Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.

The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013 Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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Media continues to ‘Gosnell’ abortion coverage. Why?

YouTube Preview ImageThis blog played a bit of a role in highlighting Gosnelling, the media practice of ignoring or downplaying politically inconvenient abortion news (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It wasn’t great prior to that incident, but the mainstream media has an even worse credibility problem when it comes to reporting on abortion news. So I’d hoped we’d see some efforts to improve it.

And we are. There has been, for instance, some media coverage of the abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial, which is currently in the phase of jury deliberations. Today the jury requested to have a transcript of one testimony re-read to them and while that’s happening, reporters from Reuters, Fox News, the Wilmington News-Journal and CBS News are present. It’s not where it should be, but it’s a start.

But what about the larger picture? How is that being covered? While abortion rights advocates and many in the media have suggested that Gosnell is an extreme outlier, pro-life media keep uncovering more and more stories that suggest the mainstream media is failing to highlight. It’s not that there’s no coverage, again, there is. Kirsten Powers wrote in a recent USA Today column about the “drumbeat” of clinic closures and links to media coverage are provided:

Last week, Ohio officials shut down an abortion clinic after inspectors found that a medical assistant administered narcotics to five patients, that narcotics and powerful sedatives weren’t properly accounted for, that pharmacy licenses had expired and that four staff members hadn’t been screened for a communicable disease.

This month, a Delaware TV station reported that two Planned Parenthood nurses resigned in protest over conditions at a clinic there. One nurse, Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich, said, “It was just unsafe. I couldn’t tell you how ridiculously unsafe it was.”

Last month, Maryland officials shut down three abortion clinics, two for failings in their equipment and training to deal with life-threatening complications.

Last year, an Associated Press investigation found that Illinois hadn’t inspected some abortion clinics for 10 to 15 years. After state health officials reinvigorated their clinic inspections in the wake of Gosnell, inspectors closed two clinics, including one fined for “failure to perform CPR on a patient who died after a procedure,” according to AP.

But there’s a difference between a prominent media critic connecting the dots here and a news report that does the same. You’ll note the difference between how the media drumbeat is hit for a cause such as, say, gun control and a cause such as abortion clinic control. The disparity is immediately apparent and difficult to explain on journalistic grounds.

Or I pointed out a few weeks ago how no angle was too small to cover when the media obsessed over the Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding the country’s largest abortion provider. Compare that with the media downplaying every fresh angle on the Gosnell coverage, this just being today’s latest example.

Today, the conservative publication National Review has published a harrowing and lengthy expose of abortion clinics in Florida. It is a brutal read, but very important journalism. Here’s how National Review promoted it:

Jillian Kay Melchior exposes the so-called doctors, clinics, and the women affected, at these Florida abortion clinics. This is a must-read article that details the callous lack of humane practices and a brutal alleged infanticide. In Abortion’s Underside:

  • Three Florida clinics with a disturbing history of criminal activity continue to operate — and there’s little the law can do to stop them, raising alarming questions of the safety and standards inside abortion clinics in America.
  • The doctors employed at the clinics have shady malpractice histories, and some were not licensed to practice medicine.  
  • Witnesses say a baby was born alive and then murdered, but no one was ever successfully prosecuted for her death.

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Womenpriests: Press coverage in a familiar, strange mold

YouTube Preview Image

To be honest with you, I feel like taking a short break from the Vatican beat — sort of. I predict news from Rome sooner rather than later. You think?

In the meantime, let’s flash back a bit to a recent post in which I praised The Toledo Blade for a better than average story on the WomenPriests movement (and better than average is not, alas, saying a whole lot).

The WomenPriests movement is, of course, is the latest in a long, long, long line of Catholic splinter churches built on extra-legal ordinations that can usually be traced to rites allegedly performed by anonymous bishops, splinter Old Catholic rites, or both. From the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, these women are simply liberal Protestants and, like it or not, the Vatican is in charge of determining who is and who is not a Catholic priest.

So what did the Blade do that drew our mild praise? It offered the following statement of the facts at the top of its report:

Deacon Beverly Bingle, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic woman from Toledo, will be ordained a priest by Roman Catholic Womenpriests today.

Her ordination at 2 p.m. at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, 3205 Glendale Ave., will not be recognized by the Diocese of Toledo, however. After she was ordained a deacon on Sept. 13, the diocese stated her participation “in an invalid and illicit attempted ordination” meant she was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, recall that I noted that the movement is formally called the “Roman Catholic Womenpriests,” which means the newspaper was right to pass along the claim of authority present in its name. However, the Blade also immediately noted that the Womenpriests deacon was, in fact, no longer a Catholic at all, according to the laws of the Catholic Church. The Womenpriests determine who is a Womenpriests priest and the Catholic Church determines who is a Catholic priest, in communion with Rome. That’s the facts of the matter.

