What Douthat said

So what we have here is a video of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat speaking to a gathering at the Annenberg School for Communciation & Journalism. The remarks are part of a conversation about coverage of religion news in the mainstream press with scholar, and former Godbeat professional, Diane Winston who now holds an endowed chair of media and religion at that academic center of power.

The message for that day can be summed up with that famous quotation from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” In other words, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Personally, I like to say that we are dealing with a blind spot that has two sides. Basically, the two sides of the First Amendment — religion and the press — simply do not respect one another. That lack of respect flows both ways.

In other words, far too many journalists do not “get religion.”

However, one could also have a website for religious leaders with the URL, “GetJournalism.org.”

Trust me on that. I briefly taught in a seminary and I have been around religious leaders of various kinds all of my life. The tension is real, real, real. There are plenty of religious people who simply do not respect journalism and there are some who, well, hate mainstream journalism and, for the most part, sort of hate journalists.

Obviously, there I wouldn’t have started a website called GetReligion.org if I didn’t think the press has problems in this area, as well. However, I agree with Douthat that the religious establishment has its own share of problems that contribute to this often bitter standoff.

This is a blind spot with two sides. Here’s part of what Douthat had to say, in the text that introduces the video:

Journalists are more skeptical — and often less religious — than the average American, Douthat said. … That skepticism helps reporters cover politics, business and local government. But that same skepticism hinders them from understanding, let alone covering, the religion beat.

“It would be odd for business reporters to think that balance sheets are silly, or to not believe in Wall Street,” Douthat said. “But in religion, you get that all the time.”

Religion is belief in a faith; theology is the study of religion. Journalists who shy away from religion should should focus less on the faith aspect and instead on the mechanics of the organizations themselves, Douthat said.

Journalistic ignorance about religion is only matched by religious institutions’ distrust of the American media, he said. And the result is a gaping divide between two main American institutions. Douthat’s suggestion: get educated. Treat the beat the same you would any other. Pick up a book or five, read different viewpoints, learn about religious organizations and how they work. Come prepared.

I would argue that some journalists are totally skeptical and that many are more skeptical of some religions — or types of religion, such as those that proclaim what they believe are eternal, absolute truths — than others.

But watch the video. Comment. Keep it constructive. Deal?

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About that podcast logo … (updated)

It’s time for an incomplete announcement.

As you may have noticed, the left sidebar of this here website now includes a new version of the GetReligion logo — one that says “podcast.”

You may also have noticed that, at the moment, this link does not work.

It will — very soon. It should be working today. The logo will also be our usual blue color, as opposed to black, but that’s another matter.

These podcasts are a joint project of GetReligion.org and the pros at the IssuesEtc. radio program in St. Louis, Mo. This is a pack of serious Lutherans who — no surprise here — are friends of the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway. They are also the rare people in religious radio who take a basically mainstream approach to discussions of the news. It’s talk radio, no doubt about it, but with no shouting and very little snark.

GetReligion folks have been interviewed oodles of times by the IssuesEtc. team, primarily about timely posts about major stories in the news. You know, normal radio stuff. We promise that there will be no altar calls or appeals for funds.

A few months ago, GetReligion co-founder Douglas Leblanc (his current blogging status is inactive, alas, for professional reasons) had an interesting idea, during a kind of blue-skying chat session about this site. If GetReligionistas were going to be on IssuesEtc. from time to time, why not simply use that material in a podcast. Duh.

Why “Crossroads”? Well, you mean other than (turn it up) my love of Eric Clapton? I thought it was yet another pun — like the term “Get Religion” itself — that captured the fact that religion and the news keep colliding and there is no way around that.

The basic idea is for each podcast to go deeper on a topic that drew one or more posts, allowing us to spend more time talking about the stories behind the stories and what we think is going on in the coverage. We’ll also have a chance to talk about things that come up in the “comments” pages.

I’ll be on once or twice a month and the same goes for MZ. The other GetReligionistas will drop in about once a month, when they have the time. The goal is one a week.

It takes a little while to get iTunes up and running, but we plan to be over there. The IssuesEtc. team has uploaded the first podcast — it’s about Pastor Terry Jones and Co. — but the link is still broken between the digital file and the logo.

