You take the good, you take the bad

prayfastThe Los Angeles Times ran two stories about the California marriage proposition that deal heavily with religion. The first is a puff piece — a pro-same-sex marriage press release, really — about the gay weddings a rabbi has performed:

[Rabbi Lisa] Edwards has bounced from small weddings to large ones, from her modest temple on Pico Boulevard to a rambling mansion in Santa Monica called the Victorian. She’s officiated in a Runyon Canyon home and on a Malibu deck. She’s been to Palm Springs, Running Springs and Visalia, where she married two women — who’d been together 37 years — the afternoon before the grandson of one of them celebrated his bar mitzvah. (“They tacked it on because everyone was already there,” Edwards said.)

It’s not uncommon for her to double up on Sundays with afternoon and evening weddings. (A Jewish wedding cannot take place during the Sabbath, which starts at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday.) Labor Day weekend was her Super Bowl of weddings — she did four in three days. Each weekend this month she will officiate at three ceremonies.

The whirlwind wedding tour has left her exhausted but exhilarated.

“Even though I’ve just been crazy busy, it feels like such an extraordinary moment in time and it feels like such a blessing to be with these couples,” said Edwards, 56, whose temple — better known as BCC — bills itself as the first synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews. (The congregation has straight members as well.)

If you can imagine reading 39 paragraphs of that, feel free to go check out the whole thing. You can learn all about how wonderful same-sex marriage is in breathtaking detail and you can avoid learning about any religious, moral or philosophical opposition to it.

The other story is, thankfully, much more critical and incisive. It is, of course, about proponents of Proposition 8 — which would define marriage in California as an arrangement for one male and one female. Right after the California Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, media polls showed that the proposition had very little support. But apparently the battle is closer than was predicted and we’re seeing a ton of stories about these people who somehow support the proposition.

The story begins with an anecdotal lede about Melissa Huff, a young woman who is part of a communal Christian home engaged in fasting and prayer about the issue:

“God, we are asking for an awakening,” she prayed one recent afternoon, standing before a group of young people who had come together to ask for divine intervention in California’s upcoming election.

Next to her, another woman, whose blunt black hair and fashionable clothing would not have been out of place at a Silver Lake club, added her own prayer: “I am asking for rains of revival to open up over California.”

Huff and about three dozen others in their 20s and early 30s have spent every waking minute since Sept. 24 at a San Diego County megachurch praying for the passage of Proposition 8, which would amend the California Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

The story handles the community and their life of prayer respectfully but isn’t overly flattering or sympathetic. Most of the story, in fact, is about the group and not about the particular issue they’re praying about right now.

But the story also does the simple thing that was lacking in the previous story. We hear from people who disagree with the group:

The praying and fasting have discomfited some religious leaders who oppose Proposition 8.

“I am a person of prayer,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a lesbian and a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. But she said she does not believe prayer is “a weapon to be used to influence the political process.”

That, she said, “takes us down a slippery slope from democracy to theocracy.”

I don’t imagine her views about prayer and a hard link to theocracy are shared by many, but at least we get the quote and the perspective. That’s part of journalism.

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  • Kamal

    It would’ve been better for the opponents of Proposition 8 if the story did not include that objection.

  • Martha

    “If you can imagine reading 39 paragraphs of that, feel free to go check out the whole thing.”

    Why, Mollie, you almost sound as if you don’t think journalism is all about the warm fuzzies – don’t you care about the human interest angle? I bet you never liked the Care Bears, either! :-)

    Susan Russell – that would be the same Rev. Susan Russell who is President of Integrity USA and convener of “Claiming the Blessing”. I’ll leave it to the Episcopalians to get on this one, but yeah – the lady is all for the same-sex weddings, even if it is technically in violation of the Canons of the Episcopal Church. Oh, except she hasn’t broken the canons, because she hasn’t done weddings, she’s done blessings, which are a completely different thing, so don’t dare say she’s violating the canons!

  • FW Ken

    They might have included the fact that Susan Russell’s parish was under investigation by the IRS for politicking against Pres. Bush. The rector, Ed Bacon, was preaching, apparently in fairly specific terms, against the Iraq War.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    FW KEN:

    And who stood up for the church? The legal leaders of the religious right, being pro-free speech and pro-freedom of association.

