Catholics and foster kids in Illinois

I complained last week — surprise, surprise — about an NPR report on Illinois’ new civil unions law. Alas, this post is going to start in mid-sentence and not make a whole lot of sense if you missed that original post. So read it already.

The latest development in the dispute over whether Catholic Charities can keep receiving public funding to provide foster care and adoption services in Illinois came this week.

The top of today’s Chicago Tribune story:

SPRINGFIELD – Catholic Charities won the right to keep serving nearly 2,000 foster children in Illinois for at least another month, as a judge refused Tuesday to let the state cut ties with the agency that has balked at placing children with gay and unwed couples.

The temporary decree struck at the heart of one of the most contentious debates since Illinois made civil unions legal.

Despite the state’s arguments that no contracts exist because state officials already declined to renew them, Judge John Schmidt ruled in Sangamon County Circuit Court that contracts between the state and Catholic Charities of Joliet, Peoria and Springfield through June 30 would remain intact.

Now, I voiced concern that NPR saved all its warm fuzzies for the side of the debate opposed to Catholic Charities’ position.

I’m not sure how the Tribune played the story in its print edition, but its online presentation gives a big ole warm fuzzy to a couple fostering children through Catholic Charities — in the form of a cheerful main photo and the end quotes:

From Becky Wilhoit’s perspective, Schmidt’s ruling buys the three sisters — ages 6, 7 and 9 — in her home a little more time to heal before they return home.

Thrust into the foster care system just six months ago, the girls’ caseworkers and counselors haven’t yet gained their trust to pinpoint roadblocks and help them overcome their challenges, said Wilhoit, 39, of McLean. Transferring them from Catholic Charities could turn back the clock, she said.

It’s enough to make Wilhoit and her husband, Stan, reconsider their calling to be foster parents 18 years ago.

“It’s a very small issue to shut an entire agency down that’s doing so much good in a community,” said Becky Wilhoit, an evangelical Christian who is not Catholic. “We specifically chose Catholic Charities as the agency we wanted to work with knowing they were religious and that they had resources to provide what we needed for our family. We know other agencies in the town can’t provide that for us. It becomes an issue for us to continue fostering.”

I chuckled at the need to explain that an evangelical Christian “is not Catholic.” Then again, given our repeated emphasis in this space on how difficult it is to define “evangelical Christian,” maybe I should appreciate the clarity, even though I’m not sure that explanation tells me anything about the family’s religious beliefs. But I digress.

Overall, the Tribune story — which is just the latest update on this case by that newspaper — seems to take a pretty straightforward approach and allow all sides to state their case (well, as much as possible in a daily news report). For a national perspective, check out this Washington Post religion blog item.

I was particularly pleased that the Tribune allowed Catholic Charities to explain why it does not believe its request to refer gay and lesbian parents to other social service agencies violates the new civil unions law:

An attempt by Catholic Charities to pass protective legislation failed in the Legislature during the spring, and the group threatened to close its foster care and adoption services if the law was not changed. But Brejcha argued the legislative debate for the civil union law shows legislators considered services provided by Catholic Charities as protected.

“The law says it doesn’t regulate or interfere with religious practice,” Brejcha said. “Religious practices (were) defined on the floor of the Illinois Legislature as including the rendition of social services. That’s what the Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount are all about. Frankly, we’ve been incredulous.”

Contrast that with how the Chicago Sun-Times reported — as fact — on Catholic Charities’ unwillingness to obey the new law:

A DCFS spokesman would only say Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the order. Gov. Pat Quinn and other state officials have said that the decision to terminate the relationship with Catholic Charities was based on the organization’s unwillingness to comply with the new state law.

“Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won’t participate voluntarily in a program, that’s their choice,” Quinn said Monday.

Still unclear to me is this issue raised by reader Lynn in our previous discussion:

An important question which seems to be missing from the article, and all articles which I have read on this topic, is whether Catholic Charities would be allowed to operate adoption agencies according to their religious beliefs if they did so without government funding. Is Catholic Charities giving up because they don’t think they could financially support adoption agencies without government support? Or does the anti-discrimination regulation apply to all agencies, even those which are privately funded?