Please hang in there with us. It’ll be working in a few minutes (or hours).

UPDATE: And this just in. The podcast link is working and that first podcast is there for downloading. I’ll let GetReligion readers know when the iTunes version is up and running.

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5Q+1: Bruce Nolan, five years after Katrina

Whenever I see Bruce Nolan’s byline, I think of Bruce Almighty, thanks to a post Bobby wrote back in June. On screen, Jim Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan acts as a television reporter who plays God for a bit.

In all seriousness, though, the real journalist Bruce Nolan has done some solid stories down at the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In case you didn’t hear, there was this thing called Hurricane Katrina, and then another thing called an oil spill.

Nolan’s job has been to dig out religion angles out of what initially seemed to be a natural disaster story and a corporate blunder story. Here’s a sample: Katrina anniversary services as a litmus for the emotional status of the region, collective prayer as a response to the oil spill, seeing the spill theologically as a “sin” against creation, a Jewish social justice training program uses post-Katrina New Orleans as a laboratory, and Katrina radicalizes (and psychologically damages) an Episcopal bishop.

Nolan has spent his entire career at The Times-Picayune, something few reporters can claim. After stints as a reporter, suburban bureau chief and assistant city editor, in 1994, he asked for a six-month sabbatical to get back to writing and cover religion. “After six months everybody liked what was happening, so this long sabbatical just rolls along,” he said.

“Like other reporters of a certain age, I’ve done a lot of laps around the sexual abuse track; kept score in the culture wars and written a lot of clergy profiles and obits,” he said. “In August of 2005, however, I was aboard a Times-Picayune delivery truck that, having participated in a convoy ferrying employees out of the flooded city, doubled back and re-entered. That was the first day of the last story of my career–which story has lasted five years now and still insinuates itself into almost everything we do here.”

Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve asked him to answer our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From the usual places, probably. I have Google Reader, (an RSS feed reader) stuffed with colleagues’ blogs and wires, among them: David Gibson, Rocco’s Whispers, John Allen, Pew, RNA headlines, the RNS blog, Christianity Today, and more. I scan incoming newsletters from churches and synagogues. But the most fascinating stories are the ones that arise outside institutional structure-the ones you don’t recognize at first as religion stories: I mean the baseball Little League for Christian families; the medical school students’ organizing a year-end memorial honoring the people whose corpses they have dissected (true!) This is where you see religion working itself in the most innovative ways–which make for the most interesting news stories.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
A couple of things come to mind. It feels like 1) the whole culture is very near some kind of tipping point on gay marriage and 2) I sense a growing secularization, or at least a growing appetite to find meaning outside organized religion. But more basically, here’s something I think lots of colleagues may recognize: It’s the slightly awkward feeling you get when you tell an editor that in response to some community crisis–a drought; a devastating plant closing; a storm or a massive oil spill–people in the community by the thousands are responding by … praying. Think the evening of 9/11,–but also, much smaller events as well. In lots of newsrooms, that won’t make the cut.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Since Aug. 29, 2005, we in New Orleans have had a lot on our plate locally, so brawls over sexual abuse, same sex marriage, Manhattan mosques and President Obama’s secret faith don’t get real purchase here. However, it has been immensely interesting to watch faith groups pitch in on the rebuilding of New Orleans, each following a command heard slightly differently, according to their tradition. We’ll keep watching that.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because faith-and everybody believes something–is the way we interpret the world, period. What was the meaning of the hurricane? Am I supposed to assist? Who shall I choose as a spouse? Who shall I vote for? Is this immigration policy just? How do I know? Basic stuff.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into this bar, and … Oops, wrong cue. Let’s give irony a try. This is Louisiana, home of U.S. Senator David Vitter, one of the most vocal family values champions in that body-before and after he was exposed as a regular customer in a prostitution ring. Perhaps you have someone similar near you. They seem to be proliferating, no?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Okay, these are hard times. The old struggle to get religion news in the newsroom hierarchy of values endures, with new challenges: not enough bodies; new technologies to learn, you know the drill. But there’s a lot of wisdom out there; some best practices worth studying; smart colleagues to consult. The hive is trying to work this out. If at all possible, try to make it to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver in late September. And one more piece of irony: I can’t make it this year. I’ll miss you, but catch you later.

