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June 2016

Archive for June 2016

Win For Pastor Soto!

A Message from the Executive Director
Friday, June 24, 2016

Dear Friends,

Even though my husband and children are part Native American, I never imagined I would spend years writing and speaking about “Operation Powwow” and be glad when it was finally over. And yet I am writing to you today, my heart as light as a feather (if you’ll forgive the pun and the cliché), to say that the epic stand-off between federal bureaucrats and one man—world-renowned Native American feather dancer and leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, Pastor Robert Soto—has ended with a historic settlement in favor of religious liberty.

I have written to you about this case many times.

I’ve told you about the deeply meaningful stories behind many of the feathers in Pastor Soto’s headdress, some given to him by the daughter of a woman whose hand he held as she died, others from an American Indian deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, to name a few.

A feather dancer since he was eight years old, Pastor Soto has spent his life building his headdress, which to him is like a stained glass window, a visual collection of a life rich with spiritual encounters of all kinds. In his own words, his feathers “are a physical manifestation of everything that is holy.” As he told me once, if even one feather falls to the floor while he is dancing, the entire powwow comes to a halt until the feather is prayerfully restored to its proper place.

The feathers are eagle feathers. Like so many Native American tribes, Pastor Soto’s reveres the eagle in a special way. The eagle is the bird that soars above all others. To Native Americans, the eagle is a spiritual messenger to the divine, one that embodies spiritual virtues like courage, wisdom, majesty, truth, and freedom. The prayers of humans are carried to the Creator on its wings; its feathers are precious and imbued with divine meaning. There is no community, entity, or organization in America that places greater meaning or handles with greater care the feathers of the once-endangered American bird, which also fittingly serves as the symbol of our nation, than American Indians.

And yet until the Becket Fund intervened, Pastor Soto’s tribe was legally barred from handling the feathers. Federal law requires a permit for anyone who possesses eagle feathers. Permits are granted to museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and what the federal government classifies as “other interests,” such as power companies whose wind turbines frequently kill the birds. Farmers are even given permission to shoot the birds if they are threatening their livestock.

Thousands of eagles are killed every year by wind turbines, but if an American Indian picks up just one fallen feather, he or she can face a $10,000 fine and two years in prison.

If American Indians want to use the feathers for religious purposes, they too have to get a permit, but first they have to get registered by the federal government. Anyone who has been to the DMV or tried to get a small business license or tried to do any official business with the government knows that “just getting registered” is not as easy as it sounds.

Indeed, Pastor Soto’s tribe languished on the waiting list to get its “certification of enrollment card,” or its federal permission slip to practice its faith, for years.

In the meantime, underworked federal bureaucrats from the Department of the Interior decided to launch “Operation Powwow.” They sent undercover agents to raid one of Pastor Soto’s powwows, they harassed him and members of his family, seized his headdress, and locked it up.

The Becket Fund intervened, and last year we got Pastor Soto’s headdress back. Just last week, we finally succeeded in getting the government to relent in its persistent threat of civil and criminal penalties if they dared to use the feathers in prayer. They admitted Operation Powwow was a violation of the religious liberty of Pastor Soto and the hundreds of members of his tribe, and agreed not to send any more undercover agents to harass American Indians peacefully practicing their faith.

As our Senior Counsel Luke Goodrich put it, the days of harassing American Indians are over: “We’re not living in the 1800s anymore.”
The Wall Street Journal called it a “victory for religious freedom.”

Pastor Soto called it “the end of a long journey. A journey that ten years ago seemed full of impossibilities.” “I have spent countless hours in prayer seeking God the Creator’s help,” he said in a press statement. “No one had ever won a case like this and many had even suffered time in prison…[Yet] tonight, we gather together to celebrate the return of our eagle feathers.”

Isn’t America grand? On the cusp of the Fourth of July, even though religious liberty faces unprecedented threats and uncertainty in the very nation that changed the meaning of religious liberty for the world, we can still celebrate a victory for the people who have lived here for centuries before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. We can all celebrate with Pastor Soto and his tribe, whose love for the eagle and the courage, truth, and freedom it embodies are values that get at the heart of what makes America a special place, a vast and diverse land of the free and home of the brave.


Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

Oscar and Armando

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

A Message from the Executive Director
Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dear Friends,

Sitting across a table from Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet last week, I felt like I was looking into the eyes of a younger Armando Valladares. It was a very moving and humbling experience. Armando stood up to the Castro regime at its very beginning. Oscar is among the many brave dissidents still fighting it today.

