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Nebraska Supreme Court rules that divorce decree does not mandate Catholic Mass attendance

LINCOLN — Does “participation” in the Catholic religion require attendance at weekly Mass?

The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday sidestepped that sticky question about a religion’s requirements, saying that’s not for a civil court to decide.

But in the case of a contested divorce decree, the court ruled that the decree didn’t specifically require a mother to take her children regularly to Mass.

In a unanimous, 13-page opinion written by Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Papik, the court ruled that while the divorce decree required the children to “be enrolled and be participants in the Catholic religion,” it only specifically required them to participate in first communion and confirmation, as well as CCD classes, which are weekly Catholic education classes required of children who do not attend Catholic school.

“We do not understand how the requirement that the children be registered as Catholics in some way also compels the Mass attendance ordered by the district court,” wrote Papik, in overturning a judgment by Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon.

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Patrick Gomez had gone to court after discovering that his ex-wife, Elizabeth, had begun taking their two children to Lutheran Church during her parenting time. That, he said, violated a portion of the parenting plan in their divorce decree that required that the children “be enrolled and be participants in the Catholic religion.”

The father presented evidence showing that the tenets of the Catholic Church require attendance at weekend Mass as well as Mass on holy days of obligation. That prompted Judge Bataillon to order the wife to follow the tenets of the church and either take the kids to Mass during her parenting time, or allow the father to do so.

But the Supreme Court tossed out that order. Papik wrote that while courts are regularly called upon to decide requirements of “earthly regimes,” the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have questioned whether a civil court should determine the obligations of a religious faith.

Beyond that, the judge wrote, the divorce decree only required “participation” in the Catholic religion and didn’t specifically require that the children attend Mass.

“... The word ‘participant’ on its own suggests only that a person take part in something to some degree,” Papik wrote. The decree, he added, didn’t include “qualifying language” like “full” that would have clarified the meaning of “participation.”

While the wife, who now goes by the name Elizabeth Tonniges, won’t have to take the children to Mass, she may have to seek permission from her ex-husband to take them to Lutheran services. The judge noted that the divorce decree requires a spouse to obtain a written agreement from the other spouse to allow the children to participate in religious activities outside the Catholic religion. The wife did not contest that clause.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

Millard schools, Avenue Scholars launch new internships in high-demand jobs

Audrey Mugisha admits that until two weeks ago, he had barely looked under the hood of a car.

Now the 18-year-old knows how to change the oil in your car. He can rotate your tires, too. And he’s learning what it takes to make it as an automotive technician and mechanic.

“Before I came here, I had no idea about cars,” said the Benson High School senior-to-be as he worked at Woodhouse Ford last week. “It’s a great experience.”


Audrey Mugisha

Mugisha is one of 28 students taking part in a new internship program being piloted this summer by the Millard Public Schools and the Avenue Scholars Foundation, which provides school mentoring and scholarships for at-risk youths. The internship program’s goal is to expose more high school students to potential career opportunities, particularly in high-demand fields like information technology, specialized trades and auto and diesel technology.

As state economic developers and employers have struggled in recent years to fill the state’s workforce needs, the Millard district and Avenue Scholars saw an opportunity to help Nebraska attract, retain and develop talent in fields where need is particularly high.

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“We do see this as talent recruitment and retention for our state,” said Heather Phipps, Millard associate superintendent. “The brain drain is a real thing.”

Avenue Scholars has long been involved in setting up internships for the 800-plus Omaha-area youths it mentors annually, most of whom come from backgrounds of generational poverty. But those internships have typically been only once the students are out of high school and into some type of post-secondary school or training program.

It became apparent there was a need to begin exposing young people to internships and career options earlier, said Ken Bird, CEO of Avenue Scholars. So Avenue Scholars and the Millard schools decided to team up to start the Youth, Business & Community Internship program.

Businesses with needs in a number of high-demand fields were recruited to provide paid internship opportunities. The four fields selected include auto and diesel, information technology, business, and trades and manufacturing.

Students affiliated with Avenue Scholars as well as students at Millard were then given the opportunity this spring to apply for the internships. To apply, students had to be entering their senior years. Students then went through job interviews with their employers before being selected.

