Birds of a doctrinal feather

gallery-75208-Birds-on-a-Wire-WallstickerThe church-state junkie in me really does not know where to begin when it comes to evaluating the mainstream media coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case pitting the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco against the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, there was this strange passage:

Hastings was sued in October 2004 by the Christian Legal Society, which requires voting members to sign a statement committing to “orthodox” evangelical Protestant or Catholic beliefs. A student is ineligible, the group says, if he or she “advocates or unrepentantly engages in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

OK, look at the sneer quotes around the word “orthodox.”

Is the newspaper actually saying that there is some doubt about the historical fact that the ancient Christian churches — Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (let’s leave the complex Protestant timeline out of this, for a moment) — have for the past two millennia taught that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin? In effect, is the newspaper going postmodern on us and saying that it is impossible to establish this kind of fact about the history of doctrine in Christianity?

I’m not saying that anyone in the newsroom has to agree with this doctrine. I am saying that it is inaccurate — bad journalism, in other words — to say that small-o and large-O doctrines do not exist on this kind of question. Now, obviously, modern churches are free to change their doctrines on all kinds of creedal and sacramental issues (hello Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori), but that doesn’t change basic facts about history before those changes in those isolated churches.

But I digress.

I was fascinated that in two major California newspapers, the copy desks let the stories go to print without one essential paragraph of facts. In this age of equal-access laws, what other kinds of groups exist on the Hastings campus, in addition to the Christian Legal Society? Do any of these other groups have doctrines or beliefs that define them?

Why does that matter? Here’s a key exchange in the Chronicle piece:

“Religious groups have a right to require their officers to share their religious faith,” said Kim Colby, an attorney with the group, which has chapters at 165 law schools around the country and encourages lawyers to apply biblical principles. “If, at every meeting, the president of the group said, ‘Today we’re going to discuss whether Jesus was the son of God,’ that’s going to bog the group down.”

But Ethan Schulman, an attorney for Hastings, said the issue in the case is whether public universities are obligated to subsidize discriminatory groups.

“This is about a blanket exclusion of gay and lesbian students and students who don’t hold what the Christian Legal Society describes as orthodox Christian beliefs,” Schulman said. “If they’re going to use public money and public facilities, they have to be open to all interested students.”

Note that the CLS allows all kinds of people to attend its meetings. The issue is who gets to vote and assume leadership roles. Does a club have to allow people to assume leadership if they completely and utterly reject the mission and beliefs of the organization? Does a Palestinian student group need to be open to Zionist leaders? What does a Green organization do if dozens of people show up — to vote and to seek leadership — who do not believe in environmentalism and want to corrupt the group’s work?

geeseSeveral years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about a similar case. Here is how I opened that piece.

It took a few minutes for leaders of the Bisexual, Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Rutgers University to realize something was wrong at their back-to-school meeting.

The hall was full of unfamiliar students wanting to become members. Most were carrying Bibles with markers in the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. They also had copies of the campus policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital or veteran status.”

Truth is, this scene hasn’t happened at Rutgers or anywhere else — so far.

What if it did? What if conservative Christians tried to rush a gay-rights group and elect new leaders? What if, when told they couldn’t join because they rejected its core beliefs, evangelicals cited cases in which Christian groups were punished for refusing leadership roles to homosexuals? What if, when jeered by angry homosexuals, evangelicals called this verbal violence rooted in religious bigotry and, thus, harassment?

So what other kinds of groups are accepted, under the Hastings policy? Who makes the cut? The Chronicle doesn’t tell us and the Los Angeles Times doesn’t tell us either. I think that’s a rather important hole in the story, if equal-access laws still apply to religious and non-religious groups on state campuses.

The information, however, is not that hard to find. Check it out. There are some interesting groups, issues and implied doctrines and identities in this list. However, I do find it interesting that HAGL (Hastings Alliance of Gays and Lesbians) is not in this version of the list. Is this complete? There is no legal society for LesBiGay students on this campus in San Francisco?

Stay tuned. I expect this issue to be pivotal in the arguments before the Supreme Court. Oh, one other factor: In the Hastings student handbook, does it clearly state in black and white that the religious liberties of students will be limited in this way on this campus? It is my understanding that policies of this kind — such as codes that limit free speech — must be stated clearly in public documents.

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brett F.

    The GLBT club is called Hastings OUTLAW and the policy: All student organizations are open to all currently enrolled students of UC Hastings College of the Law.