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5Q+1: Joshunda Sanders on sacred and secular

Today I remembered why I like Joshunda Sanders’ Of Secred and Secular blog so much. She often teases that local angle out of a national issue, or finds something fresh locally.

For instance, she posted something today about how University of North Texas professors are studying the faith of Katrina survivors. This was no press release re-write; She interviewed the professors about how factors like age, previous religious experience and church attendance play a role in the faith of the survivors.

Sanders is the religion reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, where she has worked for five years. The Bronx, NY-native began her newspaper career in 2000 after she graduated from Vassar College as a Hearst Fellow with the Hearst Newspapers Corporation. During her fellowship, she moved every six months for two years and worked at the Houston Chronicle, The Beaumont Enterprise, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle.

She was a features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle between 2002 and 2005. She returned to Texas to write for the Statesman and to attend library school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s of science in information studies in 2009.

She has covered the public safety/cops beat, education, and breaking news at the Statesman before she was promoted to the religion beat in 2009. She has been visiting area churches, speaking to local church leaders about trends, and blogging up a storm since then.

Joshunda also writes creative nonfiction and her essays have appeared in several Seal Press anthologies, including “Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth about Women’s Friendships,” “Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time,” and “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also a lecturer at the University of Texas School of Journalism this semester.

Sanders will join the flock of religion reporters headed to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver September 23-25. Anyone else going?

If you haven’t already, you should add Sanders’ Of Sacred and Secular blog to your bookmarks/readers and follow her on Twitter. We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I have over two dozen RSS feeds in Google Reader that range from Reuters’ FaithWorld, to Spiritual Politics to more obvious choices like USA Today, Washington Post and the New York Times Religion pages and blogs. I also check the Associated Press wires daily and look at the daily roundups from the Religion News Service to see what’s happening around the country and around the world. I also love magazine writing, so when I have time, I scan some of the religious magazines, like Christianity Today or Tablet, along with the more secular ones, like Newsweek, to get a sense of whether there are trends happening that I’m not necessarily looking at, but need to file away for the future.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It’s hard to say. I have compassion for mainstream media outlets at a time when blogs and micro blogs keep changing the print and web landscape for writers and readers, exposing us to constant deadlines, competition to have “attitude” like blogs and the expectation that we will also be fair, breaking news and absolutely correct 100 percent of the time right out of the gate. That said, I think the identity crisis that Christian denominations find themselves facing is something we’re not quite getting at, probably because it’s such a vast story. From the Catholic Church’s rising immigrant population to mainline denominations figuring out how to retain young members as older ones die in what seems to be an increasingly non-denominational church world, the identity shift is one that we’re still in and who knows how long it will last. But, like I said, I think that’s a challenging to story to write and stay on top of with all of the expectations for reporters to produce across media platforms.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ll be looking closely at the issue of clergy health locally to get a sense of whether national denominational efforts have trickled down to Austin, which is known as a fit town full of runners and cyclists and people who are concerned with their overall wellness.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I used to be a cops reporter, a features writer and for a very short time, an education writer. Each of those positions sometimes offered trend stories that affected a large audience in theory, but in practice, none of the stories I’ve worked on up to this point (10 years as a reporter, five years at the Statesman) seem to have resonated with readers in the same way as stories about belief, non-belief, tradition, faith and spirituality. I think religion resonates for people because folks in our society have been trained only to talk about religion in private (kind of like their ideas about sex or money, I suppose) but the web and the 24/7 news cycle gives people an anonymous forum for discussing their thoughts about faith. That’s a good and a bad thing, but the best thing about it is that people have access to so much information about all kinds of things that allow them to put in context the things we experience on an everyday basis. Insofar as religion or faith or agnosticism affects the way that people live their lives or conduct themselves as public officials, this is tremendously important for journalists to understand in as nuanced a way as possible.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