    The new liberals, in the old sense of the word LIBERAL.

  • Jay Steele

    Mollie,

    I have to say that I think your bias is bleeding through. By your terms both pieces are puff pieces. Both give but the briefest of nods to the fact that there is an opposing viewpoint. But taken together – and they are both in today’s issue after all – they balance each other out and both are informative in that they show how Prop. 8 is affecting and galvanizing religious communities on each side of the issue.

    I would call that balanced coverage, unlike your snide swipe at the piece that has a view you obviously don’t share.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAY:

    Yes, again her bias is pro-journalism.

    One is a puff piece. At the very least, it should have been presented with other points of view within Judaism. Try to imagine a piece on a traditional Episcopal priest who is in favor of the amendment running with NOTHING from the church establishment on the doctrinal left.

    The other is balanced, normal journalism.

    They were not run as a “visual fairness” package, unless I was not able to detect that in the online versions.

    Did anyone see the actual tree-pulp paper? Were these a balanced package?

  • Jay Steele

    Terry,

    I haven’t seen a print version but in the online version I am looking like right below the picture of the rabbi doing the wedding is a picture of a fist with “pray” on it and the linked title of the other piece. Seems like visual fairness to me.

    Here are a few paragraphs from the pro-gay marriage piece:

    The rush to the altar is triggered by the possibility that voters might approve Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that would override the court ruling and ban legal gay marriage. But couples marrying now hope that will still leave their marriages legal.

    The California Supreme Court ruling that the state cannot prohibit same-sex marriages doesn’t require religious organizations to recognize them. But clergy whose faiths sanction gay marriage — particularly those with large gay congregations — have found their schedules similarly affected.

    “I have been swamped,” said Rabbi Denise Eger at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. Eger, who in June presided over the ceremony of Diane Olson and Robin Tyler, the first official gay wedding in Los Angeles, estimates she will have done more than 50 weddings by next month.

    Edwards and Eger are rabbis in the Reform movement of Judaism, which recognizes same-sex marriages, as does the Reconstructionist movement.

    Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism do not officially sanction gay marriage, but Conservative rabbis are allowed to marry same-sex couples if they wish.

    This, I would argue, is the point of the piece. There is a rush to get marriages done before the election. There is also a mention of the fact that within some branches of Judaism, gay marriage is not sanctioned.

    Here are a few paragraphs from the other piece:

    They are the fervent, ecstatic center of a statewide prayer vigil and fast that religious leaders say includes thousands of people asking for God’s help in passing the measure.

    But what distinguishes Huff and many of the young people she prays with at Skyline Church here is that after the election, they will not return to normal life.

    Praying and fasting is their job.

    They have forsaken traditional lives to live in communal homes — supported by donations –and pray. All day, every day.

    This year, the focus of their prayers is ending gay marriage.

    “We believe we pray and God answers,” Huff said. And her prayer is simple: “To heal California and establish righteousness.”

    The praying and fasting have discomfited some religious leaders who oppose Proposition 8.

    “I am a person of prayer,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a lesbian and a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. But she said she does not believe prayer is “a weapon to be used to influence the political process.”

    That, she said, “takes us down a slippery slope from democracy to theocracy.”

    Again, we get the point of the piece; there are thousands of people across the state praying in hopes Prop 8 will pass. And we get one small quote from a religious leader who doesn’t believe in this kind of prayer. And then it is back to the praying group.

    Each story is essentially a small window into the world of what is happening in the state as a result of Prop 8. Each tells the personal stories of some who are involved. Each, I thought, was interesting and informative.

    I fail to see how one is more of a “puff piece” than the other. Especially when they appear linked in the online version.

  • Jerry

    I’ve not seen any coverage about why people are choosing to focus on prop 8 rather than prop 4 which is about parental notifications before abortions. I would have expected much more emphasis on 4 as it an abortion (and therefore a life) question.

    At least I’d like to hear from the spokespeople who are working on prop 8 why they made that decision and the theological underpinning of choosing to work on one rather than the other.

    Was there any converage of this issue in the media?

