Faith in the News

Utah teacher apologizes for Ash Wednesday cross incident

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah teacher on administrative leave apologized Monday for making 9-year-old Catholic student William McLeod wash off the Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead, saying it was a misunderstanding.

Fourth-grade teacher Moana Patterson said Monday she thought the cross was dirt, and she gave William a wet wipe to clean off not knowing it was a religious symbol. She said that she hopes everyone can move forward and build understanding together. Patterson was surrounded by parents and students who support her at a news conference held at Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.

“My entire life has been centered around respecting diversity,” Patterson said. “I would never intentionally disrespect any religion or any sacred symbol.”

The incident occurred last week at Valley View Elementary School in Bountiful, Utah.

“This is something that happens when people aren’t necessarily exposed to other cultures other religions. It’s not always necessarily mean spirited,” said Republican Utah Sen. Todd Weiler, who represents the area.

Patterson left the news conference without taking questions after she read from a prepared statement. It’s unknown if she has a religious affiliation. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, account for about two-thirds of Utah residents. The faith doesn’t observe Ash Wednesday.

Karen Fisher, William’s grandmother, said she’s not quite ready to accept the apology because Patterson pressed the boy to remove the symbol even after he explained its significance twice. “It’s kind of hard to swallow, a little, for me,” she said.

Fisher doesn’t want Patterson to lose her job or for any harm to come to her, but said a break is warranted to ensure she and others in the community are aware of other faith traditions. “There needs to be training for all religions, all beliefs,” she said.

In Utah, Catholics are the minority. The 330,000 Catholics in the state account for about 10 percent of the population, said Jean Hill at the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

William had just returned to the school after attending Catholic mass when Patterson called the ash marking “inappropriate” and gave him a hand wipe to clean it off in front of his classmates, Fisher said.

Patterson was called into a meeting with the principal and the school board about the incident and called Fisher to apologize, Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said last week. The Davis School District opened an investigation into Patterson’s action and placed her on paid administrative leave.

Lawmakers want to revisit vaccination religious exemptions

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A top leader of the Connecticut General Assembly and some of his fellow Democrats want their colleagues to consider eliminating a provision that allows parents and guardians who enroll their children in public schools to exempt them from immunizations for religious reasons. They are concerned that the exemption is being abused.

The proposal has alarmed some parents and guardians, dozens of whom gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to make it clear that they believe such a move would infringe on their rights.

“The government has … zero rights to ask you what your religion is, or for you to explain it, for you to belong to a certain religion. This is my religion and that’s it. I don’t have to explain it or defend it to anybody,” said Shannon Gamache of Ashford, who chose not to have her son fully vaccinated after he experienced what she believes were adverse side effects from a vaccine. She is Christian.

Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said lawmakers aren’t trying to force people to vaccinate their children and violate their religious beliefs. Rather, he said they wouldn’t be allowed to enroll in public schools and put other children at risk.

“It’s not fair to that child with a compromise immune system to have to go to school with those children,” he said. Ritter wants lawmakers to vote on legislation removing the exemption sometime within the next 12 months, which means it could be during this legislative session or the next. He noted that Mississippi, West Virginia and California don’t allow religious exemptions.

When he was co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, Ritter raised concerns about the growing number of kindergarten-age children entering Connecticut public schools without being vaccinated. He successfully pushed in 2015 for a change in state law that required parents and guardians who submit statements that immunizations violate their child’s religious beliefs to have them “acknowledged” annually by a school nurse, notary public, justice of the peace or other officials.

He said Wednesday that the new system was not working and school nurses in particular have been reluctant to sign off on these religious exemption statements, which he believes are sought by some families for philosophical reasons, rather than religion.