Perhaps that question has been addressed in other media reports and I missed it. If so, I’d appreciate it, kind readers, if you’d provide a link in the comments sections.

Flickr photo: Marlene Gucwa, a foster family trainer for Catholic Charities, watches her adopted daughter Consetta play with her adopted granddaughter McKenzie. (Photo by Rebecca Saunders/Catholic Sun)

God’s plan in baseball fan’s death

I was sitting in the third deck behind home plate at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, munching kettle corn and sipping a Diet Dr Pepper in triple-digit heat, when the unthinkable happened the other night.

An Oakland Athletics player hit a foul ball that ricocheted into left field. Rangers All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton picked up the ball and tossed it toward fans in the bleachers behind the out-of-town scoreboard. A man in the front row with his 6-year-old son reached for the ball, leaned a little bit too much over the railing and fell headfirst behind the left-field wall — as the entire crowd, myself included, gasped.

“Anybody hear if he’s OK?” I posted on my Facebook page, hoping a friend watching the game on television or listening to it on the radio might have information on the fan’s condition.

Play resumed almost immediately, even as ambulance sirens could be heard outside the stadium, but no announcement was made concerning the elephant in the ballpark. Later reports indicated that the fan was conscious and asking about his son as first responders tended to him, but he died on the way to the hospital. Players and fans learned of Shannon Stone’s death only after the game ended.

That night, the image of the father trying to grab the ball for his son constantly replaying in my mind, I tossed and turned until I finally dozed off about 3 a.m. Obviously, that’s the big story here — that of a young boy left without a dad and a wife forced to move forward without her husband. But a secondary story — an important one — is that of Hamilton, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, and how he will handle his unfortunate role in this tragedy.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton and his demons knows that his Christian faith is a big deal in his life. Tmatt noted in his Sudan post just yesterday that “one of the mantras of GetReligion is that it is impossible to understand how the world really works without taking religion seriously.” Well, in Hamilton’s case, it’s impossible to understand how he works without taking his religion seriously.

Evan Grant, The Dallas Morning News’ Rangers beat writer and the main reason I pay $9.99 a month to subscribe to that newspaper’s online edition, nailed that detail in — of all things — a tweet just a few hours after the fan’s death:

There is a lot of concern out there about Josh Hamilton. I believe his faith will truly be an asset for him in dealing with this test.

But did that key angle make it into actual news stories after Hamilton talked to reporters on Friday?

Kind of.

From a GetReligion perspective, here’s the money quote that Hamilton gave to reporters who asked if he’d reached out to the victim’s family:

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now. … All I can think about is praying for them and knowing that God has a plan. You don’t always know what that plan is when those things happen, but you will.”

That quote made it into a few stories, including one by The New York Times. The Associated Press did not include that quote but reported that Hamilton said he was relying on his Christian faith. A Dallas Morning News piece on Hamilton’s road to recovery by baseball writer Gerry Fraley ignored the faith angle except to say, near the end, that “Hamilton will keep the Stone family in his prayers.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Hamilton as saying he “can’t stop praying for them,” but that’s as deep as the religion angle went.

Actually, the best religion details were contained not in a mainstream media report but in the story by Rangers writer T.R. Sullivan. Sullivan not only included the full quote on “God has a plan” but reported that the Rangers “held a team prayer meeting” before Friday night’s game. And he even included revealing details from manager Ron Washington, not necessarily known for wearing his religion on his sleeve:

Washington said he still expects his team to be ready to play the Athletics, and it took a four-game winning streak into Friday night’s game.

“I expect us to continue to play baseball the way we have been playing,” Washington said. “We all feel badly over what happened, but nobody has canceled this game. We’ve got to play. We’re not going to use what happened yesterday as an excuse for not playing baseball.

“You get on your knees, say your prayers and live with a power higher than you. We all as individuals do what we can do and move on. You don’t forget, but you move on.”

In a perfect world, reporters would ask Hamilton to elaborate on what he means when he suggests that “God has a plan” in a situation such as this. Might even be a story there.

Catholics throw cold water on fun party

NPR provides a couple of warm fuzzies in a report on Illinois’ new civil unions law.