  • Stoo

    I have to agree with Jay. One piece is a little less “puffy” but its one little dissenting voice takes a somewhat exaggerated view (prayer for politics leads us to Iran or something) reducing credibility.

    And Mollie has been grinding her axe enough now such that I don’t believe this is purely about balanced journalism.

  • FW Ken

    And who stood up for the church?

    I didn’t know that… though my first comment wasn’t clear that my interest is in Ms. Russell’s apparently selective concern about mingling faith and politics.

  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    Jay,

    My personal view is that marriage is not an institution that should be handled by the state.

    Is that the bias that you think is bleeding through? I don’t think I even mentioned anything or hinted toward it, but perhaps you could explain to me.

    One story actually spoke with people who have opposing views. One didn’t. One was saccharine-sweet in its portrayal of its subject, one was straightforward.

    I see no evidence to dissuade me.

  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    Yes, Stoo, I have been vocal in my view that this story deserves better coverage. And this is even though I believe marriage regulation is not an appropriate role for the state. But I do believe that both the pro-SSM side and the anti-SSM side deserve good coverage.

  • Herb Brasher

    Did the Apostle Paul perform weddings? Maybe marriage is an institution that should be handled by the state (it does have an interest in preserving society’s building blocks), and not by the church. It sure does take a lot of the church’s leadership’s time and energy–and I wonder if it keeps the church out of focus for its real work.

  • Herb Brasher

    Note: when I officiated at a wedding in Germany, I always had to make sure that the couple had their state marriage license in their hand when they came to the door. That was the legal marriage document. The church wedding has no legality to it, and is for many simply a tradition that must be tacked on, even if they don’t show up for church until the next family baptism or funeral.

  • Jay Steele

    Mollie,

    What a dodge. What’s your view on gay marriage?

    So you are telling me that one very brief quote from someone who has a different view on prayer makes the story qualitatively better than the other that does acknowledge that not all branches of Judaism condone gay marriage?

    Most of all I don’t see grounds for arguing that one portrayal is “saccharine-sweet” and the other isn’t. What I see is two articles each sympathetic to their subject. Here is a sample of language from the “good” article:

    “They are the fervent, ecstatic center”

    “Praying and fasting is their job.”

    “They have forsaken traditional lives to live in communal homes — supported by donations –and pray. All day, every day.”

    “And her prayer is simple”

    This is saccharine-sweet language. Sympathetic value judgments are being made in each of these statements. Is it there is the other article? Yes. But I learned more about Prop 8 from the gay-friendly article: “The California Supreme Court ruling that the state cannot prohibit same-sex marriages doesn’t require religious organizations to recognize them.” I also learned that there are different Jewish branches – they are named – and that some sanction and some don’t sanction gay marriage.

    There is info in the other piece too: “After the state Supreme Court ruled in May to allow same-sex marriage, evangelical leaders in California, working with their counterparts in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began organizing to pass Proposition 8… They launched a fundraising organization, which has raked in so many contributions that the most recent campaign finance filing crashed the secretary of state’s computer.”

    I see no evidence that one story is “much more critical and incisive” than the other. Show me the language or content that is there in one story and not in the other that makes one so much better than the other.

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  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    Jay,

    I already GAVE my views on marriage policy. I don’t believe marriage should be handled by the state. If people want to group together in whatever number or combination they want, I believe that is their business.

    I do find it funny that people always assume I must be opposed to same-sex marriage just because I point out the obvious fact that coverage of its opponents is horrific. It’s like they can’t comprehend that I can defend a group of people (against unfair coverage) with whom I politically disagree — even though I do it all the time here.

    Perhaps it’s because you view the coverage through your own political lens? You’re more inclined to like a story if it supports your own biases? I suppose we all have to caution against this. I rarely, if ever, find a story that supports libertarian policy so it might be easier for me to view it with an emotional distance.

    I also have to deal with an unbelievable number of vicious ad hominem attacks from people speculating about my sexual proclivities and hang-ups because of my belief that MSM coverage on this topic is crappy.

    Clearly you disagree with my post. I already made my case. I find yours to be utterly unconvincing so it looks like we won’t change each others’ mind. So be it.