Before the students went on the job, they spent a week taking professional skills courses, where they got tips on how to successfully navigate the working world. The internships started in mid-June.

The learning won’t end with summer. In the fall during their senior years, the students also will be taking a capstone class that will take them deeper into exploration of the career field.

If the program works out as hoped, employers will become connected with future potential workers and stick with them as they continue their educations.

But it’s also accepted that students in the program may also learn that a particular career is not for them. There’s value in that, too.

“For a student, it’s as beneficial to learn what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do,” Phipps said.

The program launched in year one with 28 interns, about one-third from Avenue Scholars and the rest from Millard high schools. Sixteen businesses are taking part.

“It’s win-win,” said Cindy Ciadek, who is coordinating the program for Avenue Scholars. “The students get this amazing exposure to these businesses they didn’t even know existed. And the businesses are all thrilled to have our interns there and to share what they do. They’re hoping they can develop the students’ interest to stay in that field.”

Taking what they have learned, Millard and Avenue Scholars are planning to start earlier next year with hopes of expanding to at least 100 internships. The program also may be expanded to additional school districts. A key will be finding more businesses open to participating.

“It’s a great benefit to us,” said Melissa Stender of Woodhouse Auto Family, which this summer is employing five of the interns at its various dealerships. “We love it.”

Mugisha, whose family came to the United States only three years ago as refugees from Uganda, on Monday reported for the start of the third week of his internship at Woodhouse Ford on North 72nd Street.

He spent the morning helping check in customers at the service desk, writing up work order tickets. He also had Avenue Scholars career coach Carnetta Hardin check in with him, something the coaches do weekly with all the participants to make sure things are going OK.

If Mugisha was looking for further inspiration, he only needed to look at one of his co-workers.

Abdul Bakari is a graduate of Avenue Scholars who through the help of the program recently got his degree in automotive technology at Metropolitan Community College. Now he works full time in the service department at Woodhouse.

“If it wasn’t for her, I never would have gotten out of school,” Bakari said of Hardin.

Hardin said Mugisha was quiet and reserved as he went through his job skills training last month. So she was happy to see him Monday morning on the job and smiling.

“The light bulb has gone on for him,” she said. “Opportunity makes all the difference.”

Along with gaining experience in the automotive world, Mugisha also is hoping to put the money he’s making this summer to good use.

He’s hoping he can buy his own car.

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2020 Democrats caught between corn and ethanol foes in Iowa

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists are taking their case that corn-based ethanol is bad for the planet to the state that makes more of it than any other: Iowa.

They are bird-dogging presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker at rallies and town halls, trying to dissuade them from making politically convenient pro-ethanol pledges to get votes in corn country. Their message: Biofuels are driving environmental harms, from disappearing wetlands to algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

With Democratic 2020 candidates flocking to Iowa, biofuel foes are challenging conventional wisdom that ethanol support is untouchable in Iowa.

So far, their efforts aren’t working.

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At least nine presidential candidates made pilgrimages to ethanol factories in Iowa this year — including President Donald Trump, who visited the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy facility in Council Bluffs on June 11.

Former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke toured the Big River Renewables LLC ethanol plant in West Burlington two days after announcing his bid. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio praised biofuels as good for the planet at a POET Biorefining plant in Gowrie in May. On Tuesday, Rep. Tim Ryan stopped by the Golden Grain Energy LLC ethanol facility in Mason City.

Showing love for ethanol is part of the political script in Iowa. “You’ve got to get a picture in a cornfield, if you can find one, and you have to have the picture with an ethanol plant and then you’ve got to have the picture with the corn dog,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames.

For years, biofuel advocates have promoted the idea that backing ethanol is a litmus test for winning Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucuses. That persists despite the 2016 Republican caucus victory of Ted Cruz, who criticized the U.S. biofuel mandate. Many former critics have reversed course after campaigning in Iowa, from John McCain and Marco Rubio to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Iowa produced 2.5 billion bushels of corn last year — with 62% of that going to make ethanol. And the state leads the nation in producing biodiesel, a renewable fuel typically made from soybeans. A biofuel trade group estimates that the industry pumps about $5 billion into Iowa’s economy, or about 3% of the state’s GDP.