Oscar, one of the few Cuban doctors who did not flee the island when given the chance, was thrown in jail after blowing the whistle on unspeakable horrors and corruption taking place in Cuba’s government-run healthcare system. Tears filled his eyes as he sat there, telling me stories that were all too familiar, stories of the way his jailors tried to break his spirit by breaking his bones with handcuffs, to choke him just to the point of asphyxiation, to tear down his dignity one blow at a time. The Washington Post ran an editorial on Oscar earlier this week.

Just a month ago, at our Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York, I stood opposite Armando and translated as he spoke to a room full of religious liberty warriors. He told them of the many ways this very same regime had tried, over thirty years ago, to penetrate his conscience through dehumanizing torture, which he endured for 22 years.

You could hear a pin drop as Armando reminded the young people in the room of the very short distance between freedom and totalitarianism, that we are never safe from sliding into oppression, even if it doesn’t happen at the barrel of a gun.

Oscar was only eight when Fidel Castro took power. And yet he committed his life to a freedom he never really knew. His resistance, like that of so many of today’s young dissidents, is a testament to the human conscience, that it can know the fundamental truth that each of us has human dignity and human rights, even if we have never tasted or known those freedoms in reality. As our founder, Seamus Hasson, likes to say, “The debate over freedom is a debate over whether we’re persons born with our eyes focused for the far horizons, who yearn for the good, who search for transcendence—or whether we’re accidental organisms adrift in a cold and lonely universe.”

Oscar’s eyes are still fixed to the horizons; he is going back to Cuba even though he doesn’t have to. He refused release from jail when it meant a permanent exile. Once he was released from jail, the Cuban government sent him here with the hope that once he had experienced freedom he wouldn’t come back. But Oscar is making the courageous choice to return and fight for his people.

As Armando pointed out in a recent piece for TIME, human rights violations, especially religious liberty violations, are getting worse in Cuba, not better.

Oscar’s choice to go back is a testament to the power of belief, that faith in God and faith in freedom is so strong that sometimes it points us to the darkest places, where our witness is needed the most.

As a Cuban-American, there is a part of me that wishes I could go with him. But I know my calling is here at the Becket Fund, helping to give a platform to those who give a voice to the voiceless, empowering those who empower others to rise up and demand what is rightfully theirs.

Just as I translated for Armando to a roomful of our supporters from all different faiths, I am here to help translate the stories of men and women like Oscar and our many clients who keep us from sliding into oppression, one brief, one court appearance, one press release at time.

Thank you for listening.


K of C Sets Record In Charity For The 16th Year!

The Knights of Columbus set a new all-time record last year for charitable donations and service hours with $175,079,192 in donations and more than 73.5 million hours of service. The numbers were announced at the closing session of the annual Organizational Meeting of State Deputies in New Haven.

St. John Paul II Documentary Airs on Public TV Nationwide

Dear Brother Knight,

St. John Paul II’s role as a driving force in the fall of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe is the focus of a new documentary illustrating how the late pope insured a “revolution of conscience” that was pivotal in the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The documentary will air on public television across the United States, premiering on June 3.

Narrated by actor Jim Caviezel and featuring original music by renowned composer Joe Kraemer (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jack Reacher), Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism tells this story using rare archival footage and exclusive interviews with several heads of state, historians, foreign policy experts, church leaders and close personal acquaintances of the late pontiff, including Supreme Knight Carl Anderson; papal biographer George Weigel; John Paul’s longtime assistant Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of Kraków; and Richard Allen, Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor.

The 90-minute film recounts Karol Wojtyła’s growth from an underground seminarian to his appointment as archbishop of Kraków and to his election to the papacy in 1978. As archbishop, Wojtyła developed tools for resistance to communist rule that were grounded in defense of human rights and the reclaiming of Poland’s Catholic identity. This documentary, through interviews with historians and journalists who had access to recently declassified KGB documents, illustrates the vast Soviet campaign to counteract John Paul II’s moral crusade. The film follows the wave of free thought that seized the Soviet bloc following the pope’s epic nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979.

By his actions and his words, John Paul II inspired a thirst for freedom that would evolve into the Solidarity movement,” said Anderson. “Without his spiritual support, Solidarity’s success would not have been possible, and without Solidarity, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Revolution of ’89 would never have happened.”