  • Jay Steele

    Molly,

    For the record I believe that the state should not be in the business of marrying anyone. The state should recognize legal civil unions for gay and straight couples. Marriage is a religious institution and churches should be free to marry or not marry according to their beliefs. That is my bias.

    I really wish you would answer the later half of my previous email where I gave examples of what I believe are “saccharine-sweet” language in what you deemed to be the better article. Do you disagree? If so, why?

    And then I asked you to show me examples from the articles that support your position. In your opening post you quoted a few paragraphs from the gay-friendly article and said the rest of the article was the same. I think I have demonstrated that this is not true. You quoted a couple of sentences from the second article and said that this makes it a better article but I think I have demonstrated that this article also has its share of saccharine-sweet language. So I would like to be shown on what basis you so easily dismissed the one and embraced the other as good journalism.

    I don’t think it is too much to ask of you to argue your case with some detail, since this is a site dedicated to good journalism about religion.

  • FW Ken

    So what, in law, is the difference between a “marriage” and a “civil union”? Theology aside, of course.

  • Jerry

    I also have to deal with an unbelievable number of vicious ad hominem attacks from people speculating about my sexual proclivities and hang-ups because of my belief that MSM coverage on this topic is crappy.

    Mollie, that’s really too bad no matter what side is doing that to you. I suppose it comes with the territory.

    Perhaps it’s a bit off topic, but you did say that believed that marriage was not an issue for the state. I’m not sure I understand that position. Do you believe that the state should be in the “civil union” business with an enforceable contract between the parties involved with “marriage” reserved for a religious ceremony? If that’s so, we still of course have interesting theological questions about what a marriage should be.

  • Jay Steele

    FW Ken,

    I would argue that you can’t put theology aside when you use the word marriage and that is the problem. Marriage is a religious rite. Long ago in America the state got in the business of conflating marriage, the religious rite, with state sanction of civil unions, which provide legal rights to couples. So clergy are legally empowered by the state as agents to seal the deal. It is one area in our US history where there has been no clear separation of church and state.

    If you want the legal protections of a civil union you should go to the courthouse and get them. If you want the blessing of your faith community on your marriage you go there. The two should not be mixed. IMHO

  • Margaret

    Thank you for posting both stories. I must admit I only “peruse” such things here on your website because living here in the Southland, I am aware that whatever is going on in California concerning social “mores” will sooner, rather than later, be presented here by our press as the very latest in intelligent thought and method.

    Hopefully local reporters will read this coverage, maybe they’ll even read these comments, before we are bombarded with the “right” way to do things and by that I mean, “of course we should have gay marriage, of course we should have ….fill in the blank….because California does and we don’t want to be behind in the times.” In still other words: I am hoping to have some thorough, well-researched, and perhaps even balanced journalism to read here soon! (Hope springs eternal!)

  • Dave

    My gratitude to Jay for protracting the debate with Mollie about what her bias really is.

    Here’s mine: A story that focuses on gay marriage in a Jewish context, complete with differences on the core issue between the different denominations of Judaism, cannot remotely be regarded as not getting religion.

  • Jay Steele

    I’ll make one last stab at getting a reply from Mollie or Terry or anyone else who writes here. What I gathered from Mollie’s initial post is that what made the one article better than the other was having a dissenting personal voice. This is better than acknowledging, as the other article did, that there are dissenting viewpoints.

    Is this it? What about informative or educational content? Or the human interest angle that gives you a window into the issue from a personal perspective? Can an article be sympathetic but good?

    What are the objective criteria you use to make a judgment about these stories? How did you bring them to the task of analyzing these stories? Thanks in advance for your reply.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jay,

    I would like to let my post stand and I tend not to enjoy discussions with people who question my motivations from the get go.

    If you want to discuss something with me, feel free to disagree but please don’t begin by saying that I’m biased.

    Again, the first article reads no different than a press release from a gay rights organization. The quotes are all fawning, positive emotion, no color or commentary from opposing sides, and already begins with a strong human interest advantage.