Biofuel foes view Iowa as the front lines of their fight. Campaign promises made there have a direct link to pro-biofuel policies in Washington, said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive officer of Mighty Earth, a not-for-profit group that stationed activists in the state.

“Corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are even dirtier than dirty oil — and the path to building support for reform goes through Iowa,” Hurowitz said.

Biofuel critics saw an opening this year. The Democratic field is crowded with coastal lawmakers who don’t have entrenched positions supporting renewable fuel. And many of the Democratic contenders are competing to outline bold plans for combating climate change — some with visions of phasing out all liquid transportation fuels, whether made of corn or crude.

The National Wildlife Federation has armed presidential candidates with talking points crafted to help them prove that they support rural America and corn farmers without endorsing ethanol at the same time. Activists also conducted door-to-door petition drives, panel workshops and volunteer training to emphasize the issue.

“A lot of the candidates come in here assuming they have to talk about how great ethanol is because they think that’s what Iowans want to hear,” said Anya Fetcher, an activist who led Mighty Earth’s campaign in Iowa City. “It’s our chance to shape the narrative and let them know early on that it is important to talk about real climate solutions.”

Fetcher used that strategy with 2020 hopeful Tulsi Gabbard after a “meet and greet” event in an Iowa City brewery in February.

Fetcher wound around tables and through a throng of voters to reach Gabbard, and told the Hawaii Democrat that, contrary to popular belief, Iowans prefer to fight climate change with wind power, solar energy and land conservation rather than corn-based ethanol.

“I am in complete alignment with what you are talking about,” Gabbard responded, her voice rising over the din in the crowded bar as she stressed that it’s important to ensure that farmers aren’t hurt.

Mighty Earth had other early successes, recording Warren saying she wants “better biofuels” and using video of Booker saying he supports ethanol to spur a follow-up conversation with his staff.

The chairman of Washington-based Mighty Earth is former California Rep. Henry Waxman. The group’s Iowa biofuel initiative was partially underwritten by Jerry Jung, a former chief executive of heavy-equipment dealer Michigan CAT who blames the U.S. biofuel mandate for declines in the Monarch butterfly population.

Opponents of the 14-year-old Renewable Fuel Standard, including oil companies and wildlife advocates, say the mandate that requires biofuel in gasoline and diesel drives farmers to plow prairie grasses and shrubs to grow corn and soybeans. And they argue that greenhouse gas emissions associated with corn-based ethanol are higher than anticipated when land conversions are factored in.

Federal and state agencies generally treat ethanol as a climate-friendly alternative to petroleum-based gasoline. California, for instance, approves ethanol under its aggressive low-carbon fuel standard requirements. And a U.S. Department of Agriculture study published in April credits corn-based ethanol with producing at least 39% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline over its entire life cycle, from the initial production of raw materials to its processing and eventual combustion in vehicles.

Biofuel advocates dispute claims of rampant land changes they say are based on flawed research. In the middle of an agricultural crisis, “farmers are trying to hold on to the land they have,” said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council. “They’re not clearing more land. They’re trying to survive.”

Embracing ethanol has enduring political appeal as a way for candidates to show empathy for rural America — a powerful tool for urban Democrats trying to court Midwest voters. And some Democrats, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, see the issue giving them an opening against Trump, who promised to “protect” ethanol on the campaign trail but has been more equivocal in the White House.

The Trump administration gave the industry a major win by lifting restrictions on higher-ethanol E15 gasoline sales but also has been criticized for exempting dozens of oil refineries from biofuel quotas.

Polling shows that supporting ethanol still helps in Iowa. In a March survey conducted for Focus on Rural America, 84% of likely Iowa caucusgoers said they would be more inclined to back a candidate “who supports expanding production of renewable biofuels like ethanol and growing related jobs in rural communities.”