For more information about this important new film, or to obtain a DVD, please visit jp2film.com.

Knights of Columbus
1 Columbus Plaza
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 752-4000

Supreme Knight Speaks on the Future of Middle Eastern Christians

Dear Brother Knight,

The plight of Christians in the Middle East continues to be dire. The Christian populations in both Iraq and Syria have fallen to a fraction of their previous numbers. Many have been martyred, others have been displaced or had to flee for their lives. The Knights of Columbus continues to support the needs of these Christians, having raised more than $10.5 million on their behalf, and having supported projects with that money to provide food, clothing, shelter, catechesis, general relief, medical assistance, education and assistance for other critical needs.

As part of these efforts, last week Supreme Knight Carl Anderson gave congressional testimony of the plight of Middle Eastern Christians. He laid out a six point plan to secure their future in the region. The points he made have been suggested by John Allen of CRUX as important issues for the candidates in this year’s election and can be read here.

Last week the supreme knight also co-authored a piece with Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria.

For more information, or to donate to support these efforts, please visit www.christiansatrisk.org

Knights of Columbus
1 Columbus Plaza
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 752-4000

Christian Communities Face Extinction

Dear Brother Knight:

For the third time in the past several months, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson testified before Congress, this time before the House’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. At the hearing, he described a dire situation for Christians in Iraq and Syria that the United States could take steps to improve. “Many of the region’s indigenous communities now face extinction. These communities may disappear in less than a decade. But their fate is not inevitable,” Anderson warned lawmakers.

Knights of Columbus
1 Columbus Plaza
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 752-4000

News About the Little Sisters Is Not So Little!

A Message from the Executive Director
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dear Friends,

In his later years, when he was bedridden but before Parkinson’s Disease also took his mind, my father often told us about things that we did that made him proud. Most of his comments had to do with our lives at home. “You are a great mother,” he would often tell me. He would tell my sister, “You have a good sense of humor. That will serve you well in life.” He would praise my brother for being “a good husband.”

Ever the selfless man, he wanted to make sure our visits were not about his illness but about our accomplishments. He often repeated to each of us, “You have your whole life ahead of you, live it well.”

Now, when something good happens I often think: Dad would have enjoyed hearing about this. I play in my mind the kind of conversation we would have had.

All last week, I was imagining how pleased and proud my father would have been.

First, his good friend Armando Valladares received our Canterbury Medal. The presenter was Elie Wiesel who rose from his wheelchair to make a remarkable speech about courage. Armando’s speech received at least 6 standing ovations. If you want to be inspired today, please take a few moments to watch it here. “No man is too small or simple to be a witness for the truth,” he said.

Only a few days later, we heard from the Supreme Court on the Little Sisters of the Poor case. The Justices unanimously threw away all lower Court decisions against the Sisters, told the government they could not fine the Sisters and accepted the government overdue concession that services such as the week after pill can be provided to women without having to involve the Sisters. Yay for the Little Sisters!

I also received the news that the Speaker of the House named me to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. I will be one of nine Commissioners serving our country denouncing religious liberty violations around the world.

This is what the Speaker sent out on Twitter:

It’s been a humbling month so far, one that reminds me of something else my father used to say, “We live in the greatest and freest country in the world,” he often told us. “Anything is possible. Let’s work hard and be thankful.”

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

Score One for the Little Sisters!

A Message from the Executive Director
Monday, May 16, 2016

Dear Friends,

It has been a buzzing day.

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous order that had two key outcomes:

The Court accepted the government’s concession– 4 years in the making– that it could change things around to that the Sisters are not forced to violate their faith.
The government cannot fine the Sisters. The Little Sisters are protected from being forced to pay fines or violate their faith.

Are we going back to a lower court? Yes.

But the Supreme Court threw out every single ruling against the Little Sisters and told the lower courts to try again.

In sports terms, it is a punt that has left the Little Sisters with fantastic field position. It’s first and goal on the one yard line. The Little Sisters are winning in a blowout. And it’s the fourth quarter. Soon enough, it will be game over, Little Sisters win.

You and I know this is something that should have happened 4 years ago when we first heard of the mandate and submitted our comments asking for religious groups and ministries to be protected from it. Today, the Supreme Court agreed with us.

Don’t miss Becket lead attorney Mark Rienzi and Sr. Constance of the Little Sisters of the Poor on Greta tonight with the inside scoop!


Kristina Arriaga