Textbook example of balanced reporting


Gay rights vs. religious freedom.

Too often when those two forces collide, a train wreck demanding GetReligion attention of the negative kind occurs (examples here, here and here).

So when I saw this front-page San Antonio Express-News headline Thursday, I was curious to see how the story would handle the competing interests:

Firing of Macy’s worker pits freedom of religion vs. GLBT rights

Certainly, the headline gave me hope that the report would treat each side fairly. So did the byline, that of talented Godbeat pro Abe Levy.

The top of the story:

A former Macy’s employee who said she was fired for refusing to let a transgender woman use the women’s dressing room at the Rivercenter mall location is trying to get her job back.

The case, pitting freedom of religion in the workplace vs. corporations’ growing acceptance for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has attracted national attention.

Natalie Johnson said that on Nov. 30, she confronted the customer leaving the women’s fitting room and politely made clear no men were allowed.

Johnson said the customer wore makeup and dressed in women’s clothes but was recognizably a man.

The customer argued she was a woman, but Johnson said she held her ground.

She said a manager called her in the next day.

As I kept reading, the informative but evenhanded way that the Express-News approached the story impressed me. At the end of the piece — roughly 800 words — I had no idea what the writer might think concerning who’s right and who’s wrong in this dispute. But I understood clearly the positions of the major players.

Among this story’s specific strengths:

Sourcing: Besides the fired employee, the reporter quotes a Macy’s spokeswoman, advocates on each side, the employee’s pastor and a minister at a gay-friendly church. The writer also explains why the customer is not interviewed:

The customer’s identity has not been revealed.

Context: The story provides important background that helps readers understand why the San Antonio store may taken the action it did:

In May 2010, a transgender employee at a Macy’s store in Torrance, Calif., sued the company, accusing it of gender discrimination and wrongful termination.

But since 2007, Macy’s has received the top rating of 100 percent in the Human Rights Campaign’s evaluation of corporation’s treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

In the Rivercenter mall incident, Staver and Johnson said the customer was accompanied by five friends who responded to her objections with expletives. They reminded her of Macy’s GLBT-friendly policy, including the use of fitting rooms.

Ghostbusting: Since this is GetReligion, you know that we prefer stories without ghosts. This one allow both sides to express their religious views in their own words:

“Obviously, (Macy’s) policy is not equal, because I was fired for standing up for what I believe in,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t lie and say that he was a woman. I’m going to be accountable to what I say to my Lord Jesus. And I’m taking up for my female customers who might feel uncomfortable with a man in the fitting room.”

Johnson’s pastor, Bishop Robert Doxie, backed her stand.

“We believe the Bible was right when it says God created men and women,” said Doxie, who said his church is attended by 50 to 100 at an average service. “We stand on that and promote that.”

But a minister at a local GLBT-friendly Christian church said that while it may be tricky to make room for transgender people, it’s a matter of justice.

“Transgender people are who God created them to be and are authentically living it out, and that means letting them decide which bathroom or dressing room is best for them,” said the Rev. Mick Hinson of Metropolitan Community Church of San Antonio.

“Macy’s is supporting all people. I’m sorry this ex-employee felt this was a religious issue, but if that’s the case, she’ll have problems in all walks of life where people make decisions she doesn’t agree with.”

Kudos to Levy and the Express-News for a textbook example of balanced reporting.

Photo via Shutterstock

Evangelical Pujols to the highest bidder?

“Are you breathing, M.Z.?”

That was my immediate question this morning to my GetReligion colleague — and St. Louis Cardinals uber-fan — Mollie Ziegler Hemingway as news broke that superstar first baseman Albert Pujols will sign a 10-year, $254 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. MZ, alas, remains out of wifi and Internet range — although this story may reach her through some psychic or spiritual ripple in the universe.

As I have shared a time or two, I am a longtime Texas Rangers fan, so Pujols already played a major role in breaking my heart during the Cardinals’ improbable World Series win in October. Now, he’s headed to the Rangers’ AL West rival.