  • Mike Hickerson

    There’s a Student Organizations Handbook on this page:

    However, it seems to be available only on student/faculty intranet.

    I’m curious about this “subsidy” line of reasoning. A listing on a website and the ability to reserve rooms doesn’t seem like much of a subsidy. Is there a legal history behind that argument?

  • dalea

    Is the newspaper actually saying that there is some doubt about the historical fact that the ancient Christian churches — Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (let’s leave the complex Protestant timeline out of this, for a moment) — have for the past two millennia taught that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin?

    Yes, and this is a fairly common concept among a lot of liberal type people. I myself share it. Not everyone defines religion by looking at doctrine alone. Many define religion by looking at both teachings and actual practices, which strikes me as a much sounder way of understanding. While the various churches may have had a formal teaching about sex outside of marriage, enforcement was lacking. …

  • Peter

    Those aren’t snear quotes, but actual quotes because the term orthodox is used in the CLS bylaws–as laid out in the court documents–to distinguish leaders from other Christians or Catholics.

  • tmatt


    If what you are saying is true, then the punctuation should let the reader know that. The entire section of the bylaws should be in direct quotes.

    There is no way for the reader to know that what you are claiming is true.

  • MichaelV

    I don’t like the sneer quotes. I think an entire section where the group uses the term should have been quoted. But what is and isn’t orthodox is a matter of debate, I mean, does the term really mean something that encompasses both Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism? If you’re only talking about sex outside of marriage, sure, but there are enough differences on major theological issues that any group who uses the term like that kind of has to define what they mean by it. CLS must be okay with a range of beliefs up to a certain point. I still wouldn’t scarequote the term, but I might think about saying “what the CLS considers to be orthodox Christianity” and if possible explain what they mean.

  • MichaelV

    I’m also kind of mulling over what I mean by “orthodox” when I usually use it. It seems people sometimes mean “the traditional apostolic teaching handed down through the centuries” and sometimes mean “correct.” To me (and I’m guessing a big-O Orthodox Christian would agree) those two are the same thing. To secular journalists, maybe not so much?

  • tmatt


    The story says BELIEFS.

    Practices have always been inconsistent. The church sins, too, obviously. That does not change doctrines or the fact that a group defines itself by its beliefs or doctrines.

    I mean, Al Gore drives an SUV or something, right?

  • Michael Pettinger


    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. It seems to me that the opinions of secular journalists should not be the root of whether or not to use quotation marks around the word orthodox — after all, what authority do they have to weigh in on that issue?

    But if what you mean is that the quotes represent an acknowledgment of controversy among believers on what that word means, then it seems that you’re in line with tmatt here. The problem is that quotation marks, by themselves, are ambiguous — they can be interpreted either as a “quotation” or a “sneer.” (I’ve even seen NYC shopkeepers using them to emphasize a word — “fresh” milk, “low” prices. I kid you not.)

    Tmatt — the Rutgers scenario may be hypothetical, but I recall reading a story from a number of years back concerning an Evangelical Christian man who strongly opposed same-sex acts and repeatedly tried to “crash” the LGBTQ employee organization at a large corporate employer in Seattle. When he was barred, he filed suit. I suspect the case went nowhere. Admittedly. the issue is different — private employer vs. publicly funded college — but your example is an apt one. The principles at stake here seem to cut in a number of directions. And I say that as someone who is Gay and Christian…

  • Dave

    What are GR’s criteria for whether use of quote marks constitutes sneer quotes (excuse me, “sneer quotes”)? Does the newspaper get the benefit of the doubt? Or is suspicion satisfactory to indict?

  • Brett

    “What does a Green organization do if dozens of people show up — to vote and to seek leadership — who do not believe in environmentalism and want to corrupt the group’s work?”

    This happens fairly regularly with student groups (activities groups in particular). Generally the crashers do not have the stamina to show up to enough meetings to get a vote and actually change the leadership. If they do (or if voting requirements are weak), the replacement leadership doesn’t normally want to follow through on constitutional changes and budgeting (especially mandatory student government budget training). As a result, the group falls to follow through on their group constitution and gets disbanded within a year. Meanwhile, the original group members just move on and start a new group with the same original leadership and essentially the same constitution; since they actually follow through with the budget training and crafting a budget, and likely know everyone in student government already, they just request their old budget and get it.