The first warm fuzzy is up high:

The day after civil unions went into effect in Illinois in June, Chicago’s lush, flower-filled Millennium Park was full of music, families, friends and reporters. Circuit court judges conducted civil unions for more than 30 gay and lesbian couples. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called it a historic day for Illinois.

“There are all kinds of different families in Illinois, and we understand and love one another. We understand that it is very, very important to have civil rights and civil unions,” Quinn says.

The second warm fuzzy is near the end of the report:

In their living room, college professors Nancy Matthews and Lisa Frohman are watching their 10-year-old son, Eli, as he downloads Iron Man 2 to their flat-screen TV.

Sorry, Catholic Charities. No warm fuzzies for you or the 2,300 foster children served by Catholic dioceses in Illinois. Instead, the piece focuses on Catholic Charities’ desire to keep discriminating against gay couples despite the law:

But the law allowing civil unions has put the state and some faith-based organizations at odds. Catholic Charities agencies in five Illinois dioceses, which had received state funds to provide foster care and adoption services, only placed children with straight married couples or straight single people who lived alone.

As the civil union law went into effect, Catholic Charities in Rockford, Ill., ended its adoption service over concerns that it would have to place children with same-sex couples or face discrimination lawsuits. Catholic Charities in three other Illinois dioceses put licensing any new prospective parents on hold and sued the state.

To its credit, the report allows a Catholic spokesman to defend the charities’ position. But the rest of the story is heavily weighted on the other side — presumably, the right side.

Even the lesbian couple with the adopted child gets to question the Catholic position:

The couple traveled out of state to adopt Eli. They say the Illinois civil union law will make it easier for gay and lesbian couples who don’t want to hide their sexuality as they try to adopt. Frohman calls the Catholic Charities lawsuit frustrating.

“If this is about the care of children, then that should be the focus. Being a qualified, loving person is not about your sexuality,” she says.

Is the couple Catholic? Would they have attempted to adopt a child through Catholic Charities if given the choice? Why exactly did NPR choose this couple around whom to frame this particular debate? This report gives no clue on any of those questions.

Despite the Catholic legal action, the story does manage to solve the entire debate in four paragraphs:

Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for DCFS, says separate but equal just isn’t good enough and the state’s anti-discrimination position is clear.

“All agencies working for the Department of Children and Family Services must obey Illinois law,” he says.

At the heart of the matter is whether this law allows a religious exemption. Breen argues that adoption is part of the church’s mission. Yale University law professor William Eskridge says the court is likely to reject that reasoning.

“I don’t know of any court decision that holds that ancillary services — including adoption services or, say, educational services — are part of the core religious mission,” Eskridge says.

Here’s a minor little question: What exactly does the Illinois law that agencies must obey say? Also: Is there any disagreement among legal scholars on whether the law grants leeway to Catholic Charities and related organizations? What is the Yale professor’s expertise on this subject — and what do other constitutional law professors say? Is there a chance that a different professor of a different political persuasion might say something different?

A question that might be newsworthy (in a less cut-and-dried story): What happens to the thousands of children served by Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations if the state puts them out of business?

I did a piece for Christianity Today early last year on adoption stepping to the front lines of the culture wars. Last week, I did a related story tied to conscience questions gaining more emphasis as an increasing number of states pass same-sex marriage and civil-union laws. Also, check out this June 30 opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal or this perspective from last month from a First Amendment Center senior scholar, who suggests:

Ensuring that Catholic Charities (and other faith-based groups) can participate in state-funded programs and continue their work on behalf of children in need not only would serve the common good, but it also would reaffirm our commitment to liberty of conscience as a fundamental human right.

Equality and liberty are core American principles, but neither should trump the other. Let’s uphold both by moving from gay rights vs. religious freedom to gay rights and religious freedom.

Might religious freedom be worthy of a warm fuzzy?

Apparently not in an NPR story.

Those other kind of lies

Before we jump headfirst into this post, let’s pause for a moment and pay tribute to that famous saying popularized by Mark Twain:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

OK, does everyone feel better now? I know I do.

Speaking of statistics, Fox News reports on a Gallup Poll concerning potential support for Mormon presidential candidates:

Much has been made about whether evangelical Christians could support a Mormon presidential candidate like Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. But a recent Gallup poll shows Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to oppose a Mormon for president.