An athlete leaving a city where he’s beloved and signing a gigantic contract elsewhere wouldn’t normally be fodder for GetReligion. But in Pujols’ case, he’s an outspoken evangelical Christian and frequently talks about the role that faith plays in his career, as Mollie has noted. We are in the midst of the Tim Tebow media tsunami, as well.

In fact, I learned of Pujols’ decision via a faith-based tweet from Bob Nightengale, Major League Baseball writer for USA Today:

Pujols was weighing three offers and after praying on it chose #angels over #cardinals and mystery team

He “prayed” on his decision. Does anyone see the potential for a religion angle in the reporting on Pujols’ mammoth contract?

For a primer on the questions likely on the minds of many evangelicals/baseball fans, Godbeat pro Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post Dispatch covered them well earlier this year in a nice piece before the 2011 season even started. Townsend explored whether Christian athletes such as Pujols strike out on big-dollar contracts:

ST. LOUIS — As contract talks broke down between Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, St. Louis baseball fans began nervously asking themselves a host of questions.

He’s a Cardinal for life, right?

He wouldn’t go to Wrigley Field because he likes winning too much, right?

But a particular group of Cardinals fans—those who share his evangelical faith—was asking a different kind of question. What does holding out for the largest contract in the history of baseball say about Albert’s Christian testimony?

It’ll be interesting to see if — and how — the media tackle that question amid the obvious analysis on what Pujols’ decision means to the Angels’ — and the Cardinals’ — pennant hopes. Will reporters ask Pujols about greed? Will they ask whether this contract will allow him to do more good works? Will they report what he says at his news conference concerning his faith?

This story is breaking now, so most of the reports right now are just the basic facts. Please help us follow the story by providing links of mainstream media reports that do — and do not — cover the highly relevant religion angle.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear back from my beloved colleague.

“Are you breathing, M.Z.?”

Albert Pujols photo via Shutterstock

No discrimination based on creed?

After a Kentucky church voted to ban interracial couples from the congregation, I posted last week on media understanding of Free Will Baptist hierarchy — or more precisely, the lack thereof.

Over the weekend, that tiny church reversed course. From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

A tiny Pike County church voted Sunday to affirm that it welcomes people of all races, a week after some members touched off a storm of controversy by voting against accepting interracial couples.

Members of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voted 16-0 Sunday to make clear that everyone is welcome, “regardless of race, creed or color,” and that the church wants to move forward in unity, pastor Stacy Stepp said.

“We voted as a church that we all get back in peace and love and harmony,” Stepp said.

OK, am I the only one confused by that (it wouldn’t be the first time)?

I’m referring specifically to the church’s decision to welcome everyone “regardless of race, creed or color.” Doesn’t creed relate to religious beliefs? Here’s how the Religion Newswriters Association defines “creed”:

A statement of religious belief or faith that encapsulates official teaching. Most have developed over time amid religious and political debates. The word creed is based on the Latin word credo, which means I believe. The most common creeds in Christianity are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Does that mean the church now welcomes everyone into its fold, regardless of their religious beliefs? Wouldn’t a church be the one place where what one believes would matter? What am I missing?

Alas, The Associated Press’ report on the new vote confused me even more. From AP:

Stacy Stepp, pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, told The Associated Press that the vote by nine people last week was declared null and void after it was determined that new bylaws can’t run contrary to local, state or national laws. He said the proposal was discriminatory, therefore it couldn’t be adopted.

Stepp said about 30 people who attended church services voted on a new resolution that welcomes “believers into our fellowship regardless of race, creed or color.”

So churches can’t discriminate based on creed? Could a church not refuse to allow a female pastor or to perform a same-sex wedding? Does the “free exercise of religion” come into play at all?

Kind GetReligion readers, please help me understand.