So, it is important to note that the Blade followed this story to its liturgical end and covered the rites at First Unitarian. How did that turn out?

The basic facts, once again, were pushed to the top of the story:

More than 100 people were in the pews Saturday when Roman Catholic Womenpriests ordained the Rev. Beverly Bingle of Toledo a priest, an act not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Ann Klonowski of Independence, Ohio, was ordained a deacon at the same ceremony at First Unitarian Church of Toledo.

Seventeen women from Roman Catholic Womenpriests, including ordained priests, deacons and a bishop, as well as candidates and applicants for ordination, stood at the end of the service to show their numbers.

Once again, that’s the basic facts of the matter.

This is where things get rather interesting.

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Lo! A better-than-average Womenpriests story

Your GetReligionistas, as the divine Mrs. MZ once stressed, are way, way, way past the point where we joyfully go out of our way to write about the journalism issues linked to the mainstream media coverage that is, from time to time, poured out on behalf of the Womenpriests movement.

Some readers have been tempted to think that we do not believe that this movement is worthy of coverage. This is nonsense, of course, since GetReligion has been arguing since Day 1 that the mainstream press rarely does enough to cover doctrinal and cultural trends on the Religious Left.

Others have suggested that we only want the Roman Catholic Church’s viewpoint covered on this issue. That’s nonsense, as well. This is a hot-button issue and the press needs to find articulate, informed voices on both sides.

We have, however, argued that journalists have gone too far — often — when they describe the women ordained in these rites as Catholic priests.

The women should be quoted making their case, on this subject, but the historical reality is that the Catholic Church gets to decide who is and who is not a Catholic priest, just as the leaders at The New York Times get to determine who is and who is not a columnist for The New York Times. On one occasion I asked if journalists would call men ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention rabbis simply because the SBC said they were rabbis. President Barack Obama gets to decide who serves on his cabinet, etc., etc.

All of this raises a basic journalistic question: What does accurate coverage of a Womenpriests event look like?

Well, take a look at the following effort from The Toledo Blade, taking it, of course, from the top:

Deacon Beverly Bingle, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic woman from Toledo, will be ordained a priest by Roman Catholic Womenpriests today.

Her ordination at 2 p.m. at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, 3205 Glendale Ave., will not be recognized by the Diocese of Toledo, however.

After she was ordained a deacon on Sept. 13, the diocese stated her participation “in an invalid and illicit attempted ordination” meant she was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

The diocese has released a similar statement in advance of today’s ceremony, reminding that Deacon Bingle is excommunicated and that Ann Klonowski, a woman from the Diocese of Cleveland who will be ordained a deacon at the same ceremony today, will lose her standing in the church.

However, the Reverend Bingle, as she can be called with today’s ordination by Bishop Joan Houck of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, not only will participate in the ceremony; on Sunday, she will start holding weekly services as a priest for the Holy Spirit Catholic Community, a church she’s starting that will meet at Unity of Toledo. …

Now, the one thing that I would challenge in that material is that I think it is proper for journalists to note that the legal name of this movement, of this splinter church that is making its own claims of Catholicity, is “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” The name confuses the issue, that that’s who whole point, isn’t it?

So what else is right and what else, alas, is wrong in this story?

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Nun wars: For Pete’s sake, quote the Vatican

At the heart of the whole U.S. nuns vs. the Vatican media storm is the April 18th “doctrinal assessment” in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed its concerns about the theological orientation expressed by the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The report mentions a host of concerns about a decade or two of LCWR educational events, speeches, national conferences, etc.

The document is not hard to find and it is only eight pages long. Click here to read it.

Since this story is going to be around for some time, it’s important to note how many, if not most, mainstream reporters are framing the dispute.

Now, this is a story with two sides and there are articulate voices out there to quote representing the competing points of view. However, the actual Vatican document states many of the basic facts and, to my amazement, major news organizations have consistently been paraphrasing this document to say things that it does not, in fact, say.

That’s a problem. It’s hard to follow a debate when some of the key facts crucial to the contents of the debate have been twisted.

Consider, for example, the top of this new Reuters report, as it appeared in The Chicago Tribune:

(Reuters) – In Washington, D.C., and Toledo, Ohio, in upstate New York and in south Texas, protesters have gathered in recent weeks with a simple message: Let the sisters be.