But ethanol isn’t a priority issue for most voters — it’s consistently outranked by other concerns such as health care, immigration and education. Biofuel didn’t even place in a list of nearly two dozen issues raised by likely Iowa voters as their most pressing concerns in an April Monmouth University poll.

Still, biofuel boosters are making appeals to Democratic candidates — and countering Mighty Earth’s campaign with one of their own. They are inviting candidates to tour manufacturing facilities and circulating briefing memos rebutting Mighty Earth’s arguments. One of the biggest U.S. ethanol producers, Green Plains Inc., plans to “engage with candidates on pro-ethanol policy,” Chief Executive Todd Becker told analysts on an earnings call.

And ethanol producers have established a new group — called Biofuels Vision 2020 — to help candidates appreciate “the benefits of renewable fuels for the environment, energy security and Iowa’s rural economies.”

“It’s everything Democrats want to talk about in terms of engaging rural America. It’s climate, it’s jobs, it’s environment and it’s rural income,” said Monte Shaw, head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “If they’re willing to learn and have a science discussion, then we’re going to be fine. The facts are on our side.”

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

In Brazil, it's not just a C-section — it's a party

SAO PAULO — The white-gloved women laid chocolates and cakes on silver trays. They filled the crystal vases with roses. Now the guests were arriving. Mariana Casmalla had been buffed, primped and polished in preparation for this moment.

She was ready for her C-section.

“It’s a special occasion,” explained Casmalla, a 28-year-old dental surgeon, batting professionally made-up eyes.

“Don’t we get dressed up for parties and special dates? It’s the same thing.”

Elective caesarean sections have long been a status symbol among Brazil’s elite, a way for some of the country’s wealthier women to avoid the unpredictability of natural childbirth. The country has one of the highest rates of caesarean births in the world — they account for 55.5% of all deliveries in Brazil, spiking to 84% in private hospitals, according to the Public Health Ministry. The rate in the United States for all hospitals is 32.9%.

Now the phenomenon is inspiring a new industry of party planners, makeup artists and caterers, focused on turning these highly orchestrated operations into wedding-like spectacles, produced for an audience.

The main event: the birth itself, viewed by family and friends from a gallery built for the purpose.

At the Sao Luiz private hospital in Sao Paulo, a mother-to-be can get her hair and makeup done in her hospital room. For 2,000 reais per day — about $500 — her family can rent out the presidential suite, with a living room and bathroom for guests, a balcony and minibar. Mothers can request their favorite flowers and magazines, and even change the furniture if it clashes with their planned decorations. A 22-story maternity ward now under construction will include a wine cellar and ballroom.

“It’s cultural,” said Marcia da Costa, the hospital’s director. “Brazilians want to plan for everything. They don’t want to hit traffic on the way to the hospital. They want to get their nails done, get a wax, to plan it like an event.”

Still, da Costa and other health professionals are ambivalent. The World Health Organization has long campaigned to reduce elective C-sections, which are nearly twice as deadly for mothers than natural births and require longer recovery times for mothers and babies.

In Brazil, public health officials and some of the country’s top doctors have worked to cure the upper class of its penchant for the procedure.

Costs vary, but C-sections are generally more expensive than natural childbirths. While the risk of maternal death in well-equipped private hospitals is low, hemorrhage and infection are more likely in an elective C-section than in a natural birth. For babies, C-sections have been linked to higher rates of respiratory distress, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The WHO estimates that about 10% of births require a C-section.

“Here we had the opposite statistics,” said Rodrigo Aguiar, a director at Brazil’s National Supplementary Health Agency, which regulates private hospitals.

The numbers were even more pronounced during the holiday months, he said, when women and doctors called for elective C-sections before the baby was ready to be born. This led to higher rates of respiratory problems for infants and prolonged hospital stays for mothers and babies.

“We saw that we had to re-evaluate these percentages and make sure that birth decisions were being geared toward the health of the mother and the child, and not for convenience,” Aguiar said.

Brazil’s Health Ministry has taken steps to reduce what it calls the caesarean “epidemic.” In 2016, the government banned medically unnecessary C-sections before 39 weeks.