The survey suggests a candidate like Romney would have at least as tough a time overcoming voter anxiety in a general election as he would in the race for his party’s nomination. And, analysts say, the numbers underscore the lingering trouble Mormons are having gaining national and bipartisan acceptance as a product of their concentration in just a handful of states.

Here’s a key chunk of the first version of the Fox story that I read:

According to Census data, America has more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians. They have congregations across the country, even though they’re concentrated in Utah and other western states. While it follows that most of the 15 Mormons in Congress are from those states, their tight concentration could be making it harder to appeal to voters beyond the Rockies — particularly Democrats.

The poll showed that 27 percent of Democrats would not be willing to vote for a presidential candidate of their party who happened to be Mormon. Among Republicans, that number was 18 percent.

See any problems with that initial attribution? My first thought was that I didn’t realize the Census Bureau collected that kind of data on religious affiliation. Apparently, they don’t, as Census reports I Googled attribute that kind of information to other sources. I am no expert on this subject, so there is every possibility I’m missing something. Please feel free to educate me. But I notice that the latest version of the Fox report has edited the attribution to “data from the American Religious Identification Survey.”

Still, in such a blanket statement as more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians, does anything else strike you? For anyone who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” which one of these things is not like the other?

A Mormon is a Mormon. A Jew is a Jew. A Muslim is a Muslim. But who is an evangelical Christian? According to the American Religious Identification Survey, there were 3.2 million adult Mormons, 2.7 million adult Jews, 1.3 million adult Muslims and 2.2 million adult Evangelical/Born Again Christians in 2008. Someone give Fox News a math prize!

Except …

There’s a note by the evangelical stat with this warning:

Because of the subjective nature of replies to open-ended questions, these categories are the most unstable as they do not refer to clearly identifiable denominations as much as underlying feelings about religion.

Oh, there are a few other stats on the same report: 36.1 million Baptist adults, 16.8 million Christians with no denomination, 5.4 million Pentecostal/Charismatic adults, etc. Just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, any chance any of those folks might also consider themselves evangelicals? As opposed to Fox’s 2.2 million figure on evangelicals, other sources put the number as high as 100 million. But hey, let’s not quibble over such a small difference …

According to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches by the National Council of Churches, Mormons rank fourth in size behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church with 6.1 million members. Now, as I understand it, those stats are mainly self-reported by denominations and up for questioning, but (psssssssst, Fox) such a figure might give a more concrete idea of the Mormon population in America.

Fox spends the rest of the story mainly trying to analyze why Democrats might be more adverse to Mormons than Republicans. Reasons explored range from concern about Mormons being socially conservative to “intolerance.” But Fox totally ignores a key possible explanation given by Gallup itself:

The largest differences in opposition to voting for a Mormon for president are by educational level, with adults who have not attended college more resistant than those with some college experience or college graduates. This educational pattern is seen in attitudes about voting for someone from almost all of the specific religious or demographic groups tested in the poll.

Could it be that significantly more self-identified Republicans have four-year degrees than Democrats, thus explaining the difference in the poll? Sorry, I hate to ask because I really don’t want to ruin Fox’s perfectly compelling storyline.

Anyway, what was it that Mark Twain said?

Truth with a lowercase ‘t’

My first brush with Unitarian Universalists came 15-plus years ago when I covered Edmond, Okla., a fast-growing bedroom community north of Oklahoma City, for The Oklahoman.

That was a few years before I became a Godbeat writer per se. But on my suburban beat, the Rev. Wayne Robinson was the gift that kept on giving — as far as helping me fill news holes both in the daily paper and a three-days-a-week zoned edition. Robinson was the local Unitarian Universalist pastor and had a different view of the world than most other religious leaders in the conservative, Republican-dominated town.

I drew a scathing review (and looking back, probably deserved it) from the left-leaning Oklahoma Observer when I opened a front-page story in 1995 like this:

EDMOND – No one in Edmond ever accused the Rev. Wayne Robinson of trying to save souls.

It was his other crusades – suing to remove a cross from the city seal, protesting public prayer at high school football games, rallying for abortion rights – that brought him so much disdain.

“I haven’t had any problem whatsoever with the resentment and reaction my actions have caused,” Robinson told The Oklahoman.