The vigils in cities across the United States are intended to express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns, who are struggling to formulate a response to a sharp rebuke from the Vatican.

The Vatican last month accused the leading organization of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. The Vatican also rapped the group for standing by as some nuns publicly challenged U.S. bishops on matters of church doctrine and public policy.

Readers who have followed this story closely will spot all kinds of familiar errors. For example, the story frames the conflict with the whole “let the sisters be” construct, backed with descriptions of the protests (with no factual material about the size of these efforts, other than a later reference to an online petition with 50,000 signatures) that are meant to “express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns.”

Yes, way down in the story, there are voices that try to focus on what the Vatican document actually says:

Mary Ann Walsh, a nun who serves as spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some protesters might have misinterpreted the Vatican’s action. Church officials demanded reform of the nuns’ leadership group, she said, but did not intend to criticize all 57,000 nuns in the United States.

There’s a simple logic behind this argument by Walsh — the Vatican document goes out of its way to focus on the leadership of some of these orders, as opposed to the rank-and-file members of the orders, in general. Thus, here’s the crucial question for the editorial team behind the story: Where are the quotes from the actual document? More on this point in a moment.

However, the most important problem with the top of this story is its paraphrased quotation — or statement of fact — that the nuns are under Vatican attack for “focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.” The problem is with the first half of this statement, because the Vatican document simply does not say this. Instead, it praises the nuns for their work with the poor and needy, praises them for their application of the church’s doctrines and teachings in these areas, and then questions why these same teachings have not been applied as rigorously to abortion, marriage, euthanasia, etc.

The critical issue is this: Where are reporters getting the statement that the Vatican thinks the nuns have focused “too much” on poverty and social justice? The document does criticize the leaders of some of these orders for ignoring or undercutting the church on some critical issues, but that is not the same as saying that they have spent too much time on the care of the sick and the needy.

Let’s look at two chunks of the actual “doctrinal assessment,” sections that should have provided the background material for this section of the Reuters report — since it claims to be quoting material from the Vatican accusations (“The Vatican last month accused”) themselves.

The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years. Pope John Paul II expressed this gratitude well in his meeting with Religious from the United States in San Francisco on September 17, 1987, when he said: I rejoice because of your deep love of the Church and your generous service to God’s people. … The extensive Catholic educational and health care systems, the highly developed network of social services in the Church — none of this would exist today, were it not for your highly motivated dedication and the dedication of those who have gone before you. The spiritual vigor of so many Catholic people testifies to the efforts of generations of religious in this land. The history of the Church in this country is in large measure your history at the service of God’s people. The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which is the goal of this doctrinal Assessment is in support of this essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.

While recognizing that this doctrinal Assessment concerns a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference, nevertheless the Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life. On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.

Later on, members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith note that their research reveals that:

… while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.

In other words, the social justice work has been done “in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine,” while work on the right-to-life and family issues have not been in harmony with those same teachings.

Once again let me stress that I am not criticizing mainstream — at Reuters, or anywhere else — journalists for quoting the claims of progressive Catholics about this document in stories in which voices on both sides are accurately covered. Their views, opinions and actions are a crucial part of the story.

I am asking a more basic question: Why do so many reporters insist on misquoting, or ignoring, the actual contents of the “doctrinal assessment” itself? Why not quote the actual document saying what it says and then go from there?

In particular, why do so many journalists keep insisting that all nuns are under attack because of they have spent too much time caring for the poor and the sick? Where does the document say that?

PHOTO COLLAGE: Portraits of some famous modern American nuns, care of the TraditionInAction.org website.

Bulgarian bishops galore

Regular readers of GetReligion will appreciate this story in today’s Toledo Blade concerning the consecration of an Orthodox bishop. The story entitled “Bulgarian Diocese to install new bishop” by religion beat professional David Yonke is nicely crafted. It balances the news of the consecration of Dr. Alexander Golitzin with  just the right amount of human interest. It is a really good local news religion story.

It begins:

Nearly five years after the bishop’s chair became vacant, the Rev. Alexander Golitzin is to be consecrated today as Bishop of Toledo in the Toledo-based Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

The consecration is to take place in a three-hour ceremony at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Rossford, with nine bishops from across North America scheduled to participate. Metropolitan Jonah, head of the Orthodox Church in America, will be the main celebrant.

Bishop-elect Alexander, a native of California, will become only the second bishop of Toledo, succeeding Archbishop Kyrill, who led the diocese from 1964 until his death in 2007 at age 87.

Today’s consecration ceremony marks a new era for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which until now required all bishops to be born in Bulgaria.

