Thou shalt favor one side

Two elements of a Washington Post story that ran over the weekend appeal to me: small-town folks and a battle over church and state.

In my time with The Associated Press, I enjoyed going to the hinterlands of Texas and interviewing ordinary people, such as the time I wrote about a county in “Bush Country” that split almost evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election.

Similarly, I tend to devour clashes over religious rights in the public arena (call it a personal weakness) and last year did a 2,000-word piece titled “Faith-Based Fracas” for Christianity Today.

So when I came across this Post story on the Ten Commandments stirring a fight in a Virginia school district, I knew I wanted to read it.

The top of the report:

PEARISBURG, VA. – Nearly 12 years ago, in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School, officials quietly posted the Ten Commandments on the walls of Giles County public schools. It was a natural reaction, said residents of this rural county peppered with churches, to such an alarming moral breakdown.

There the commandments stayed, within nondescript frames that also featured the first page of the U.S. Constitution, stirring little controversy until December. That’s when an anonymous complaint prompted the superintendent to order the removal of the displays. The decision sparked such passionate community backlash that the county school board voted to post them again in January.

Now the fight appears headed to the courts as residents of Giles County, along Virginia’s rugged, pious southwestern spine, fight what they call mounting pressure from Washington and Richmond to secularize their public institutions. The district also runs a so-called “Bible Bus” so that students can get privately organized Christian instruction off site during the middle of the school day.

That’s a pretty straightforward start, except for the reference to “so-called ‘Bible Bus.’” That choice of wording screams: CAN YOU REALLY BELIEVE THEY DO THAT!?

Go ahead and read the whole story.

Here’s what you’ll find: Well-meaning Christian locals who don’t know anything about the law or the Constitution. Setting them straight are legal scholars and smart people from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

In general, this story is heavy on vague generalizations and suffers from a frustrating lack of specificity. The story references the school superintendent (no name given), the pastor who suggested the Ten Commandments display (no name given), the school’s legal counsel (no name given) and many residents (but strikingly few actually named).

Here’s who’s quoted by name: On the side that supports placing the Ten Commandments in the schools, we hear from an elementary school principal and a 16-year-0ld student. On the side that questions the Ten Commandments display, we hear from the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a professor of constitutional law, a 23-year-old former student and an ACLU member who says the “good Christians” of Giles County have a “distorted” knowledge of the Constitution.

Here’s a typical section from the story:

Some of the county’s government buildings feature posters reading “In God We Trust” near their entrances. After the Supreme Court ruled that prayer in school was unconstitutional, the district introduced its weekly Bible Bus, which facilitates religious classes for most of the county’s elementary school students. That initiative is legal, according to local officials, because it’s voluntary, and the bus is privately owned and operated.

Elsewhere in the nation, schools are trying to keep religion in public schools – including prayers at high school football games and in classrooms, and nativity scenes on school property. The Freedom From Religion Foundation every year receives about 300 formal complaints, many involving school districts, according to Gaylor. Yet she called the Giles County case “one of the most egregious we’ve seen.”

Don’t get me wrong: The perspectives of the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are essential to this story. They are, after all, the groups planning a lawsuit.

But did anyone at the Post consider seeking a different opinion from advocates on the other side? Someone with perhaps a bit more legal insight than a 16-year-old student or an elementary school principal? (Say the Alliance Defense Fund. Or the American Center for Law and Justice. Or the Liberty Legal Counsel. Or … well, you get the idea.)

There’s a good story here. But by failing to give each side a chance to make its case fully, the Post blows it. And that’s unfortunate.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • edwin

    Good coverage of an important issue often lacking good coverage.

    Thank you!

  • edwin

    So, the video has been “removed by the user.”

  • Dave

    Th[e Bible Bus] is legal, according to local officials, because it’s voluntary, and the bus is privately owned and operated.

    Only if students who choose not to get on the bus are free to do as they wish at the same time. It’s OK if the school offers alternative, secular programs but not to require them; that would be a form of coercion.

  • Bobby

    Thanks for letting me know, Edwin. It was working this morning. Let me see if I can find something else.

  • George

    You know, the reporter might just call it the “so-called ‘Bible Bus’” because that’s what locals call it, not because he has any demeaning ulterior motive.

  • Don Ibbitson

    This was in the Washington Post. That says it all. Anything written by this paper needs to be read with a large salt shaker in hand. This article was actually surprisingly friendly compared to others from them…

  • Jerry

    If there was a “like” button for your post, Bobby, I’d click it for this post.

  • Mike

    The reporter (and editor who approved this) qualify for dereliction of duty. As Bobby pointed it, the piece has a near absence of specificity and an abundance of generalizations. For example, the reporter can’t seem to find a resident or two to quote by name when he mentions “residents.” And of course what about the name of the superintendent, etc. In my reporting days, I never would have been allowed to write a piece like this. My editor would have pounded his hand on the desk and shouted, “I want names! I want a comment from an opposing organization!” If this is the best from the Washington Post — once the epitome of the best in journalism — then reporting has descended farther than I thought.

  • Passing By

    If the “Bible Bus” is privately owned and operated, in what sense did the district introduce it, and in what sense is the bus “its” (the district’s)?

    Bobby, I have friends in Upshur County just south of Lone Star, so I enjoyed your story. I always find a bright morning to get coffee in Ore City, donuts on the south end of Lone Star, and then wander some road or other. Very pretty country.