Photo via Shutterstock

A natural extension of couple’s love

It seems so simple.

Yet it happens so infrequently.

I’m talking about a newspaper feature that neither ignores faith nor exaggerates it in painting the portrait of its main characters.

Instead, the religious underpinnings of a couple who adopted a bunch of special-needs children unfolds naturally — and in their own words — in the piece I want to highlight.

The writer’s name will be familiar to regular GetReligion readers: Bruce Almighty — er, Bruce Nolan, the veteran Godbeat pro at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Here’s the top of Nolan’s excellent story from this past Sunday:

For days before Thanksgiving, the aroma of Royanne Avegno’s freshly baked bread filled her home in River Ridge as the loaves cooled atop the hand-built kitchen cabinets fashioned years ago by Ashton, her engineer-husband. The bread and other homemade dishes were for the 30 relatives who gathered there on Thursday, a smaller group than normal.

This year it was Royanne’s mother, sisters and brother, as well as the families of four of the Avegnos’ five surviving children —­­­­ all but one delivered into the hands of a couple who, in the course of a 40-year marriage, adopted seven children.

In time, Ashton and Royanne Avegno would bury three of their kids, each severely damaged by physical infirmities or psychological injuries inflicted before finding some period of peace in the Avegno household.

Yet they consider themselves blessed.

Keep reading, and you learn that Royanne Avegno taught Catholic social doctrine for years and still serves on the board of directors of the Catholic high school where she worked. In the next paragraph, the writer provides more hints of the family’s faith:

Their home, like others, is decorated with a certain amount of religious imagery — the Blessed Mother holds a place of prominence — and with pictures of their children, who present an international exhibit of family life.

As the story progresses, it would be easy to simplify the couple’s motivation and make it all about religion. But life is seldom so black and white. To his credit, Nolan steps out of the way and gives the couple space to explain their thinking:

At first, Royanne remembered, their approach to adoption was typical. “Our motivation was purely selfish. There was nothing altruistic about it in the least. We wanted another baby.”

But later, a decision to adopt a disabled newborn named Matthew yielded formal, deliberative discussion:

The “reasons against” column was the longer; the “reasons for” were shorter. But it was topped, Royanne said, by the scriptural injunction in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“It’s how, without really thinking about it, we want to live our lives,” said Ashton. “I think we’re living the Gospel call, or trying to, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It was just natural for us. It was the natural extension of our love.”

The keys here: The story drills down the sources’ motivation. It allows the couple to describe — again, in their own words — what drives them. It goes to an outside source — a family friend — to add texture to the journalistic painting.

The result: a heartwarming feature mainly devoid of ghosts.

It seems to simple.

Yet it happens so infrequently.

Adoption image via Shutterstock

Interracial couples and Baptist ‘hierarchy’

Over at Yahoo! News — one of the most visited sites in the online universe — the third and fourth most popular items at this moment relate to a tiny Kentucky church voting to ban interracial couples from joining the flock.

The top of Reuters’ report on the Appalachian church:

TOMAHAWK, Ky (Reuters) – A vote to bar interracial couples from a small church in eastern Kentucky has triggered hand-wringing and embarrassment.

Nine members of Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church backed their former pastor, with six opposed, in Sunday’s vote to bar interracial couples from church membership and worship activities. Funerals were excluded.

The vote was taken after most of the 40 people who attended Sunday services had left the church in Pike County, near the border with West Virginia. Many members left to avoid the vote.

I assume the writer means “hand-wringing” in a cliche sense and that it has nothing to do with the congregation’s religious rituals. But I digress …

Our thanks to Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news, who came across the Reuters story and thought it might be a candidate for some GetReligion treatment. The part of the relatively short report that tripped up Rodgers came near the end:

The move has drawn scrutiny from the hierarchy of the Freewill Baptist Church, Harville said.

Did you catch that? Hierarchy.