“Before even the selection process began, we had to change our diocesan constitution,” said the Rev. Andrew Jarmus, a Fort Wayne pastor who headed the bishop search committee. “Basically we acknowledged that realities have changed. We are in America and there is a much broader base of people we minister to now in our parishes. They are no longer just the Bulgarian faithful.”

The story presents some interesting bits about the new bishop’s background — studies at Oxford under Kalistos Ware, a year at Mt Athos, professor at Marquette University, and a touch of Hollywood (nephew of art director Alexander Golitzin — winner of Academy Awards for The Phantom of the Opera in 1943, Spartacus in 1960, and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962.)

The article also gives background on the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church of America: its history, previous bishops and demographics. All in all a great local news story.

My question for GetReligion readers is whether it would have been appropriate to mention that there are two Bulgarian Orthodox dioceses belonging to two different churches in the U.S? The article states up front that this consecration is for the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA). However there is also a Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., Canada, and Australia that is part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria.

The article states the:

Toledo-based Bulgarian Diocese has 16 parishes in the United States and Canada, mostly in the Midwest, with a total of 5,000 parishioners. The OCA to which it belongs has about 200,000 U.S. members, according to Father Andrew.

The other diocese is based in New York and around 25 congregations and monasteries. There is a degree of bad blood between the two groups — and there is a rivalry between the OCA and the Sofia-based Bulgarian Orthodox Church (as well as with some of the other ethnic Orthodox Churches in the U.S.) This article from a Russian-based website claims that ethnic Bulgarians in the OCA’s Bulgarian diocese are upset with the influx of non-Bulgarian clergy and want to jump ship.

Bulgarians living in the U.S. and Canada are gathering signatures on the petition to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church. The letter will contain a request to the Synod about the transfer on Bulgarian parishes that are currently under the jurisdiction of the OCA, to the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., Canada, and Australia. This jurisdiction, headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, currently has 27 parishes and monasteries.

The petitions states that today 80 percent of the clergy in Bulgarian churches are not Bulgarian, do not celebrate the feast days of Bulgarian saints, or observe Bulgarian national holidays and traditions.

The Toledo Blade article does not mention the other diocese, and uses language that would lead someone not familiar with the Bulgarian Orthodox ecclesial scene to believe this is the only Bulgarian game in town. The article does speak to the transition from an ethnic to an American church — a point of contention for some in the church — but does not develop this angle.

My point, however, is not to play the game of spot the real Bulgarian bishop — but to raise the underlying journalistic question of how to deal with schisms and splits and multiple claimants to a church brand name. Who is the “real” Bulgarian bishop? It is the same question as “who is the real Anglican?”

While there are a plethora of Protestant denominations sharing a Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran or congregational background — the Orthodox Churches (as well as the Episcopalians) have an ecclesial self-identity that does not contemplate multiple expressions of a single polity. In the Orthodox polity — as well as Anglican polity — there is only one bishop in a city. Yet the reality is that there are overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions and with the formation of the Anglican Church in North America there is now a rival to the Episcopal Church.

Where does the reporter’s duty lie in explaining or articulating for his readers these schisms? In the Toledo Blade article highlighted in this story should there have been a line mentioning the other Bulgarian Orthodox body? In stories that reach a national audience, should the distinctions between rival claimants be noted?

How much information is too much? How little is too little? Does it make a difference to the story? And — if a distinction is made, is it proper for a journalist to separate Bulgarian sheep from Bulgarian goats? What say you GetReligion readers?

Big day at Supreme Court for religious freedom

An extremely important religious liberty case is being argued in front of the Supreme Court today. I have been meaning to cover the case for months, but it kept falling into the deeper recesses of my guilt file. The case involves the firing of a Lutheran school teacher from a Lutheran school. The particulars of the case are unique and the story of the teacher who was fired is compelling. But because of the way the lower courts have ruled and because of the possible outcomes of a SCOTUS decision, today is just huge.

I’m going to excerpt this Baptist Press story for the details of the two sides in the case:

Cheryl Perich was a teacher at the Lutheran Church-run school Hosanna-Tabor, based in eastern Michigan, when doctors diagnosed her with narcolepsy and she missed work for several months. The school, its small staff stretched, hired a replacement teacher for the spring semester. Perich wanted to return to her job during the spring, but the school noted that it had hired a replacement for the semester; the school also wasn’t convinced she was physically ready to return to work. She threatened to sue if she wasn’t reinstated.