If I recall (the rest of the story is behind a pay wall), the piece was a profile of Robinson as he moved to a new state. The story gave Robinson ample space to talk about his beliefs and motivations and quoted critics as well, but in retrospect, the lede certainly sounds like editorializing.

All of the above (unfortunately for you, kind reader) really has nothing to do with this post, except to say that I didn’t really understand Unitarian Universalists back then and didn’t take the time I should have to study their theology.

Which leads (finally) to the subject of this post: An excellent feature on the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service:

BALTIMORE (RNS) A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology.

Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program.

But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might still upset the humanists in the pews.

“I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,” said Mendes, 52, after the service. “We did say `God,’ which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.”

Welcome to a typical Sunday in the anything-but-typical Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious movement with a proud history of welcoming all seekers of truth—as long as it’s spelled with a lowercase “t.”

After opening with a telling anecdote from a visit to a Unitarian Universalist church (read: reporter actually left the office, which generally improves any story), Burke gets to the news peg, which is a good one:

For 50 years the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine, hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to their pews.

Leaders say its no-religious-questions-asked style positions the UUA to capitalize on liberalizing trends in American religion.

But as the UUA turns 50 this year, some members argue that a “midlife” identity crisis is hampering outreach and hindering growth. In trying to be all things to everyone, they say, the association risks becoming nothing to anybody.

The story is full of specific details, quotes sources on both sides of the debate and provides important context on where the Unitarian Universalists fit into the bigger picture of American religion:

Like the UUA, one in four Americans sample from a variety of faith traditions, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A separate Pew survey found that 65 percent believe multiple religious paths can lead to eternal life.

“There has certainly been an increase in the amount of people who are open to the kind of ideas the Unitarian Universalists have championed,” said John C. Green, a political scientist who worked on the Pew studies and has studied the UUA.

(Interestingly enough, a Scripps Howard News Service columnist whose name you may recognize touched on some of the same themes in his column this week and also quoted Green.)

I did feel like one line in the story needed more concrete sourcing and explanation (i.e., what age is a “younger” member?):

But a lack of defined beliefs has led the UUA to lose 85 percent of its young members, according to several reports, said Scott, an active member of his Unitarian Universalist congregation in Rochester, N.Y.

Alas, that’s a minor quibble.

You won’t find many more enlightening or helpful pieces of religion writing in under 1,000 words. Be sure to read the whole thing and tell me what I missed.

Bachmann’s faith: None of our business?

Holy 2012, Batman!

A Godbeat pro who shall remain nameless (unless he chooses to identify himself) posted this news story on his Facebook page with a tongue-in-cheek analysis:

CBS discovers that a Christian politician prays.

Another religion writer chimed in:

Always amazed at how some media just don’t get it.

Preaching to the choir, guys. But thank you for the GetReligion fodder.

The story concerns a politician you may have heard about: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the Republican presidential candidate. (Sarah tackled a different Bachmann story Monday.)

Here’s the CBS headline:

Bachmann: Got “sense” from God to run for office

(Somebody cue the dramatic music, please.)

The top of the story, based on Bachmann’s interview with “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer on Sunday:

(CBS News) Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., says that she prayed to God about whether or not to run for political office and that those prayers provided her with a “sense from God” of “assurance about the direction” she was taking.

In a Sunday morning appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Bachmann – who will formally announce her presidential campaign in Iowa on Monday – responded to questions about statements she has made in the past that God “called me to run for the United States Congress.”

The story doesn’t actually include the questions that Schieffer asked (in a remarkably awkward way), but here’s how he broached the subject:

Schieffer: “You are a proud Christian, and my feeling had always been that people in public life, if they want to talk about their religion and what it means to them, fine. If they don’t, that’s their business. And you can say, ‘None of your business.’ But I would like to ask you this question. You can answer it or not answer it. You said you had no idea of going into politics, but God called you to go into politics. If you’d like to answer that question, I’d like to know the circumstances of that.”

Bachmann: “Sure, I’d be happy to.”