  • MarkAA

    This thread did a lot to clarify something I’ve wrestled with in conversation and less so in my work as a journalist. I have found the term (little-o) “orthodox” to be almost meaningless in conversations about religion. Religious people each have a different operating definition of what that word means. Most Protestants don’t use it at all, and those I’ve met who do use it as a very generic term to basically mean a few long-held beliefs. So, orthodox beliefs to a Lutheran include a staunch believe in salvation by grace through faith alone — clearly not an “orthodox” Christian view going back before the Reformation. And what would qualify as “orthodox” Methodist or Evangelical beliefs? Even an “orthodox Christian”? On one level, if you’re strictly talking about doctrines that have remained unbroken in all Christian denominations since the days of the Early Church, you’re probably not going to find too many people who can even agree (in common knowledge ways) what those might be. Only from perhaps an Orthodox or Traditionalist Catholic perspective might someone claim there’s an overall “orthodoxy” to Christianity (cue Chesterton or maybe Lewis).

    I’ve even had some sort of amusing talks with Catholics for whom some post-Vatican II practices, such as taking communion in the hand or using the Haugen and Hass folk hymns, are considered “orthodox” because “that’s the traditional music of the church” (yes!). And so on. Ahistorical revisionism and simple lack of historical basis for anything has whacked the legs out from under any semblance of broadly understood Christian “orthodoxy.”

    It gets even worse in the secular/liberal world, where there’s less a grasp on objective truth, so even the concept of “orthodoxy” is suspect and to be avoided in serious discourse at all costs. When necessary, operating definitions of “orthodox” end up being “what is practiced generally.” Most reporters don’t even know what actually is practiced generally, if there is such a thing, and don’t subscribe to the idea absolute truths (except about the ideas of freedom of the press and the utter legality of abortion, I suppose).

    So, “orthodox” ends up being a useless word, kind of like “traditional” or “liberal” or “fervent” or “progressive” — best avoided in news copy or conversation because each and every reader understands what it means differently.

  • MarkAA

    Dave (and others),
    I have found the accusation of sneer quotes to be a little bit swift here. What I find in actual practice is that reporters who are extremely space cramped, time-crushed or thin on background/history of an issue (which is practically all reporters today, covering many beats or GA assignments) will put quotes around a word or two to simply indicate that the words aren’t *their* words in the story, when they believe the words indicate a potential judgment call and perhaps could yield a correction or angry phone call to their editors over word choice if not quoted. Here’s the kind of stuff I see:
    (In a 7 inch update on a city council meeting)
    The mayor’s special committee determined that “adequate setback” would be required for the new parking lot. [That's not sneering the mayor; the reporter simply didn't have the time to look up the document that phrase is defined on, and is taking the committee document she got at the meeting as authoritative.
    (In a 10-inch story about township voting rules)
    The councilman pointed out that there is "no permission" for protesters to stand in the easement. [The reporter might have used his own words to say something like it, but why not use the actual words by the councilman, especially if it IS up for debate whether such permission does exist.]

    These may not be great examples, but they’re typical. Absolutely, sneer quotes DO exist and are used in just that way, but I think sometimes reporters who aren’t ironclad on the background of their topic, or who are trying to avoid any appearance of biased word choice, fall back on the very, very short quote to avoid it. That’s not sneer, it’s kind of the opposite, admitting through shorthand that you’re letting someone else’s words suffice for the story. And most of the stories I’m seeing day to day in the daily I edit are between 5″ and 15″ on topics that are incremental or general-interest features, written by a staff of reporters covering the same metropolitan area a staff fully twice the size covered just three or four years ago, in the ongoing media industry-pocalypse.

  • michael

    I would suggest that both this article and this thread point to an inherent weakness in journalism as such that I have repeatedly tried to point out: namely, that its own methodological and epistemological commitments make it incapable of recognizing any normativity other than sociological normativity–how people happen to be behaving–as anything other than arbitrary. Sociology/empiricism wins every time because the game is rigged at the outset.

    Sure, one can note the fact that most traditions, especially the hierarchical ones, have a definitive body of belief, and so, I grant you that the sneer quotes are gratuitous. But without some extra-journalistic judgment, that is, unless the journalist become a theologian or philosopher (or acknowledge that he’s already tacitly engaged in such), then there is no reason for a journalist to regard doctrine or tradition as more ‘orthodox’ than what the majority of people in any given moment happen to be thinking and doing or to regard any criterion of ‘Christianness’ as more fundamental than people’s self-identification.

    Something similar is true of so-called ‘Paganism’ by the way.