    The second article reads like a news article. It presents information with an emotional distance. It includes positive and negative details about the subject. It is not filled with positive anecdote after positive anecdote after positive anecdote after positive anecdote after positive anecdote after positive anecdote. It’s sympathetic without being embarrassing.

    Obviously this is a media criticism site, which means that we are by definition engaged in criticism, not objective determinations from science. That’s pretty obvious, no?

    I personally don’t think that anyone can be an honest observer of the media and read that first story for anything other than an embarrassing puff piece belong in press release-ville.

    Even though we make our case here day after day, that was such obvious hackery that I trusted readers to figure it out on their own. Perhaps I expected too much.

  • Jay Steele

    Mollie, thanks for your reply. Apparently you did expect too much. I would respond that the second article could have been written for any sympathetic evangelical publication. Plenty of saccharine-sweet language about those who are praying. A brief acknowledgment that there are some out there who see things differently.

    As for your assertion that this is a media criticism site, not a place for objective determinations from science, then you leave yourself open to the charge of making subjective judgments. You like an article or you don’t. Intuition? Bad night the night before? You don’t like the reporter?

    Obviously you are bringing some kind of objective criteria to bear. You named some in your reply to me.

    As for the charge of bias, this is not the first time I have questioned language on this site as biased. You can look it up. And if you do you will find that an acknowledgment has come that the language lent itself to the charge. We all have a bias. Sometimes it bleeds through. I remain convinced that your analysis on these posts betrays a bias.

    Bottom line for me is that I learned something from both articles about what is happening in California as the election approaches. I didn’t know there was a rush of Jewish weddings; I knew about the divisions within Judaism but someone who didn’t know that would have learned something about that. I learned more about Prop 8 from that article than from the other. But in the other I learned about the prayer efforts. Both were interesting and informative. Both also had their flaws. I think the LA Times is to be commended for running both articles on the same day.

    And I would still like to know if you have a religious perspective on same-sex marriage.

    In any case, I enjoy reading the posts on this site, even if I think they tend to portray a conservative slant.

  • FW Ken

    Mr. Steele – RE: your #21

    I am not aware of any theological content in the laws governing marriage in this country; events in Massachusetts and California would seem to bear that out. I have read some gay rights advocates who make the same point. A secular culture cannot, in fact, make determinations on religious matters, but only on the sort of contractual matters that pertain to civil marriage: obligations, duties, property rights, the welfare of children, and so on. It is true that ordained or licensed ministers are empowered to act as agents of the state in this case, but that seems to me a convenience for religious folks. The non-religious are free to have all sorts of non-religious personages conduct their ceremonies.

    My point, admittedly tangential to the journalistic issues at hand, is that marriage, not civil unions, has been the practical, legal issue lately and that’s the way it should be. There are no substantive legal differences between civil unions and marriage, nor should there be. Objections to and support for same-sex relationships, as they are affirmed (or not) by the whole community don’t change in substance whichever words we are using.

  • Jay Steele

    FW Ken:

    I am not sure we are on the same point here. But… The practice of having the clergy act as agents of the state is a vestige of our establishment history in the colonies when the churches controlled who could be married. We dis-established and ended church control of marriages but left the clergy as agents of a state. Theology and politics have been married in the wedding business ever since. I think there should be a divorce.

    Why, for instance, are the Mormons and Evangelicals pumping big money into the Prop 8 campaign? They are worried about the “sanctity” of marriage, a theological concept if there ever was one. They are also worried that if gay marriage is made legal, their clergy, as agents of the state, could be forced to perform gay marriages.

    The solution to the problem is to separate the legal aspects of marriage from the religious. I favor civil unions and religious marriages, but it could be you go to the courthouse to get a civil marriage license and you to your religious community for a religious marriage.

    This won’t end the controversy, of course. But a wall of separation in marriage practice might take some of the passion out of religious communities opposed to gay marriage. The state may bless them, but we don’t recognize them as valid. And whatever the state does it won’t be interfering in any way with the rights of religious communities to marry as they see fit.

  • Dave

    Jay wrote:

    [...A] wall of separation in marriage practice might take some of the passion out of religious communities opposed to gay marriage.

