A ‘new twist’ in states’ same-sex marriage debates

A time or two, we’ve highlighted media coverage of what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported back in October:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

Now comes Reuters with what its headline characterizes as a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates.

The top of that wire story:

(Reuters) – Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate — as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

“This is not a sideshow issue,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. “This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement.”

The next frontier in the marriage debates? Perhaps.

A new twist? Maybe, although two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a story for Christianity Today with this headline:

Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?

But back to the Reuters story: What to make of the journalism?

Here’s my take: It’s a straightforward piece that presents the facts and quotes folks on both sides. (It’s written in inverted-pyramid style, but I don’t think it falls into the “suitcase lead” trap, to borrow a phrase I came across on Poynter.org this week.)

Among Reuters’ sources, we hear from an advocate for the proposed religious exemption:

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Oh, those religious fund-raisers

GRETCHEN ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) She attended a fund-raising event for an unnamed organization where a slide show began by saying that “on the eighth day God created” this group and then presented its purposes. She found that “arrogant and self-serving” and it “bothered me beyond belief. Am I being overly sensitive?”

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In The Guy’s eyes, yes, you are.

Still, religious offenses are in the eye of the beholder and fund-raising is well worth some examination. The late Henri Nouwen observed in A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books) that work for financial support should be seen as a “ministry” of the kingdom, not “a necessary but unpleasant activity.”

Since this question is posed to “Religion Q and A” we can assume the organization is religious. Though The Guy wasn’t present, sounds like the leaders of this group were simply saying God created the cosmos in six days and rested on the seventh, while from day eight forward to the present divinely aligned activities depend upon our human efforts.

Understood correctly, that’s no heresy, and seems to The Guy he’s heard a sermon or three saying precisely that. This agency presumably believes it is working to carry forward God’s purposes in the world, which almost any church or religious charity might think or say about itself.

The “eighth day” trope, meant to be clever or humorous, is also widely used in secular sloganeering.

A quick Internet scan finds that on the eighth day God created, among other things: the Latina women on a dating site, the United States Marines, pricey automobiles, favorite TV shows, rock ‘n roll, football, hackers, teachers, donuts and — inevitably — beer (does this offend you Muslims and Protestant teetotalers?) and coffee (does this offend you Mormons?).

Perhaps The Guy’s sensitivities have been dulled by all those media references to religion that are sloppy, stupid, snide or downright nasty. But he’s seen far worse than this eighth day pitch.

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AP skirts key element of ‘tips for Jesus’ story

As anyone who’s done it can testify — or, to be candid, so I’ve heard — waitering is a tough job. People are rude, hours are long, and wages are often sub-sub-minimum wage, all in the hope of getting some tips. Thus it ever has been, apparently, and thus it ever shall be.

Or, shall it? Someone, the Associated Press informs us, is running around leaving massive, and verified, “Tips for Jesus” on restaurant charge slips:

NEW YORK — The $111.05 New York restaurant receipt includes a $1,000 tip and the words “god bless!” scrawled across it.

The handle @tipsforjesus is stamped next to an illegible signature.

In recent weeks, similar tabs have popped up in restaurants from coast to coast and even in Mexico, with tips of as much as $10,000 — all charged to American Express.

So who’s the anonymous tipster leaving a trail of generosity across the continent?

Tips for Jesus — an Instagram account filled with photos documenting the tips — has more than 50,000 followers. The account displays photos of smiling servers holding receipts with outlandish gratuities on bills also tallied in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Ann Arbor, Mich. On Twitter, Tips for Jesus has nearly 3,000 followers but no tweets.

The Instagram feed comes with the tagline, “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”

Well, that’s made the day for several servers, and good for them. But, there’s something missing here, isn’t there? Let’s look a bit further:

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AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

ATLANTA – The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.

Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.

On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.

“He didn’t say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.

“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.

The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend, but he dumped her at the start of the trip.

“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk says.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

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Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the NYTimes

As a rule, conflicts between church and state are extremely complex and often produce headaches, even among those who have years of experience working in such dangerous intellectual terrain. Frankly, I have no idea how general-assignment reporters can handle this stuff without the help of thick research folders and very experienced editors.

Today’s New York Times article on the Hobby Lobby case is, in my opinion, a better than average effort when it comes to church-state coverage in the mainstream press. This is important because the Hobby Lobby case is quite strange, since it focuses on whether the leaders of for-profit corporations can argue that their institutions are protected by religious liberty. In other words, this is a “church-state conflict” — I added the distancing quote marks — that does not involve a church.

