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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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College Board Changes AP African American Studies After Backlash From DeSantis Amid Education Culture War

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As requested by DeSantis, the College Board removed lessons on contemporary topics including Black Lives Matter, queer studies, and reparations.


College Board Rolls Out Curriculum

The College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement high school courses, announced an official curriculum framework for its new, landmark Advanced Placement African American studies on Wednesday.

The announcement, made on the first day of Black History Month, has faced scrutiny for seeming to scale back a number of relevant subjects that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other state education officials had criticized.

In January, DeSantis said that the new course would be banned in Florida unless changes were made, arguing that a draft version of the course was “woke.” 

Education officials claimed that the class, which had been in the making for nearly a decade, violated a recent state law dubbed the Stop WOKE Act. The legislation regulates public school instruction on race by banning critical race theory and any education that describes some groups as oppressed and others as privileged based on race or sex.

Democrats denounced DeSantis’ action as a political stunt and urged the College Board to maintain its principles.

According to reports, many historical topics like slavery largely remain intact from the previous draft. However, important contemporary issues like Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, queer studies, reparations, and intersectionality — all of which Florida leaders objected to — were removed from curriculum requirements and are no longer part of the AP exam.

Instead, those areas of study have been downgraded to be part of a list of options students can pursue for a mandatory research project. The College Board also added a new research project idea to that list that will certainly please the right: “Black conservatism.”

It has additionally been reported that the organization pulled names of multiple Black authors the state education officials had flagged as problematic, including many famous and pioneering Black scholars who wrote about critical race theory, the queer experience, and Black feminism. 

The College Board defended itself against criticism in a press release announcing the changes, claiming that the process of developing the framework “has operated independently from political pressure.”

DeSantis’ Ongoing Culture War

DeSantis’ attempts to influence the national curriculum of an AP course are just his latest in a much broader effort to control what is and is not taught in public schools.

Just one day before the College Board announced the revised course, the governor outlined what The New York Times described as “his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment.”

Specifically, he proposed a massive overhaul to higher education in the state that would defund and eliminate diversity and equity programs, mandate courses on Western civilization, and reduce tenure protections that are essential to ensure professors have freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the effects of another law DeSantis signed last year are now just beginning to materialize. The policy, which went into effect this July, requires every school book to be age-appropriate, “free of pornography,” and “suited to student needs.” 

To follow those guidelines, school books have to be approved by a certified media specialist who has undergone specific training.

Notably, the law also states that teachers can be charged with third-degree felonies if they “knowingly or unknowingly” give students access to a book that the specialists say is harmful — meaning that they could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Last month, the state education department clarified that the rule does not just apply to school libraries, but also to any books a teacher keeps in their classroom too. 

Multiple outlets reported this week that records they obtained show at least two school districts have now directed teachers to either remove their books or hide them until review to avoid the possibility of going to jail.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Biden Announces Plan to End COVID Emergency in May

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The decision would drastically change the government’s long-standing pandemic response and shift Americans’ access to COVID-related services.


Emergency Declarations at an End

In a statement Monday, The White House announced that it would be ending the COVID national emergency and public health emergency declarations on May 11.

The move will entirely restructure the federal government’s response to the pandemic to treat it as endemic and upend policies that have been in place for the last three years. Although more than 500 people in the U.S. are still dying from COVID on average each day — which is around two times the number of daily deaths during a bad flu season — life has largely returned to normal.

Most Americans are vaccinated, and even President Joe Biden himself said the pandemic was “over” back in September. The new announcement comes in part as a response to resolutions Republicans brought to the House floor last week that would end the declarations immediately.

“An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,” the White House argued.

Lapses in Coverage and Care

Federal officials decided that a phase-out would make more sense because the U.S. has come to rely on several systems and benefits under the emergencies.

One of the most significant changes that will have the biggest impact on Americans in their day-to-day lives is access to COVID tests, treatments, and vaccines that have been free throughout the pandemic.

Once the emergencies end, a very complex wave of changes will take place that differs from person to person depending on their insurance — or lack thereof — and even possibly what state they live in.

Currently, people with private health insurance or Medicare coverage have been allowed eight free COVID tests a month and insurers had to cover those tests, even if they were administered out of network.

Once the emergency ends, some Americans will have to pay out of pocket, as well as for antiviral COVID treatments like Paxlovid. 

Notably, it has been reported that vaccines will still be included for all those people covered by both private and public insurance. That, however, may not be the case for those without insurance — a group that is also more likely to be the most affected by rising costs for tests and treatments.

Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told The Washington Post that when the emergency declarations end, states that opted to provide Medicaid coverage for tests, treatments, and shots will lose the federal funds that matched costs at 100%.

“To me, that’s the biggest issue for the general public to think about,” she said. “The uninsured and underinsured have no guaranteed access to covid vaccines, tests or treatments.”

When it comes to vaccines, those costs could be significant. Moderna and Pfizer have both said they might charge as much as $130 per dose of vaccine once the federal government stops paying and the shots are transitioned to the private market. That figure is nearly quadruple what federal offices have paid for the doses.

The shift to the private market could happen fairly soon, especially because Republicans have refused Biden’s request that they put billions of dollars towards additional free COVID testing and shots to extend those efforts.

There could also be a spike in the number of uninsured or underinsured Americans because the $1.7 trillion spending bill passed last year ends a rule that banned states from kicking people off Medicaid, leaving millions at risk of losing coverage.

Other Possible Outcomes

Ending the declarations could also set up a battle around immigration because the Biden administration has said the move will bring an end to Title 42 — the Trump-era public health measure that placed restrictions on border crossings and other migrant policies.

Biden has previously tried to cut the program, but the Supreme Court kept it in place. House Republicans rejected the White House’s claim that the program would be terminated, arguing it is not tied to the public health emergency.

Beyond that, the termination of the declarations would require health providers to make numerous adjustments because many of the flexibilities they were allowed in a number of areas would be cut. 

As a result, the administration says a phase-out of those policies over the next few months is necessary, arguing that hospitals and nursing homes “will be plunged into chaos” if they are cut immediately. House Republicans, however, are insistent on moving forward their legislation that would do just that, though the Democratic-controlled Senate could block their proposals.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Conservatives are Mad at “Woke” Xbox for Minor Climate-Related Updates

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The fury comes after Xbox announced it was slightly altering existing consoles to better utilize and save energy.


Same War, New Battlefield

Mere days after M&M canceled their “spokescandies” due to backlash from the right, led largely by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, conservatives have found a new front for their ongoing culture war: Xbox.

Carlson spent months complaining that small character redesigns were “woke” because they made the animated anthropomorphized M&M’s — in his own words — “less sexy.” His campaign finally proved successful on Monday when the company announced it would be doing away with the spokescandies and replacing them with actress Maya Rudolph.

Conservatives, now facing a sudden dearth of non-issues to complain about, quickly found a new issue to rage against. Xbox announced in a blog post earlier this month that it is making minor updates to lower its environmental impact as part of an effort to reach Microsoft’s goal of being carbon-negative by 2030.

Now, instead of having an Xbox wake up to update games, apps, and software during random times of the night, it will do that at a time of night when a user’s local energy grid is generating the most power it can from renewable sources. 

Xbox also said it would automatically update some older consoles to a power-saving mode that aims to reduce electricity consumption when it is turned off — a feature that is already the default on newer consoles.

According to The Verge, the only difference for users is that an Xbox in power-saving mode takes around 15 seconds to boot up instead of doing so immediately as the console does in “sleep” mode. The change is a small price to pay for what the outlet described as “significant” energy savings.

Xbox Under Fire

To many leading conservative voices, the minimal shifts were just another example of “woke” culture. 

While discussing M&M’s spokescandies Tuesday morning, “Fox and Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt brought up Xbox’s new changes with Fox radio host Jimmy Failla.

“So Xbox has also announced that they’re going woke too, you know, because of climate change,” Earhardt said.

“I mean, it’s crazy what they’re doing, but we understand what this is. It’s not that it’s actually going to offset emissions, okay — the level of reduction is infinitesimal,”  Failla claimed, without evidence. “But they’re trying to recruit your kids into climate politics at an earlier age; make them climate conscious now.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think of that — you’re right, they’re going after the children,” Earhardt agreed, despite the fact that internal data from Microsoft shows just around 10% of Xbox owners are under the age of 18.

Other prominent conservatives also did their part to bait Americans into anger on social media, including America’s Foundation, which posted a tweet stating that “the woke brigade is after video games.”

The post linked an article from the right-wing website TheBlaze, which asserted that “Xbox will force gamers to power down to fight climate change.”  That, however, is false — Xbox has said users can switch back and change the settings any time they want

Still, top lawmakers continued to share the article and spread its false claims, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.).

“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” he wrote in the post, which was flagged by Twitter and given an “added context” warning.

The same warning, however, was not placed in a very similar post by Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tx.), who also shared the article.

“They want to take your guns. They want to take your gas stoves. And now they want to take your Xbox. What’s next?” he wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Daily Beast) (VICE)

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