    Jay, I think this is a bit naive. There is a culture-war aspect to oppostion to marriage equity, a fear of calamity to the nation, an outraged sense of territorial threat, a falsification of human history, a distortion of what we know about nature, that I don’t think is going to be assuaged by a neat boundary between the courthouse and the altar. Just mho.

  • Brian L

    Jay Steele –

    Speaking as a member of the “Evangelical clergy”, I do not worry about being an “agent of the state” for marriages or not – I worry about being sent to jail for a hate crime when I stand by my religious convictions, a First Amendment free exercise issue. I am also opposed to elevating any other human relationships to the cultural and legal status of marriage for the harm I think it will do to the society of the state – a political concept if ever there was one.

    I’m not sure you “get” conservative religion, and I think you are showing your own biases that led to your sustained attack on Mollie.

  • Jay Steele

    Dave,

    I am not naive about the culture war aspects of the marriage fight. I know it wouldn’t just go away by clearing up the boundary between altar and courthouse. But I do think, over time, it will ease the pain of what is inevitably coming – legal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

    And in fact the separation is already beginning. In a missive this summer from the Episcopal bishop of California to his “flock” he suggested that they go first to the courthouse to be legally married and then come to the church for the religious blessing. This separation makes it possible for the legal thing to be done, even if people don’t like it, and for churches to then decide if they are going to bless the union. This, I think, is the right approach. But yes, the battle will rage on for awhile.

  • Jay Steele

    Brian,

    First of all, I wasn’t attacking Mollie. I was attacking, or I would rather say, challenging her piece of criticism. There is, as I said previously, nothing wrong with having a bias. We all do. But it seems to me that it is the job of the journalist and the critic to try to keep that bias at bay. I didn’t think Mollie succeeded in this piece.

    If legal and religious marriage is clearly separated then you have nothing to worry about. No one will be able to charge you with a hate crime for standing by your religious convictions.

    As for the political harm that might come from legalizing gay marriage, show me the evidence. In some states it is already on the books; where is the harm to the state? In other states, gay and lesbian couples are living together, raising children, going about their everyday lives being productive members of society. They have been for years. I don’t see the political harm here either.

  • Dave

    Brian L. wrote:

    Speaking as a member of the “Evangelical clergy” [...] I worry about being sent to jail for a hate crime

    Brian, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of alarmism on GR, but this time I decided to comment on it. You should be aware that the religious supporters of marriage equity, of which I count myself one, are no less committed than you to the free exercise of religion. Marriage equity is secured from the state, not the church. Just as liberals sympathetic to feminism opposed feminists when they tried to become censors, so supporters of marriage equity will continue to support religious freedom.

    Jay wrote:

    As for the political harm that might come from legalizing gay marriage, show me the evidence. In some states it is already on the books; where is the harm to the state?

    There have been two good articles linked from this blog on the collision between gay rights (which marriage equity would intensify) and claims of religious freedom — eg, a wedding photographer who tried to claim religious freedom in refusing to take pictures of a lesbian couple, and who was told by a court that this was a violation of commercial non-discrimination laws. One is from http://www.weeklystandard.com and is titled “Banned in Boston”; the other is from NPR.org and is titled “Gay Rights, Religious Liberties: A Three-Act Story”. If you read them you may decide they are no more morally compelling than segregationists’ claims of injury fifty years ago, but there is material that can be thrown at you if you continue to say, “Show me.”

  • Brian L

    Jay,
    I can see why you liked the first article so much.

  • Jay Steele

    Dave,

    Because we live in a democratic society with mores and laws that are constantly evolving, religious practitioners of all stripes frequently experience their religious way of life being challenged. It happened, as you alluded to, during the civil rights movement. It happened when blue laws were repealed and lots of Christians were expected to go go work on Sundays; there was a raft of law-suits around that issue for a time. Jews, of course, had been dealing with this forever. Today, Muslims want time to pray; evangelical Christian pharmacists don’t want to prescribe certain drugs; photographers don’t want to take pictures at gay weddings. Tomorrow it will be something else.

    I don’t see how this “harms” the state, though.

  • Jay Steele

    Brian,

    I actually said that I liked both articles.

  • Dave

    Jay (#36), I’d have to see what the complainer means by “harms the state” to parse that.