The reason for Rodgers’ concern? There really is no such thing as hierarchy among autonomous Free Will Baptist congregations (yes, “Free Will” is two words).

The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky didn’t use that same terminology but also seemed to stumble on how Free Will Baptists operate:

Harville said he plans to ask the conference of churches to which Gulnare Freewill Baptist belongs to overturn the vote.

Here’s what a quick Google search turned up concerning the National Association of Free Will Baptists’ practice on church government:

Free Will Baptist churches enjoy local church autonomy (self-governing). The local church is the highest authority in the denomination. Local churches voluntarily organize themselves into quarterly meetings, district, state, and national associations for the purpose of promoting the cause of Christ on the local, state, district, national, and world-wide level.

The Associated Press showed a better understanding and provided more complete context:

The church’s pastor, Stacy Stepp, said Wednesday that he was against the resolution. Stepp said the denomination’s regional conference will begin working on resolving the issue this weekend.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Antioch, Tenn., has no official position on interracial marriage for its 2,400 churches worldwide, executive secretary Keith Burden said. The denomination believes in (sic) the Bible is inerrant and local churches have autonomy over decision-making.

“It’s been a non-issue with us,” Burden said, adding that many interracial couples attend Free Will Baptist churches. He said the Pike County church acted on its own. Burden said the association can move to strip the local church of its affiliation with the national denomination if it’s not resolved.

“Hopefully it is corrected quickly,” Burden said.

Here’s how Peter Smith, Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, explained the situation:

Free Will Baptist congregations are self-governing, but the association can decide whether it wants to be affiliated with one.

For reporters wanting to explore the big picture, Smith offered some excellent context that perhaps gives some insight into why this isolated story about a tiny Kentucky church is drawing so many Internet pageviews:

The story hits a nerve in part because the church actually put a segregationist policy in writing, but cultural barriers remain at many houses of worship. Segregation was long a fact of life in Bible Belt churches, whether by explicit or implicit policy, born out of both white exclusion and blacks’ post-Civil War wish to have autonomy in their own churches rather than stay in the ones that had preached obedience to their slaveholders.

Fifty years ago, Christian civil-rights activists found the “most segregated” hour of Sunday morning worship to be an embarrassment to their church culture, but today most Americans worship among people of their own race. For bi-racial couples, that’s not an option. The Gulnare church, in its own shocking way, shows this is an issue that will affect even the most remote areas.

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws against interracial marriage, estimates for biracial couples top 400,000, and the child of one such couple is in the White House. And of course, families are increasingly blended in other ways, such as with cross-racial adoption. Multi-racial families can tell when they show up somewhere for worship, even without a policy in writing, whether people are welcoming, hostile or squirmy.

“When you have the ‘other’ in your own family, it’s hard to think of them as ‘other’ anymore,” Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld said in an MSNBC article. The article was on cross-racial marriage, but churches like to think of themselves as family, and these are guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner days for them as well.

By the way, just in case you need a reason to be paranoid, Your Smartphone is Spying on You is the most popular item on Yahoo! News right now.

Interracial marriage photo via Shutterstock

On the campaign trail: Bad Dad?

This is the headline on a Washington Post story published today:

GOP hopeful Rick Santorum campaigns with a seriously ill daughter at home

My first thought: You’re kidding — Santorum’s still in the race!?

My second thought: What a jerk!

Then I decided to read past the editorialized title and see what the story had to say. The Lifestyle piece opens this way:

SIOUX CITY, IOWA — At the lectern in a packed convention center last month, Rick Santorum spoke haltingly, not for the first or the last time, about his seriously ill youngest daughter, Isabella , who has the genetic disorder Trisomy 18. Half of all children with the chromosomal anomaly, more common in girls, are stillborn. And of those who do survive, only one in 10 makes it to her first birthday.