This report does, however, oversimplify one or two important pieces of the maddeningly complex HHS mandate story. I’ll get to that shortly.

So what went right? I thought that the top of the piece was especially strong:

WASHINGTON – Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, closes on Sundays, costing its owners millions but honoring their Christian faith.

The stores play religious music. Employees get free spiritual counseling. But they do not get free insurance coverage for some contraceptives, even though President Obama’s health care law requires it.

Hobby Lobby, a corporation, says that forcing it to provide the coverage would violate its religious beliefs. A federal appeals court agreed, and the Supreme Court is set to decide on Tuesday whether it will hear the Obama administration’s appeal from that decision or appeals from one of several related cases.

Legal experts say the court is all but certain to step in, setting the stage for another major decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act two years after a closely divided court sustained its requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

So Hobby Lobby is clearly not a non-profit, religious voluntary association, like a Catholic school, an Orthodox Jewish clinic or a Pentecostal homeless shelter. So why is this case complex? Why is this even an issue?

This is where the Times report is quite strong. You see, there was that 2010 decision called Citizens United, the one the Obama White House detests so much because of its impact on campaign financing, the one that said corporations have free speech rights.

The question now is whether corporations also have the right to religious liberty. In ruling for Hobby Lobby, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said it had applied “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.”

“We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich wrote for the majority.

A dissenting member of the court, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, wrote that the majority’s approach was “nothing short of a radical revision of First Amendment law.”

But Judge Harris L. Hartz, in a concurrence, said the case was in some ways easier than Citizens United. “A corporation exercising religious beliefs is not corrupting anyone,” he wrote.

However, the religious owners of such a corporation may in fact be denying basic health care to their employees — employees of a company that is ultimately seeking profits, rather than operating under the defining umbrella of a doctrinal mission statement.

Then again, Hobby Lobby is not your normal corporation, as the story notes, because founder David Green and his family control it through a privately held corporation. At this point, Hobby Lobby has “more than 500 stores and 13,000 employees of all sorts of faiths.” It faces federal fines of $1.3 million a day if it fails to offer “comprehensive” health-care coverage, as defined under Obamacare.

So what is missing from this otherwise detailed and rather balanced report?

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Does help for communities justify churches’ tax exemption?

GORDON ASKS:

(Paraphrased) Secularists challenge tax exemptions for houses of worship, saying this denies valuable revenue to communities that get little or nothing in return. True?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

False, judging from new scholarly research.

Putting money aside for a moment, those knowledgeable about troubled urban neighborhoods will especially shudder to think what local conditions might be like if taxation forced financially strapped congregations to disband. Even small, struggling flocks that lack the money for professional social services provide their members (according to the members themselves) spiritual and emotional uplift and fellowship that can also enhance their neighborhoods. Numerous surveys indicate that people involved with religious faiths often gain in perceived well-being.

That said, such benefits are subjective and difficult to measure, and in any event secularists will contend that they do not make up for the property taxes cities lose when churches (or synagogues or mosques) are exempt. Secularists are less likely to protest tax exemptions enjoyed by groups that promote a secular worldview. The Guy has long assumed that in addition to personal benefits, which indeed are incalculable, it seems plausible that congregations help their areas economically, but admits his hunch has been based on mere anecdotal evidence and sentiment.

But now we have some solid data on economic impact. This year an academic journal in this field reported intriguing research by a team led by Ram A. Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. Cnaan, a prolific scholar on the societal effects of non-profit groups in the U.S. and internationally, is the school’s associate dean for research and chairs its doctoral program in social welfare. Cnaan and his colleagues boldly contend that benefits to the community can be assessed in hard dollar terms and that the totals are impressive.

In a preliminary phase of this research, Cnaan looked at 18 economic factors and estimated the rough value of a typical urban congregation’s contribution to the local economy at $476,663 per year. Applying the latest “valuation” theory, the 2013 follow-up examines in greater detail 49 factors in the operations of a dozen Philadelphia congregations, 10 Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish. The team calculates their total economic contribution at $51.85 million a year or an average of $4.32 million per congregation. The researchers assert that the actual impact is very likely greater than that. For instance, they did not estimate the value of lower crime rates and higher housing values when congregations are present; or individual advancement provided through music performance, public speaking, and leadership training; or personal help for neighbors who are not members of the congregation.

The most obvious contribution in dollar terms is a congregation’s annual spending, including building projects. Other points are the worth of religious schooling; “magnet effect” in spending by outsiders attending worship and special events; hourly value of volunteers’ work in the neighborhood; formal social services; informal aid; job training and placement; fostering of local business startups and investment; specific cases of preventing suicide, substance abuse, and spousal abuse; verifiable health benefits; teaching of pro-social values to youths; elder care; and much else.