My first reaction: If someone aspires to be president of the United States, and claims that God told her to run, why wouldn’t that be a legitimate question? I mean, don’t the voters have a right to know? (Whether or not that’s what she claims is an entirely different issue.) But I digress …

More from the story:

“I am a Christian, as is my husband. I became a Christian when I was 16 years old. I gave my heart to Jesus Christ,” Bachmann told CBS’ Bob Schieffer. “Since that time, I’ve been a person of prayer. And so when I pray, I pray believing that God will speak to me and give me an answer to that prayer.

“That’s what a calling is,” continued the Tea Party favorite. “If I pray, a calling means that I feel like I have a sense from God.”

Bachmann says she asked God about running for political office.

“Did God tell you He wanted you to run for the Minnesota State Senate, or something like that?” Schieffer asked.

“I prayed about that, as well,” Bachmann said. “And that’s really what that means. It means that I have a sense of assurance about the direction I think that God is speaking into my heart that I should go.”

After that exchange, Schieffer quickly detoured to political issues.

The CBS report is actually pretty straightforward about what Bachmann said, allowing her to express her faith and God’s role in her decision in her own words. I guess what’s either frustrating or amusing — take your pick — is that the report provides no insight or analysis into Bachmann’s response. As Sarah put it so well in her Bachmann post:

Let’s clear this up once and for all. It’s not unusual for Christians to say they believe God intended them to do something. They might cite certain circumstances, advice from other people, say they “felt called,” etc. etc. to different degrees, but this is not strange. There’s a big difference between someone who thinks that they are “called by God” to public service and someone who believes God ordained their specific votes.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Was Schieffer right or wrong to be so timid in asking about Bachmann’s faith?

What follow-up questions, if any, should he have asked about her Christianity?

All the details that matter

A reader alerted us to a Wisconsin newspaper’s coverage of the church trial of a United Methodist minister who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony.

The reader praised the reporting by the Appleton Post-Crescent:

What I noticed — and wanted to draw to your attention — is the reporting by a smaller-market writer, Michael Louis Vinson. This report is fair, explanatory, economical and interesting, in my opinion.

After checking out Vinson’s recent stories (here, here and here), I’d have to say that I agree — wholeheartedly — with the perceptive reader.

Here’s the top of the first story:

KAUKAUNA — Nearly two years after she officiated a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple and filed for domestic partnership status in Polk County, the Rev. Amy DeLong pleaded not guilty in a church trial that started today to charges that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” who performed that same-sex union in violation of United Methodist Church laws.

But church counsel told a jury of 13 Wisconsin clergy there is “clear and convincing” proof she did break church rules, noting DeLong herself provided church leadership information about both the ceremony and her domestic partnership declaration.

“DeLong is guilty of the charges made against her and must be made accountable,” the Rev. Tom Lambrecht said in his opening statement. Lambrecht argued DeLong had “chosen to willfully violate the terms of our (clergy) covenant and yet remain in it.”

Though DeLong, 44, does not dispute the facts of the case, her counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, said the evidence does not prove she ever performed homosexual acts and therefore cannot be found guilty of being a self-proclaimed “practicing” homosexual.

“What we will contest vigorously is that Amy ever self-avowed anything about what happens in the privacy of her relationship with (her partner) to a bishop or a district superintendent or any official body of the church,” Campbell said in his opening statement.

This is one of those cases — too rare, unfortunately — where I read the reports and had two general reactions. First, in each of the three daily reports I saw, I felt like the writer presented each side’s positions and arguments as fully and fairly as possible. Second, I had no idea — at the end of any of the stories — what the writer’s personal opinion might be.

The third story to which I linked was typical in its approach to the parties. That story, about the 20-day suspension the minister received at the end of the trial, gave DeLong space to share her reaction in her own words:

DeLong told The Post-Crescent she would “do my best” to meet the deadline, and cast the penalty as a victory.

“We’ve said all along that we have already been successful,” DeLong said. “We had a 100 percent chance of winning because our goal was to be faithful and to tell the truth. We have done that and we’ve broken the silence. We’ve opened the door a little bit so (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people can hear a good message from the church.”

You’ll never guess what comes right after that in the story:

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht of Faith Community Church in Greenville, who served as counsel for the church during the trial, expressed satisfaction with the jury’s decision.