As a native New Yorker who once worked briefly in the World Trade Center as a college intern, I loved the Washington Post piece that interviewed apathetic New Yorkers about the Cordoba House/Park51 debate, which has become more of a political joust than a meaningful discussion about what turns a prayer room a mosque, how we decide what truly makes President Obama or anyone a “real” Christian or Muslim, and why it’s impossible for us to identify people as Islamophobes without being labeled socialists.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think it’s amazing that mainstream media still has writers devoted to religion coverage and I think it’s a privilege to be counted among that group. In my case, I actually write on other topics as part of a slim staff, but most of the time my editors are gracious enough to let me blog and write about religion, which I have come to love. I don’t know that readers understand fully the statement that the presence of religion writers sends about the organizations that are still committed to the coverage–that religion is still worth talking about because it touches all of the important areas of our lives whether we are believers or not. I’m probably biased because I work for a newspaper, but while I think it’s important to give writers, editors and content producers at news organizations constructive criticism, I also believe it’s important to affirm the religion writers who get it right or try their best, and I think that’s the incredibly valuable service that
GetReligion provides. So, thanks for that!

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When death comes knocking

When news of Christopher Hitchens’ esophageal cancer first hit the news, blogs, Twitter, Facebook news feeds, there was a lot of cause for concern and several requests for prayer. Then a few people paused and said, “Wait, does Christopher Hitchens even want anyone to pray for him?”

Hitchens is, of course, author of God Is Not Great, describing himself as an antitheist. He described his feelings about the state of his health in a beautifully written piece for Vanity Fair. Towards the end of the article, he references prayer groups.

Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if–as my father invariably said–I am spared.

Hitchens always seems willing to take on the tough questions of life, so it seemed fitting for Anderson Cooper of CNN to ask him all sorts of questions about about his lifestyle, hedging his bets, his hope in science, people praying for him, and whether it changes his outlook on religion.

At about 5 minutes in, Cooper jumps in when Hitchens talks about bargaining with things, saying that even people who don’t believe might try to hedge their bets with God. Cooper asks who Hitchens is bargaining with, whether it’s a higher power. No, Hitchens says, though he is willing to be a guinea pig in science for cancer treatments. Of course, Cooper wants to know about the irony of people praying for someone who doesn’t believe in prayer.

Cooper: I know you know that there are people praying for you, there are prayer groups actually and you talked about that a little bit, what do you think about that, the fact that people are praying for you?

Hitchens: There are people who are praying for me to suffer and die, they have lavish websites relishing my

Cooper: Really?

Hitchens: Oh yeah. And then there are people much more numerous I must say and nicer who are praying either that I get better or that I redeem myself, that I make peace with the Almighty. That my soul gets saved even if my wretched carcass does not. And some pray for both. And in fact the 20th of September has been designated, “Everyone Pray for Hitchens Day” on one website, in case you want to mark your calendar for that. I shall not be taking part in that.

Cooper: So, you don’t pray at all?

Hitchens: No, all that’s meaningless to me. I don’t think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation. Or anything else by the way.

Cooper: So do you tell people not to do it for you?

Hitchens: No, I say if it makes you feel better, then you have my blessing.

After talking about a study about prayer and how Hitchens feels like he might let down his secular friends if he dies, Cooper asked about his approach to death.

Cooper: It’s interesting hearing you talk about it. Obviously you’re an intellectual, and you seem to be dealing with it in an intellectual way. Does that make sense? You seem to be trying to look at this as rationally as possible. What about the emotional side?

Hitchens: Let’s say objectively. I’m not by any means tear-proof. I haven’t wept at any point yet. Maybe that’s to come. But I’ve become moist when I think about my children, for whom its a nasty shock. Incidentally, whatever God is punishing me, according to the other prayer faction, is punishing them, too. I don’t know if they think about that.

Because the question comes after asking about prayer groups, Cooper’s question comes across as a bit condescending towards religious people in comparison. It’s not as though people of faith lose intellectual rigor when they approach death, right? Anyway, Cooper wanted to discuss the prayer groups again. It seemed like Cooper was fishing for a more frustrating reaction, but Hitchens had already told Hugh Hewitt that he was touched by the thought.

Cooper: One more thing about the prayer group, do you appreciate the gesture?

