of the grand jury while failing to answer specific questions regarding the charges presented.”

The complaint alleges that Cameron “attempted to make it very clear that the grand jury alone made the decision on who and what to charge,” and thus imply it was the jury that decided not to bring homicide charges, when in reality, he was the one who never gave them that option in the first place.

“The only exception to the responsibility he foisted upon the grand jurors was in his statement that they ‘agreed’ with his team’s investigation that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their actions,” it continued. 

The complaint then goes on to argue that it is in the public interest to release the records, specifically because so many citizens have shown a lack of faith in the legal proceedings and the justice system itself.

“The public interest spreads across the entire commonwealth when the highest law enforcement official fails to answer questions and instead refers to the grand jury making the decisions,” it said. “It is patently unjust for the jurors to be subjected to the level of accountability the Attorney General campaigned for simply because they received a summons to serve their community.”

Cameron Response and Judge Ruling

Notably, the juror’s request that the records be made public was not the only such petition made Monday. During an arraignment hearing for Hankison — where he pleaded not guilty to all charges — the judge overseeing the case ordered recordings of the grand jury proceedings to be added to the court file by noon Wednesday.

On Monday night, Cameron said that he would follow the judge’s order and release the recordings, and confirmed for the first time that he never asked the jury to consider homicide or manslaughter charges.

In a statement announcing the decision, the attorney general reiterated that he believed the grand jury was meant to be secretive, and that releasing the records “could compromise the ongoing federal investigation and could have unintended consequences such as poisoning the jury pool.”

“Despite these concerns, we will comply with the Judge’s order to release the recording on Wednesday,” he continued, noting that the release “will also address the legal complaint filed by an anonymous grand juror.” 

Cameron also said that he did not have concerns about jurors speaking to the public, arguing that once the public hears the recording, “they will see that over the course of two-and-a-half days, our team presented a thorough and complete case to the Grand Jury,” 

See what others are saying: (The Courier-Journal) (The Washington Post) (CNN)

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NYT Report Details Growing Threat of Ransomware Attacks Ahead of the Election

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  • Tyler Technologies, a software vendor that election officials use to collect and share election results, was recently the victim of a ransomware attack, though details about the attack remain largely unknown.
  • A New York Times report claims Tyler Technologies is one of nearly 1,000 voting systems or groups across the country that have been subject to a hack over the past year. Many of those hacks were conducted by Russian criminal groups. 
  • The Times‘ report details that the United States is very vulnerable to the growing threats of hacking in the election right now as the spread of misinformation and distrust within the country’s political climate already runs rampant.
  • The report indicates that the U.S. is particularly vulnerable to a perception hack, which would involve a hacker spreading misinformation to create distrust about the election results. The FBI has issued warnings about the potential spread of election misinformation in the days after November 3.

Attack at Tyler Technologies

As Election Day looms closer and closer, threats of ransomware attacks are growing larger, according to a recent report from The New York Times

The report indicates that there have been nearly 1,000 attacks against voting systems across the United States over the past year, many of which were conducted by Russian criminal groups. Right now, it is unclear if all of these were traditional ransomware attacks where hackers were simply seeking fast cash, or if they posed a serious threat to the 2020 election. 

One recent attack was lodged against Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based software vendor that election officials use to collect and share election results. Tyler has not released details about the hack, so it is unclear who was behind it or what the purpose of the attack was. Reuters obtained an email the company sent to its customers, which simply explained that there had been a “security incident involving unauthorized access to our internal phone and information technology systems by an unknown third party.”

The Times said it initially looked like an ordinary ransomware attack, but clients later saw outsiders trying to gain access to their systems, raising concern that there could be something larger at play. 

“That has been the fear haunting federal officials for a year now,” the report’s authors, Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sangerthat, wrote. “That in the days leading up to the election, or in its aftermath, ransomware groups will try to freeze voter registration data, election poll books or the computer systems of the secretaries of the state who certify election results.”

Threat of Perception Hacks

Among the potential threats ransomware attacks and hacking pose, the Times noted the specific harm “perception hacks” could have on the United States. The outlet describes these hacks as ransomware attacks that could particularly happen in battleground states and could “create the impression that voters everywhere would not be able to cast their ballots or that the ballots could not be accurately counted.”