“I have a little girl who’s 31/2  years old,” the Republican presidential hopeful said in his dinner speech at the annual “Defenders of Freedom” event, hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “I don’t know whether her life is going to be measured — it’s always been measured — in days and weeks. Yet here I am” — on the road so often, he was the first of the current GOP contenders to visit all 99 Iowa counties. Why? “Because I feel like I wouldn’t be a good dad if I wasn’t out here fighting for a country that would see the dignity in her and every other child.”

His is easily the most searing personal narrative offered by any candidate this season. And when he speaks of Bella publicly, it is almost always in conjunction with his top policy goal of dismantling the health-care reform legislation, which he sees as a threat to those like her, “on the margins of life.”

Amazingly enough, the 1,400-word profile attempts to tackle Santorum’s personal and political motivations without a single mention of faith or abortion.

In the online version, the Post even links in the opening paragraph to the YouTube video embedded with this post. In that video, Santorum prefaces his remarks about his daughter by citing his authorship of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

The story makes vague reference to Santorum’s “life” platform:

The point of his run, and indeed his whole political career, he said, is “to open people’s eyes to things they maybe ­haven’t thought through. I don’t think most Americans think through life.”

But nowhere does the story explore the role of religion as it relates to Santorum’s daughter and his presidential run — or question whether his decision to campaign bolsters or undermines his reputation as a candidate of faith. (For those new to the GetReligion party, we refer to this gap in coverage as a religion ghost.)

A quick Google search turned up a recent McClatchy story on Santorum. That headline (with a slightly different slant than the Post):

Santorum keeps faith at forefront in his GOP presidential nomination campaign

From that story:

But it was his narrative about 3-year-old daughter Bella that brought him and his audience near tears.

Born premature and profoundly disabled, she almost died twice.

“I look at Bella … and just love her unconditionally,” Santorum said, then added, “That’s how the Father looks at me.”

“That’s right,” a woman responded to his allusion to God.

When he meets with pastors, Santorum points to Time magazine’s decision to list him, in 2005, as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America for leading fights on Capitol Hill against abortion and same-sex marriage.

“And I’m not an evangelical,” said Santorum, who’s Catholic. Evangelicals are Protestants who emphasize a personal “born-again” experience, evangelism and a literal reading of the Bible.

Yet the only hint from the Post story that faith might play a role in Santorum’s life and campaign comes in a passing reference at the very end:

It was late by then, and the candidate hoped, he said, to check in with his family before grabbing a few hours’ sleep, then heading off to an early morning Mass and another full day of campaign events.

Ghosts, anyone?

Stereotypes and backwoods religion

At first glance, I had high hopes for a CNN story out today with the headline “Pastor fights HIV stigma in Southern town.”

I printed out a hard copy, ready to enjoy the kind of precise details and behind-the-scenes insight that make for compelling, praiseworthy journalism.

Instead, I settled for an avalanche of stereotypes and vague references to backwoods religion.

According to an editor’s note, CNN’s Health team is taking a close look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southeastern United States with a series leading up to World AIDS Day on Wednesday. Perhaps the Health team should have enlisted the help of CNN’s Godbeat pros on this particular story. The top of the piece:

Dorchester, South Carolina (CNN) – The fan by the window pushed humid air uselessly against the church pews.

Diana Martinez made small talk as Tommy Terry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The man sitting next to Martinez cracked a joke. Nobody laughed.

A clock on the back wall ticked minutes away in a mocking cliché.

Only three people had shown up for this month’s HIV/AIDS awareness meeting. Usually, there are 10 to 12 — a surprisingly good turnout for a congregation of 25, which just goes to show how many people the disease affects in this small Southern town.

It’s a problem all across the Bible Belt. In 2007 — the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the rate of diagnosed AIDS cases in the Southeastern United States was much higher than in other regions of the country: 9.2 per 100,000 people, versus 2.5 in the Midwest, 3.9 in the West and 5.6 in the Northeast.