Hitchens: Oh, yes. Often it comes from people I’ve debated with in the past in their churches or synagogues, people who find me a very fierce antagonist and think that in some way some bits of me are worth saving. I take that kindly, of course. I wouldn’t want to be churlish about any expression of concern. But I can’t keep but keep the pitying tone in my voice that anyone would think that the natural order containing as much mystery … could be altered by incantation.

Cooper ends the interview by asking Hitchens whether he’s sure he doesn’t want to hedge his bets. Hitchens says that while “the faithful love to spread these rumors” that on his death bed he converts, he said he would do no such while he’s lucid. If there are any rumors saying otherwise, he said, “Don’t believe it.”

Generally, Cooper did a nice job with the interview, asking about whether Hitchens’ views have changed, how he responds to the religious responses, what it feels like to be in his situation. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic also spoke with Hitchens about similar topics, but the CNN interview flows a little more smoothly.

One angle either interviewers could have dealt with was how Hitchens approaches the idea of the afterlife. So while religious people tend to offer an another life after death (heaven, reincarnation, what have you), its raises questions about what happens when an atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious person faces death. Has his view of the afterlife changed at all since facing death much sooner then he expected?

Another question someone could ask him is whether he has communicated with his brother Peter, who recently published an American edition of The Rage Against God, a Christian counter his brother’s book. Mark Opennheimer recently wrote that Peter is “obviously sad,” so does his cancer change their relationship at all?

It would also be interesting to see how Hitchens compares himself with other famous atheists, such as Bertrand Russell (who once mentioned what he would ask God if he met him) or Anthony Flew (who famously became a deist before he died earlier this year).

CNN gave a decent, fairly generic interview, but I’ll be curious to see if Hitchens could answer a few more probing questions in the months to come.

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Eat mor non-Sunday chikin

Let’s face it, there are not many controversial fast-food chains in America when it comes to issues of religion, politics and culture (as opposed to super-size-me issues of fat, cholesterol, calories, salt and other forms of human passion).

However, Chick-fil-A would be at the top of the list for a very simple reason — this family-owned chain is centered in the Bible Belt and operated by people who are not afraid to say that they are Christians and that their faith affects how they run things. If you find that interesting, surf around in the following Google files for a few minutes — click here and then here.

The big, symbolic details is that Chick-fil-A franchises are not open on Sunday.

Anyway, I was surprised to discover that this chain is a major player here in blue-zip-code Baltimore. I learned this in a breezy little business-section interview in the Baltimore Sun with Chick-fil-A president Dan T. Cathy. Here’s the opening:

Move over, blue crab. Baltimore loves its Chick-fil-A.

That’s according to Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of the fast-food chain. While on a recent swing through Baltimore, Cathy said the Baltimore-Washington area ranks as the highest average sales market, generating more per Chick-fil-A restaurant than any other market in the nation.

Chick-fil-A Inc. has built a following of devoted customers over the years with its chicken-heavy menu and quirks. Its ads use standing cows who encourage people to “Eat Mor Chikin.” New store openings bring die-hard fans from miles away for a chance to win a year’s worth of free weekly meals. And customers can ask for a behind-the-scene tour of the kitchen.

The focus of this interview with the visiting chicken executive is that fact that Baltimore was one of only two test markets for a new product that the chain has been testing — a spicy chicken sandwich. Now, I know that fried chicken is a key element of the religion of food in the South, but this level of doctrinal innovation is not enough to get one accused of heresy.

Nevertheless, the Sun piece did briefly mention that Cathy is the son the chain’s founder, who is identified as “a devout Christian whose religious beliefs inform company policies.” Thus, readers were kind of asked to read between the lines in these questions at the heart of this interview transcript:

Q: How has Chick-fil-A weathered the recession?

A: Many of our operators decided not to participate in the recession this year. [Laughing] I think we have emotional equity. We have a lot of emotional endearment that has already been built in the minds of our customers, that while they may have to cut back on a lot of things, this is a special treat to eat Chick-fil-A. …

Q: Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays. Have you felt pressure to reconsider that policy?

A: There have been times that we have reaffirmed that decision. We don’t operate outside the U.S. In the ’90s, we thought there might be some markets internationally we might not go into because of our policy of being closed on Sunday. In the U.S., we’re located in some theme parks, but we’re not in all theme parks and a lot of stadiums because we would be required to open on Sundays.