    There may be some journalists who ‘get religion’, but not, I would argue, insofar as they are journalists.

  • Dave

    Michael, I take exception to your claim that the game is rigged. If journalists applied normative standards from some body of moral guidelines, that would be a rigged game. Tmatt can offer you links to a study showing past bias at one MSM venue in favor of abortion rights; that’s a rigged game.

    I’m not sure what you meant by “so-called ‘Paganism’;” if it’s not Paganism, what is it? If you meant that the MSM are completely at sea as to what Pagans believe, I agree.

  • Peter

    But the term “orthodox” is at the center of the legal dispute, because it is the terms used by the organization to determine whose form of Christianity is acceptable for leadership purposes and therefore is part of the ideological litmus test. I’m not sure how it can be seen as a “sneer” since it is an essential part of the legal dispute.

    These stories are about another phase of a five year legal battle, which the San Francisco paper has certainly written about since the litigation has taken place in San Francisco. In the sense that they are bringing people up to speed on the issues before the Supreme Court–as opposed to the issues advocates think should be the topic–I’m not sure you can judge the journalism based on a single report in a long-term story.

  • Jerry

    There may be some journalists who ‘get religion’, but not, I would argue, insofar as they are journalists.

    I can’t agree with that statement, at least as an ideal. This issue about “orthodox” points out how hard it is to do an outstanding job, to be sure, but I think the ideals of journalism are the right ideals: objective, fact-based, well-researched stories.

  • michael


    Who said anything about journalism applying normative moral standards? In fact, who said anything about morality at all? Sure wasn’t me.

    I am not saying that journalism shouldn’t be religiously and theologically neutral,but rather that this neutrality is and must be a fiction and that this is not a matter merely of the subjective bias of this or that reporter, but of deep epistemological, ontological, and ultimately theological judgments built into the method itself. The method itself contains a tacit theological worldview in other words. Once again, this is not to deny a difference between good journalism and bad journalism; nor is it to deny that good journalism sometimes reveals important information, but to call attention to journalism’s inherent limitations, to which most journalists and consumers of journalism seem blind. And I would say this. To the extent that real insight breaks through, especially with regard to religious matters, it is often due to the human brilliance of this or that reporter and occurs in spite of the fact that he is a journalist, not because of it.

    My point with respect to this story is simply that claims to orthodoxy (like claims to truth for that matter) are claims of a different order that journalism as such has little capacity to recognize, much less to deal with. In other words, while I certainly agree with Terry that it is gratuitous to put ‘orthodox’ in sneer quotes, it is in some ways the logical conclusion of journalism’s own methodology. How could one determine that this term had other than merely sociological or empirical content (what most people happen to believe at the moment) without appealing to some extra-journalistic judgment? This, it seems to me, is what TMatt is doing when he appeals to a history of doctrinal consensus–it is a decidely ‘un-journalistic appeal in other words (which I happen to agree with). But why, from a journalistic point of view, should historical doctrinal consensus count as orthodoxy now? If the inherent limitations in the method determine in advance that all competing claims to orthodoxy are a draw, then aren’t sneer quotes or some equivalent device entirely approporiate when noting one side’s claim to hold the ‘orthodox’ position?

    Regarding Paganism, my only point is that from a journalistic point of view, the same empiricism which renders claims to orthodoxy arbitrary means that identifying oneself as a Pagan (like identifying oneself as a Christian) suffices to count as one, irrespective of what that term has historically meant or how what is now called Paganism may relate to other historical phenomena described with this term. As it happens, I have my doubts about how well contemporary ‘Pagans’ understand ‘Paganism’–hence the ‘so-called’–and I noted those some months ago I believe, but they are a bit beside the point I don’t want to go into all that again. So if that was too much of a drive-by adjective, I apologize.

  • Chris Bolinger

    That one bird at the bottom apparently is doing the bird equivalent of chin-ups on the wire.

  • jake B

    I think many people are missing the point on this argument. Hastings is not limiting belief, speech, or religious rights. All they are doing is saying that if all people are not allowed to participate the school will not fund them. Each group gets a certain amount of money. Maybe we should argue that other groups should not get money, but I don’t think the government needs to subsidize our religions. If it is a legal group, let any join. If it is a Christian group, do it on your own tab. As a Christian, I don’t see why we need to government to fund our beliefs.

  • tmatt

    Spiking away.

    Stick to the journalism subject and stick to responsible, mainstream media. Not activists with radio mikes and TV cameras.