“I think it’s a very creative penalty,” Lambrecht said. “It recognizes that an offense was committed through the suspension, and it initiates a process that allows Rev. DeLong to reflect on what she’s learned from this experience and perhaps share some of those learnings with the rest of the annual conference. It certainly lifts up the harm that was done to the clergy covenant and the adversarial spirit that was created within our annual conference over this issue.”

Is it me or did the reporter just treat both sides with an equal dose of fairness?

At the same time, the writer lets the facts speak for themselves:

Lambrecht, the church counsel, did not make any statements at the pretrial meeting in the church’s fellowship hall in the basement, a venue DeLong’s defense team has raised objections about for its
limited audience seating.

Despite the objections, there were dozens of empty seats at the pretrial hearing.

But that’s not the only gold nugget of solid journalism evident in these stories. The writer also makes sure to include details that help put the story in context, such as this:

The United Methodist Church permits gay and lesbian ministers to serve as long as they remain celibate.

And this:

In the U.S., the United Methodist Church has nearly 8 million lay members and 46,000 ministers. There are nearly 500 United Methodist Church congregations in the state of Wisconsin, including about 50 in northeast Wisconsin.

That’s routine background in a story such as this. But you’d be surprised how often journalists fail to include the nuts and bolts taught in Journalism 101. Kudos to this writer and 50,000-circulation daily for doing so.

Purporting to report the news

Anybody got a crazy uncle who really drives you nuts?

You try, for about half a second, to put on a fake smile and tolerate him. But through your sarcasm and mannerisms, you make it clear how you feel about him.

My poor analogy aside, that’s my impression of a recent front-page story in the Asheville Citizen-Times about an Exodus International conference in that North Carolina mountain town:

ASHEVILLE — Can homosexuality be “cured”?

Those attending one conference here this week say yes. Those attending a conference being held to refute the first gathering say no.

Nor, the latter group says, should gay people be portrayed as needing to be cured, even if they could be.

Exodus International, which purports to help people transform from homosexual to heterosexual, kicks off its four-day International Freedom Conference today at the Ridgecrest Christian conference center in Black Mountain with the theme “The Reality of Grace.”

In response, members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their allies will hold a simultaneous conference with panel discussions, guest speakers and exhibits at Tressa’s on Broadway Street and at First Congregational United Church of Christ on Oak Street.

The countertheme of that conference is “The Reality of Will and Grace: A Refutation of the Ex-gay Movement.”

Which purports to. That choice of language tells  you pretty much all you need to know about the tenor and direction of this report.

Keep reading, and as the reader who submitted the link to GetReligion noted, six paragraphs are clearly focused on explaining Exodus’ position. Contrast that with 12 paragraphs devoted to the other side. The same reader pointed out:

The refuting conference levels many charges at EI: they attack the vulnerable, don’t listen to science, misuse scripture, are a front for political activity – how does EI respond to that, and to other charges laid at their door? They are only given space to respond to the political charges.

The story notes that 800 people were expected at the Exodus event. No attendance estimate is given for the other conference.

From the piece:

Dye asserted that Exodus International works from a position that homosexuality is more like an addiction than a sexual orientation, often using a “cure” model based on 12-step programs such as those used in Alcoholics Anonymous.

“The problem there is that the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association and all of the other leading professional organizations do not view homosexuality as a mental illness or an addiction, but rather a natural expression of the person,” Dye said. “Once again, you’re attacking vulnerable people.”

As the reader pointed out, Exodus’ response to such claims would have been interesting — and, well, responsible journalism.

I’m not overly familiar with Exodus, but I did include it in a 2009 piece I wrote for Christianity Today on the clash of reparative therapy vs. sexual identity therapy in evangelical circles. In that piece, the ministry’s founder defended his belief that homosexuals can change:

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, said it is wrong to assert that sexual orientation cannot change as a result of therapy.

“That flies in the face of the testimonies of tens of thousands of people just like me,” said Chambers, a married father of two who credits God and counseling for helping him leave a homosexual lifestyle. “That’s not to say that you can flip a switch and go from gay to straight.”

Quality journalism demands a healthy dose of skepticism. The problem with the Asheville coverage is that it’s not really a news report. Rather, it’s an editorial disguised as front-page news.