We’ve forfeited a lot of business opportunities because of that policy. But I like to tell people that our food tastes better on Monday because we’re closed on Sunday.

Near the end, the Sun reporter asked a very basic question and, frankly, I am surprised that this very blue-ink newspaper printed the answer. So, kudos to the brave editor who let this get into print.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

A: We didn’t talk about our corporate purpose. What really drives us to do all this. It’s a very simple statement: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

Now, that’s sort of nice. That certainly sounds like Cathy is a Southern evangelical Protestant, but readers never find that out for sure. He’s just another generic “devout Christian.”

But here is my question: Is that enough? Is this a case in which the Sun team actually needed to press on an ask more pointed questions about the chain and its policies? In effect, I am saying that it would have been appropriate — outside the Bible Belt — to ask a few questions from the point of view of the chain’s critics. I, for one, would have been interested in the answers.

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A pregnant pause for more questions

Firings are always sensitive, but when you throw a pregnancy and a religious school in the mix, you have a national scandal ripe for television drama.

Jarretta Hamilton was fired from her job as a fourth-grade teacher at private Christian school in in St. Cloud, Fla. She was requesting maternity leave when her boss asked her when she got pregnant. After she told him her child was conceived before her marriage, she was fired.

“Imagine being fired from your job for being intimate with your husband-to-be,” Ann Curry begins her segment on MSNBC’s Today Show.

Here’s Mike Taibbi’s voice explaining the story’s background:

While the language in the school’s letter to her attorney was old-fashioned, the meaning was clear. ‘Jaretta was asked not to return because of a moral issue that was disregarded, namely fornication, sex outside of marriage.’

While you don’t hear the word “fornication” on a daily basis, since when do reporters declare something old-fashioned?

Curry’s questions towards Hamilton appeal to her emotion: how did she feel, what was the reaction, etc. These questions are fine, but I’m still left with some basic questions about her faith and beliefs about sex. For example:

Does the teacher describe herself as a Christian?

Does she think her actions go against what the school stand for (even she thinks it may not have justified termination)?

The Orlando Sentinel also covered the case, explaining some of the tensions behind a firing when the employer discloses the reason for termination.

In the complaint, which asks for a trial by jury, Hamilton alleges her termination was based on the fact of her pregnancy–and that the school offended her by disclosing the information about when she conceived to other school staffers and the parents of students Hamilton taught during the 2008-2009 school year.

Hamilton did not authorize the school to reveal that information, according to the complaint.

She also tried to keep the matter from getting to this point, Gay said. She filed discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations, but has since exhausted her options.

These are good details, but I’m still left wondering about the specifics of this particular private school. When reporters get a “no comment” or “I decline to comment,” they often use it as an excuse to appear to get both sides of the story. Details for the story can be found by asking questions unrelated to this woman’s specific case, though.

Does the school request employees to sign any statement of faith or agreement to abide by specific conduct?

Does the school have a statement about a Christians’ conduct?

Does the job application request or state anything about employees’ belief or conduct?

Is the school connected to a church or denomination?

Last month, tmatt looked at other stories about the tensions in private religious schools and codes of conduct. In this case, I’d also be interested in some broader context. How often do these types of lawsuits come up where a religious school is sued related to a teacher, student, or parent’s conduct? A few more details would help readers understand the complexities more than the basic story that teacher was fired for getting pregnant.

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Julia Duin and her (bad) times

During the past few days, your GetReligionistas have received at least two dozen notes asking if we had heard the news about Julia Duin losing her job at the Washington Times. Yes, I’ve been in contact with Julia a number of times during the past several weeks, but I will keep those private communications to myself.

Before this news hit, I was already sending emails to a Times editor asking what had happened to the “Faith” item in the News pull-down menu on the toolbar of the latest version of the newspaper’s website. I check a wide range of newspapers every morning in my search for religion-news stories and haunted stories and I have always used that button as my path to Duin’s coverage (and often a handy collection of wire stories, much like that handy USA Today link).