The school fired her, saying she had violated church teachings by immediately turning to legal action instead of going through the church’s own process for dealing with such disputes. Perich filed a lawsuit with the EEOC, alleging that the firing was retaliatory for her narcolepsy. That question of retaliatory firing could muddy the broader issue of whether religious schools have autonomy in personnel decisions. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich, saying she should not fall under the “ministerial exception,” as a church employee, so she could sue. The court drew out two columns titled “secular” and “religious” and tallied how many minutes of the day Perich spent on each. The court added the totals and concluded that she spent more minutes on secular education than religious, and so she did not fall under the “ministerial exception” for church employees.

The lawyers for the school blasted the circuit court’s “mechanistic” approach to Christian education.

So how well are the media covering it? I think it’s fair to say the lead-up to the case could have received more coverage — particularly on news pages as opposed to op-ed pages where most of the ink was spilled — but this is not a case of media silence.

For example, religion reporter Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal had a helpful piece on the matter. And it was written in such an engaging matter that it got picked up widely, including by USA Today. He begins by saying that the case is uniting an impressive interfaith group:

Leaders of Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, United Sikhs, Muslims, Episcopalians, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are united.

So are the conservative National Association of Evangelicals and its liberal counterpart, the National Council of Churches.

So are devotees of Santeria, Yoruba and other religions you may not know.

Even the various Baptist denominations are all on the same side.

They all support the right of religious groups to hire and fire teachers who could be construed as “ministers” on grounds that would be otherwise discriminatory, whether due to race, gender and disability or other reasons. The case could affect hundreds of thousands of teachers and other employees in faith-based schools and organizations.

He explains that dozens of denominations have filed amicus briefs with the court in support of the freedom and that only one group, the Unitarian Universalist Association — has taken a contrary view.

He explains the Who, What, Where, When and Why and moves immediately into the “so what?” of the case, which he says revolves around the issue of the ministerial exception:

“The basic rationale underlying the doctrine seems straightforward,” wrote Howard Friedman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Toledo, in the magazine Liberty.

“For a religious institution to thrive, it must be free from government constraint in selecting who will ‘preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large,’” Friedman wrote, quoting federal case law.

“Laws against religious discrimination in employment should not permit the government to tell a Presbyterian church, for example, that it must hire a rabbi,” he wrote.

But the question has gotten murkier in recent court cases in which religious groups claim that other workers besides the most obvious — clergy — are ministers and don’t have the right to challenge their dismissals.

That includes teachers, in the case of the Lutheran school.

Lutheran school teachers routinely teach the doctrines of the faith, no matter their subject area. But Smith shows how the ministerial exception is also used by various religious bodies to cover other folks, such as administrative assistants and professors at seminaries.

Some of the arguments for and against the school are laid out, although the arguments are certainly not exhaustive (nor could they be in a brief news article).

Smith did a good job of showcasing how broad the coalition of religious groups united in support of religious freedom over anti-discrimination laws, including Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye and Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha. I do wish the story had gotten a bit more into the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, though.

For those interested in the arguments in the case and what it could portend for federal involvement in church decisions, you should check out this op-ed from historian Thomas S. Kidd in USA Today which highlights how the Obama administration did not side with religious groups in the amicus brief it filed:

But in a jarring departure from precedent, the Department of Justice argued in an August brief that the ministerial exemption, if it even exists, is exceedingly narrow, applying only to clergy whose duties are “exclusively religious” (forgetting that even ministers have many earthly duties). …

When framing the Bill of Rights, James Madison and the other Founders wanted the government to have no power to mandate church policies. They wanted no national denomination, either. So they prohibited Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion, and guaranteed churches and other religious organizations the “free exercise of religion.”

One cannot imagine a more obvious feature of an establishment of religion, or a clearer violation of free exercise, than the government dictating to a church that it must rehire a religious teacher, especially a person who has violated church teachings or behavioral codes. The Justice Department’s position, if vindicated, raises the possibility that courts and bureaucrats may, in the name of contemporary norms of fairness, begin requiring religious organizations to hire any number of candidates who do not accept that faith’s tenets. One could easily imagine future decisions forcing churches, synagogues, or mosques to hire employees who do not adhere to the tradition’s norms of sexual behavior, for example.

When Justice filed that opposition brief, it dramatically raised the stakes in the case. That’s because Justice opposes the existence of the ministerial exception altogether and argues that if the Court recognizes an exemption, it be narrowly construed as applying to people who perform “exclusively religious functions.” I have no idea whether the court would find this argument in any way compelling but if they did, it would dramatically change the landscape and open up churches to a wide array of discrimination litigation.

Just a huge, huge case. So let us know if you see any particularly good or bad stories coming out of the day’s arguments.