Brazilian women historically have had good reason to fear natural birth. The country’s overwhelmed public health system meant that doctors and nurses lacked the resources to closely monitor women through hours of labor. C-sections allowed the staff to closely monitor mothers for a shorter amount of time.

At private hospitals, the procedure has gained favor both among mothers — who want their personal doctors, not the on-call staff at the hospital, to deliver their babies — and among doctors juggling busy schedules.

Olimpio de Moraes Filho, president of the Brazilian Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says C-sections fit some lifestyles.

“C-sections today are much safer than they were 30 years ago,” he said. “Things are changing. Women are in the job market. Couples are trying to schedule a moment when the family can get together.”

At the Albert Einstein Maternity Hospital in Sao Paulo, the party starts before the baby is born. A frosted window looking into the operating room turns transparent for the surgery, allowing guests to see the moment of the birth.

As Casmalla was wheeled to her operating room, 15 of her closest family members and friends trailed behind. They gathered around the window, ears pressed to the wall, listening for the baby’s first wail.

When the doctor pulled Lorena from the incision in Casmalla’s abdomen, the window turned transparent. Casmalla gave the audience a thumbs-up.

“She’s here!” said Casmalla’s mother-in-law, Marisol, tearing up. Relatives watching on FaceTime asked for closer looks.

Paula Ascar Baracat is co-founder of Estudio Matre, a party-planning service that specializes in maternity wards. She says new mothers increasingly prefer receiving guests at the hospital, rather than at home.

“The mom has just given birth, she is learning to breast-feed, she doesn’t want to entertain at home,” Baracat said. “So while she’s getting ready for the birth, we are getting ready to host.”

Baracat’s clients spend upward of $10,000 for services that include floral arrangements, guest books, monogrammed sheets, personalized water bottles and silver-plated favors for guests.

Women who have natural births often seek these services, too. Nina Materna, another party-planning service, has three hotlines that women can call as they go into labor. The company promises to have fully sterilized decorations up within eight hours. But C-sections allow mothers another level of planning.

In 2015, Linus Pauling Fascina, director of the maternity ward at Einstein, called together doctors, doulas, midwives, feminist activists and government officials to discuss ways to increase the rate of natural births in Brazil’s private hospitals.

The group launched the Appropriate Birth Project, a partnership with 35 hospitals to prioritize natural deliveries among the country’s elite.

One of their first steps was to bring the luxury and family experience associated with C-sections to natural childbirth.

Einstein hospital opened five new natural birth centers with private showers and tubs. At Sao Luiz, women giving birth naturally can choose the color of the lighting of their in-room whirlpool bathtubs. Fairy lights on the ceiling can turn blue or red, depending on the mood of the patient. All rooms are equipped with MP3 players that patients can load with personalized playlists.

Results came quickly. In four years, the rate of natural births at Einstein rose from 18% to nearly 50%. The program has expanded to more than 200 hospitals.

“The changes have to be concurrent for everyone: women, their families, their workplace, doctors, nurses,” Fascina said. “When the husband comes in and says, ‘I’m working, I need to know the date of the birth’ — it’s about learning to plan for the unplannable.”

For Bruna Viera, 32, a natural birth was always out of the question.

“It doesn’t fit with our lifestyle,” she said. “I’m a doctor, and my husband is, too. We have a very planned life and had to take vacation for the baby to be born.”

Viera spent weeks planning the drinks and decorations for her maternity room at Sao Luiz. By the time baby Arthur made his debut last month, her hospital room was decorated with blue and white balloons, the fridge was stocked with rum-barrel-aged beer, and the table of her luxury suite was lined with succulent plants — parting gifts for the 80 guests she expected that weekend.

“I love it,” she said. “You feel the tenderness people have for you. Many moms suffer from postpartum depression and feel isolated. Your hormones are raging. But to be surrounded by the people you love, people who saw you grow up, is extraordinary.”

As a half-dozen of her mother’s friends cooed at the baby, her husband popped open a bottle of wine.

Grandmother Lucimeire Viera swayed baby Arthur in her arms while holding a glass of merlot.

“You see, darling,” she explained to the baby. “Life’s a party.”