I guess I don’t have to look for that Faith link anymore. This is an interesting statement, in light of the fact that earlier announcements about the revamped newsroom’s priorities had stressed that coverage of religion and cultural issues would remain a high priority.

So what happened?

The bottom line is that Duin was laid off, the latest of the cuts at the Times as it seeks a buyer and a path into a digital future. That’s the straight answer. Duin was the only person hit by this layoff, although that could change.

However, a Washington Post weblog item by Ian Shapira sees this dismissal in a wider context and we’ll let it stand for itself.

About a month ago, Julia Duin, a reporter for 14 years at the Unification Church-backed Washington Times, did something that journalists admire and many employers abhor. She spoke out about her employer, in print, on the record. In my article on the potential sale of the Times, Duin’s remarks — about the Times feeling like a “rudderless ship” and about the snake that turned up in the Times newsroom — stood out for their honesty and wit.

Duin, 54, said she was dismissed Tuesday, a decision that she believes came in retaliation for her published comments about the paper. To make matters even more difficult, Duin was given the news while her five-year-old daughter Olivia was visiting the newsroom. On top of that, Duin had to pack up her office belongings while on crutches, the result of a recent foot injury.

This is a stunner. As noted in a recent GetReligion 5Q+1 feature, Duin’s name has appeared among the honorees in the annual Religion Newswriters Association awards numerous times throughout her career in mainstream news. A few weeks ago, Duin won the first place award for religion news coverage in the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s annual contest.

It’s interesting that when Duin’s work is referred to as “conservative,” it is almost always because of the stories that she has covered, not because the content of the stories was unbalanced or inaccurate. See this critique by Michael Triplett of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association is an example of that point of view.

The bottom line: Duin covered stories that many other reporters on the beat didn’t cover and, of course, often did not know existed. That’s true of almost every mainstream religion-news specialist that I know. Meanwhile, Duin did quite well, in mainstream contests with mainstream judges.

In her exit interview at the Times, Duin says that she was told that “religion coverage had no future at the paper and that she was being laid off.”

So what happened? In the earlier Post story, Duin offered this rather blunt quote — on the record.

“The feeling everyone feels is that it’s a totally rudderless ship. Nobody knows who’s running it. Is it the board of directors? We don’t know. There was a three-foot-long black snake in the main conference room the other day. We have snakes in the newsroom — the real live variety, at least. One of the security people gallantly removed it.”

Now, if you run a Google search for “Duin, Times, snakes” you will discover that this quote went, literally, everywhere and was especially popular with long-time critics of the newspaper.

Put that in the context of negotiations to sell the newspaper and you have both fire and smoke. Back to the Post weblog update:

Duin says she never intended to speak ill of the employer she has been loyal to for so many years: “I don’t want people to think I was against my employer. All I wanted to do was tell the truth. Why is that such a hard thing among journalists?”

Duin’s departure comes as Times executives are considering selling the financially strapped newspaper, which was created in 1982 as a politically conservative organ by the founder of the Unification Church, Rev. Sun Myung Moon. According to current and former Times executives, one group of investors has offered about $15 million; under the terms of the offer, the investors would also assume the paper’s debt, which is believed to be more than $6 million. The sources said they did not know or could not reveal the identities of the investors. The paper’s former editor, John Solomon, who had been trying to buy the newspaper, is no longer a serious contender, the sources said.

But the current and former Times officials also said that Nicholas Chiaia, a member of the paper’s two-man board of directors and president of the church-supported United Press International wire service, is not eager to accept the $15 million offer. The sources said Chiaia would prefer to slim down or eliminate the Times‘ print edition, converting the newspaper to a web-only news service.

Note, however, that the current Times leaders quoted in this report elected not to speak on the record. Good move.

Those wishing to keep up with Duin and her adopted daughter Veeka (from Kazakhstan), will want to visit the reporter’s blog.

Meanwhile, Duin’s brother Steve — a columnist in Portland — offered this crisp public salute, from one scribe to another:

Duin laid off

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian
June 02, 2010, 9:22AM

And, many of my column fans might argue, the wrong Duin.

Photo: Julia Duin and Veeka, packing up on short notice. From Duin’s personal weblog.

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