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Surprise! A same-sex marriage story that gets religion

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For the latest Christian Chronicle, I wrote a news story on judicial authorities in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington formally admonishing a superior court judge — also a Church of Christ elder — for voicing his preference not to perform same-sex marriages.

As part of that story, I cited the Wall Street Journal’s recent reportpraised by GetReligion — on wedding professionals in at least six states running headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

I quoted Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., on the religious liberty implications:

“In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, this is less likely to be a problem,” Windham told the Chronicle. “But in states where there are same-sex unions, then some Christian business owners might be at risk.

“This is a developing area of law, so it’s too early to tell how these cases are going to turn out,” added Windham, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia and a graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas. “I am hopeful that courts and state legislatures will strike a balance between marriage laws and religious freedom.”

In past GetReligion posts — here, here and here, for example — I’ve highlighted the tendency of some major media to produce one-sided stories on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

But today, I come not to bury to the Chicago Tribune but to praise it. A Tribune story written this week by two reporters, including Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman, focuses on the clash between Illinois’ gay marriage bill and religious liberty:

Illinois’ gay marriage bill that awaits the governor’s signature doesn’t force religious clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or compel churches to open their doors for ceremonies. But similar safeguards aren’t spelled out for pastry chefs, florists, photographers and other vendors who, based on religious convictions, might not want to share a gay couple’s wedding day.

The lack of broader exceptions worries some who fear an erosion of religious freedoms, even as supporters of the law say it will eliminate discrimination.

“We’re going to have to wait for lawsuits to arrive,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a socially conservative legal group.

Critics of the bill that positions Illinois to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage point out that, though it protects clergy and houses of worship, it doesn’t spell out exemptions for people and businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, might not want to do business with same-sex couples. The text of the bill makes clear that it doesn’t alter two related laws: the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don’t harm the welfare of society.

In addition to the problem faced by wedding vendors, opponents worry that the law could force some doctors, social workers and counselors to go against their personal beliefs by providing services to married same-sex couples, or have their licenses revoked.

The Tribune does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns of religious opponents of same-sex marriage and the legal issues at play.

And yes, the Chicago paper also presents the perspective of same-sex marriage supporters:

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Is Columbia, Md., really a spirit-enriching secular city?

I am not a huge fan of Utopian visions, but I have always had a fond place in my heart for the dreamers who have invested time and money in the movement known as New Urbanism. I love older neighborhoods that are close to shopping areas, especially those that have retained their old trees, wide sidewalks and other evidence that human life existed before automobiles.

So I read with great interest that recent news feature on the front page of the newspaper that lands in my front yard (here in a classic blue-collar community well inside the vast ring of Baltimore suburbs) that focused on the history of Columbia, Md. This sort-of community was born 50 years ago in burst of idealistic, truly liberal fervor and lots of money from founder James W. Rouse.

The goal, of course, was to built the perfect planned city in between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., one that would feature all the best elements of life while trying to avoid as much nasty stuff as possible.

The government planners and experts are still working on that, according to The Baltimore Sun. We need to start with the sentiment at the very beginning:

Ian Kennedy’s short walk to lunch from his office in Columbia’s Town Center takes him through shopping mall parking lots and a parking garage — or along a sidewalk where lampposts block the way.

It’s enough to make him feel that as a pedestrian in a car-centric community, he’s in an “alien environment. … A man on the moon, there are times you feel that way. Almost like you’re trespassing,” he said.

Perhaps that’s not what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind in his quest to create a new breed of city to nurture the human spirit. Fifty years after Rouse announced that his company had bought 14,100 acres in Howard County and was going to build a planned community, the latest effort to fulfill that aspiration has just begun.

The long and the short of this story is that the dang shopping mall remains at the heart of the community, not real people living in real homes and working in a network of easily accessible jobs.

The quest for the perfect community, one built around the elements of life that bring people together and “nurture the human spirit” remains unfinished. Readers learn that a true city needs a true downtown and, alas, that downtown is still the “doughnut hole” in the middle of the community.

As I read the story, I kept trying to find a list of the essential elements that go into any New Urbanism project, any attempt to allow real communities of real people to flourish in real neighborhoods that are within range of walkers, cyclists, etc. There is no list of this kind in the story.

This raises an interesting question: To the idealists who planned this non-city city, what were the essential elements that went into the plan? What are the essential institutions that help create the ties that bind, that bring people together around matters of the spirit?

You can probably sense where I am going with this.

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