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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Ghosts in blue-state — er, red-state — West Virginia?

There’s a lot to digest in the Washington Post’s nearly 4,000-word political road trip to West Virginia, headlined “A blue state’s road to red.” Even at that word count — mammoth for a newspaper — it’s a definite challenge to boil down an entire state, its people and their attitudes and way of life into a single story.

Does the Post provide an accurate portrayal? Or does it traffic in stereotypes and condescension? Since I don’t live in West Virginia, I’m not sure I’m qualified to provide a definitive analysis on those questions.

But I will take a shot at critiquing the religion angle, which figures somewhat prominently in the Post’s report, starting at the top:

PINEVILLE, W.Va. — Those old enough to remember still tell visitors how this mountain town helped make history on April 26, 1960. That was the day 600 people showed up in front of the Wyoming County courthouse to hear a patrician senator with a Boston accent make his case to be their next president.

The electricity that afternoon in Pineville foreshadowed bigger things to come for the struggling candidate. Two weeks later, John F. Kennedy won more than 60 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, a victory that helped move the country past the presumption that a Catholic could never be elected to the White House.

In late June of this year, another expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.

The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future generations to come.”

Interestingly, the Post isn’t the only major newspaper giving the JFK/West Virginia connection prominent ink this week. USA Today had a front-page story recounting when the state’s 1960 Democratic primary ensured Kennedy’s nomination and smashed “the myth that Bible Belt Protestants wouldn’t vote for a Roman Catholic.”

But while the Post story contains a fair amount of religion, the actual insight into West Virginia’s faith — and its role in the political shift — seems pretty shallow.

Concerning the Ten Commandments monument, the Post reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities. A headline on the front page of the Charleston Gazette on July 4 asked: “Constitutional showdown in the making?”

But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.

“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.

Why? “Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.

Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.

But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed: the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.

“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.

Maybe this is nitpicking, but I’d prefer a little deeper reporting — and religious insight — than a quote from a woman “who gave her name only as Megan.”

Then again, the Post seems willing to make all kinds of broad generalizations without any named sources at all:

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Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It’s five minutes past the hour, and you’re late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you’d been looking for forever. But you couldn’t be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway … you’re late. You park farther from the building than you’d like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back … chair? If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, that’s where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn’t sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

“My generation grew up in pews,” the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn’t care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. “I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.’ “

She isn’t the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world’s religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal’s emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That’s its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I’ll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular “worship wars” story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don’t shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They’re beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

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When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

This was the headline on a Wall Street Journal story this week:

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

Photographers, Bakers Face Legal Challenges After Rejecting Jobs on Religious Grounds

At this point, the Journal arrives at a critical juncture: the lede.

The opening sentences will give a pretty clear idea where this story is headed: Will it be a sympathetic portrayal of gay couples denied basic civil rights? Or will it be a compassionate accounting of businesspeople forced to compromise sincerely held religious beliefs?

Let’s find out:

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.

The issue gained attention in August, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photography business violated state antidiscrimination laws after its owners declined to snap photos of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Similar cases are pending in Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, and some experts think the underlying legal question — whether free-speech and religious rights should allow exceptions to state antidiscrimination laws — could ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do you think? It appears to me that the Journal decided to play the story down the middle — to report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this age of advocacy, that’s somewhat surprising, but it’s good journalism, right?

Keep reading, and the story immediately quotes national advocates on both sides of the issue — fairly framing each side’s broad arguments.

Then the story turns to specifics of the individual state cases, in each instance allowing the plaintiffs and defendants equal opportunity to comment. For example:

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The ‘exceptional importance’ of the Hobby Lobby case

It’s no surprise that the “Hobby Lobby” case is in the news. The valid headlines this week are that this religious-liberty case is on the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Hobby Lobby craft-store chain is owned by the evangelical Christian Green family of Oklahoma, and the family is seeking an exemption from the Health and Human Services mandate requiring employer payments for contraceptives — including those that induce abortions. Hobby Lobby is a national chain, and the Green family’s stance is well known.

However, the Los Angeles Times team let a few ghosts into its examination of the high-court development, which begins in an apocalyptic tone:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration set the stage Thursday for another Supreme Court showdown on the president’s healthcare law, this time to decide whether for-profit companies can be forced to provide full contraceptive coverage for their employees despite religious objections from their owners.

The administration’s lawyers asked the justices to take up the issue this fall to decide whether these corporations can claim a religious exemption to this part of the healthcare law.

U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. called the issue one of “exceptional importance” that needs to be resolved soon.

While the Greens may appreciate the move to get a quick decision from the Supreme Court, we have to wonder just why this is suddenly an issue of “exceptional importance” to the administration.

We also wonder what a reader coming to this story for the first time might make of the “religious objections” alluded to in the piece. That’s because allusion is all that happens here: we’re not told, in the story, anything about what the Green family believes, or why. There’s a mention of the abortifacient drug issue, but it’s almost too, well, casual.

Large employers are required to provide health coverage, and the law says this insurance must pay for standard contraceptives, including the “morning after” pill.

But some employers object on religious grounds. They went to court, arguing that they cannot be compelled by the government to subsidize birth control or abortions.

As it has doubtless been mentioned here numerous times, a wide range of differences exist among Christians of differing stripes (i.e., faith communities) over what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of birth control.

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