Now, the numerical references immediately confused me: Are the 10 to 12 who usually show up part of the church’s 25 members? That’s unclear to me. (Not religion-related per se, but I also did not find the lede all that compelling: What is “small talk?” Why not be more specific about what the woman actually said? The same with the joke … why not tell what he’s joking about? But I digress …)

As the story moves on, readers learn that the Bible Belt’s high prevalence of AIDS cases can be attributed to “stigma, poor education and a lack of funding.” By stigma, the connotation is obvious: These Bible Belt folks have a problem with homosexuality. But the story takes a long, weaving path to get there, and even then only vaguely. For example, there’s this reference to a man who died of AIDS:

Instead, his death was simply another symbol of the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS in rural South Carolina.

Fear? I’m supposing that has something to do with the vague religious stigma. Eventually, there’s this note:

Many socially conservative residents of the Deep South have a hard time talking about sex with their children, never mind discussions about condoms with complete strangers.

And this note as that vague religion pops into the conversation:

The second barrier is religion. Some in the South believe they could go to hell because of their actions, he says, be they drug use, premarital sex or homosexuality.

Later, there’s an anecdote indicting all the pastors in town except for the one featured in the story:

Tommy Terry has a love/hate relationship with religion and the pastors who preach it in Dorchester County. A faithful man, he attends Byrth’s HIV/AIDS meetings as a tribute to his partner, Michael, who died in 2005.

The couple spent 10 years together. Terry could do nothing as he watched Michael fade away, losing weight and friends at an equal rate.

Sitting on the concrete porch outside the Bibleway Holiness Church, Terry struggles to keep tears from falling as he talks about the last few months of Michael’s life. Terry called pastors from around the county to come pray at Michael’s side in the hospital. They all refused.

What does the writer mean by “a faithful man” as it relates to Terry? No idea. The story does not provide any more detail or insight.

What do the pastors all over the county who refused to come pray at Michael’s side say about their alleged unwillingness to minister to someone in his time of crisis? No idea. The story doesn’t bother to quote any pastors, or anyone else in town, for that matter, who might shed light on what this community thinks about the AIDS epidemic.

This piece had such potential to be relevant and important. It’s an excellent angle, but unfortunately, CNN failed to develop it fully. Ghosts, anyone?

Image via Shutterstock

A layered portrait of hate

In a post last year, I shared my disdain for a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group:

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” … I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

I stand by that statement.

Yet the best journalists can turn even your least favorite subject into a riveting masterpiece that grips you from beginning to end.

As Exhibit A, I draw your attention to Kansas City Star writer Dugan Arnett’s recent 4,000-word (4,000-WORD!!!) profile of Westboro “heir to hate” Megan Phelps-Roper.

From near the top of the fascinating piece:

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Phelpses spend their time when they’re not waving “God Hates Fags” signs, the Star takes you behind the scenes:

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

The remarkable thing about this story is the nuanced, layered picture of the main character (Megan) that it provides. At points, the full story of this young woman’s life almost makes you feel sorry for her.

There’s this:

Megan has little problem handling the vitriol that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s— crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’?”

And this:

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Into the account of Megan’s life, the reporter weaves expert analysis from sources such as a Southern Poverty Law Center official who calls Westboro “the country’s most obnoxious hate group” and a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups.

The piece also provides exceptional insight on the family’s inner workings from a cousin and former best friend of Megan’s who escaped Westboro.

Now, generally, when your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas write about Westboro, we implore the mainstream press to make it clear that this group is totally independent and has no ties to other Baptist churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece comes close, describing the group as the “family-run Westboro Baptist Church.” Still, a clearer statement that this church is totally on its own would have been helpful.

At another point in the story, readers learn of Megan’s baptism at age 13 in a backyard pool. I would love to have seen Megan explain her beliefs and reasons for the baptism at that point.

But all in all, there’s a tremendous amount to like about this story. Even for those, like me, who hate seeing reports about this hate group.

By all means, read the whole thing.