“On election night there would be no faster way to create turmoil than altering the reporting of the vote — even if the vote itself was free of fraud,” Perlroth and Sangerthat wrote. 

“That would be a classic perception hack: If Mr. Trump was erroneously declared a winner, for example, and then the vote totals appeared to change, it would be easy to claim someone was fiddling with the numbers.”

These kinds of hacks might only be aided by the fact that President Donald Trump himself has been spreading misinformation about mail-in voting and casting doubt on the election results should he not win. According to the Times, officials fear his unfounded comments about Democrats cheating in the election could even be a signal to hackers, telling them to create just enough incidents to support his false claims of fraud. 

The country’s current political climate creates the perfect storm for Americans being vulnerable to perception hacks. Results of the election will likely take days to be counted, and if Americans are unprepared for the wait, they may be unwilling to accept the final toll.

James Shires, a researcher at the Atlantic Center’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, spoke to MIT’s Technology Review about the vulnerable position the country is in right now when it comes to any type of hack on the election. Shires compared a potential hack in the U.S. 2020 election to a hack that previously happened in France’s presidential election, noting that America’s response would be very different from France’s. 

“The effect of a hacking operation really comes from the underlying political context and in that case the US is far worse now than it was in 2016,” Shires explained.

“If you look at the Macron leaks, which happened shortly before the French president was elected, a lot of things from the party were put online. French media got together, the candidate communicated, and they agreed not to publish stories based on these leaks before the election. There is a lot of trust and community spirit in the French media and political environment. That is clearly not the case in the US at the moment.”

What is Being Done About These Threats?

Because the impact of any potential hack could be severe and sow discord throughout the already divided country, the FBI has warned that in the days after the election, the public could see “disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

As for efforts to prevent these attacks from happening, some officials have said that progress is being made. However, the Times reported that in the first two weeks of September alone, seven American government entities had been hit with ransomware and had their data stolen.

“The chance of a local government not being hit while attempting to manage the upcoming and already ridiculously messy election would seem to be very slim,” Brett Callow, a threat analyst at a security firm called Emsisoft told the Times.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Reuters) (Technology Review)

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Boy Gifts Firefighters Baby Yoda Doll. Now They Take It Everywhere

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  • To show his appreciation for firefighters in Oregon, five-year-old Carver gifted local workers a Baby Yoda doll, writing in a thank you note, “Here is a friend for you, in case you get lonely.”
  • The firefighters loved it so much, they even bring Baby Yoda with them everywhere and document his travels on Facebook.
  • The page, “Baby Yoda fights fires,” is loaded with heartwarming photos of Baby Yoda with frontline workers in different states.
  • The gesture has brought joy to firefighters who have been working tirelessly to battle the raging wildfires burning throughout the West Coast.

The Boy’s Donation

A five-year-old boy in Oregon has put smiles on the faces of several firefighters with a unique gift: a Baby Yoda doll.

When the boy, whose name is Carver, learned about the fires ranging on in his home state, he told his grandmother he wanted to do something to help the heroes on the frontline. 

His grandmother, Sasha Tinning, then learned about a local donation drive for firefighters in their area, so she took Carver shopping for groceries and other items they could take. 

At the store, Carver set his eyes on one the doll, which, of course, is the beloved Star Wars character from the Disney + series “The Mandalorian.”

When Carver gifted the doll, he attached a note that read: “Thank you, firefighters. Here is a friend for you, in case you get lonely <3 Love, Carver.”

Baby Yoda Fights Fires

The firefighters absolutely loved the gift. In fact, they loved it so much, they even bring Baby Yoda with them everywhere and document his travels on Facebook.

The page is called “Baby Yoda fights fires,” and it’s loaded with heartwarming photos of Baby Yoda with frontline workers in different states.

It’s safe to say Carver’s gesture definitely helped bring so much needed joy as firefighters work to battle the raging wildfires burning throughout the West Coast.

These firefighters are away from their children, their loved ones. This is a little pal that brings a bit of normalcy to a crazy time,” Carver’s grandmother told CNN.

“To have a little bit of sunshine during such a dark time, I think that’s really special for them. He (Baby Yoda) is also just cute as the dickens.”

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Good News Network)

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