Attention editors: Is there a ‘Little Sisters’ case in your area?

While the post-Hobby Lobby meltdown continues on the cultural and journalistic left — this New Yorker piece is beyond parody — it’s important to remember that, from a church-state separation point of view, the most serious issues linked to the Health & Human Services mandate have not been settled.

Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters and editors to look at this as a story that is unfolding on three levels.

(1) First, there are churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that are directly linked to “freedom of worship” and, thus, in the eyes of the White House, should be granted a full exemption by the state. The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never been anxious to define what is and what is not “worship,” since that is a doctrinal matter.

(2) Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities. More on this shortly.

(3) For-profit, closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby which are owned by believers who do not want to be required to violate their own beliefs.

There are no conflicts, at this point, about group one. A major case linked to group three has just been addressed by the high court. But did the so-called Hobby Lobby decision also settle the cases in that second category? That’s the question that many newsrooms managers need to be asking because, as I argued the other day, in journalism “all news is local.”

So, journalists in Chicago, I am looking at you. This Associated Press report can serve as a wake-up call:

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government’s position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented nonprofit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday’s court filing was the administration’s first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The problem, of course, is that the Wheaton College community covenant document includes a clear statement that this voluntary association will:

… uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4). …

Must the college cooperate in offering its students and unmarried employees — in violation of its own doctrines — all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

As I noted the other day, there is more to this conflict than the mere signing of a piece of paper that says these services will, allegedly be funded by the health-care providers themselves, with the government’s guidance (as opposed to these providers simply raising health-care rates for the affected ministries). The groups in this second, doctrinally defined ministry category are, in effect, asking that the government allow their voluntary associations to defend their own teachings when dealing with members of their own communities. Wheaton, for example, doesn’t want the government to help students and employees violate the vows they have, of their own free will, taken when they signed on with the college. (Wheaton College is, of course, part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach and the CCCU has backed the school’s stance.)

The Associated Press editors take all of that complexity and condense it — in a set of unattributed factual statements — to the precise language used in White House talking points:

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Specific notes of hope, along with the horrors in Nigeria

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I don’t want to turn this into a trend, or anything. Heaven forbid. However, the honorable Bobby Ross Jr. just produced a positive post (horrors) about a news report on Nigeria in The Wall Street Journal and now I am going to do the same thing (horrors 2.0) about a news feature in The Washington Post, also about recent events in Nigeria.

Why “horrors”?

Primarily because, as a rule, GetReligion readers rarely forward or plug positive posts in social media and the same general principle applies, alas, for digital networking when a topic is linked to foreign news topics. So positive reports about foreign news? That’s very bad for social-media statistics.

But here we go again. In this case, it is also no big surprise that I am praising a news report by veteran Post foreign correspondent Pamela Constable, who over the years, including in her books, has shown a high degree of sensitivity to the role of religion in other cultures, especially when touching on topics linked to women and family life.

Thus, I recommend to all her story that ran under this headline: “Ni­ger­ian blasts, likely intended to foster discord, instead promote unity.”

The basic theme is stated right here in the headline. What makes the story work are the careful details. In particular, I liked how she illustrated one of the important trends in Nigeria that rarely shows up in mainstream reports, which is the degree to which an explosion of Pentecostal Christianity has changed the face of Christianity in many parts of Africa.

Thus, we are talking about a head-on collision between to growing, driven forms of faith — Pentecostal Christianity and more intense forms of Islam — in the line between southern and northern Nigeria is the ultimate religious and tribal crossroads. So there are positive developments in the wake of the Jos market bombings? Really?

While both Muslim and Christian residents here Wednesday acknowledged their history of mutual grudges and resentments, they expressed similar revulsion and anger at the bombing. Many instantly attributed it to the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram, which has staged other attacks in this region but has not claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s blasts.

“To be honest, there is still some suspicion between Muslims and Christians here. We don’t generally get together, but none of us believe in this insanity,” said Michael Tyem, 22, a Christian working with a crew to pick up rubble. “We know these terrorists want to divide us and destroy our country. It cannot be allowed to happen.”

OK, here come some of the specifics that caught my eye:

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What rights should parents of gay children have in Maryland?

Here we go again. The Baltimore Sun — the newspaper that lands in my front yard — recently published a very provocative piece about the next round in our state’s battles between conservative religious believers and gay-rights organizations. In this case, the battle is over the work of the “ex-gay” ministries and, in particular, the rights of religious parents who turn to them for help.

Looking at this from a religion-news perspective, the main problem with the story is that the issue of parental rights is never openly discussed. Instead, it is hidden between the lines of this news feature.

First, a word about comments on this post: Please do not click “comment” in order to express your disgust, or support, for whatever you think “ex-gay” ministries teach or do not teach.

Trust me, if you oppose the work of counselors who believe that men and women can modify their sexual behaviors and attractions, especially those whose sexual orientations can best be described as complex and/or bisexual, your point of view dominates this Sun piece. You may be unhappy that the piece does allow one particular counselor to briefly defend his work and that, at the very end of the piece, there is even a positive quote from one of his adult clients. However, this story — as is becoming the Sun norm on stories about conservative believers — primarily defines his work in terms of material gathered from his enemies and critics.

Meanwhile, after several decades of covering this issue, I do question the fact that the Sun team consistently reports that this counselor’s goal is to “change” the sexual orientation of patients. Just as I have never heard anyone claim that they can “pray the gay away,” I have rarely heard anyone claim that there is some kind of simplistic sexual-orientation switch that can be flipped from gay to straight.

This is how the story states the question in the lede:

Christopher Doyle says he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being gay, but he also believes he can help children and others rid themselves of “unwanted same-sex attractions” through therapy sessions in a tidy suburban home in Bowie.

That has made the licensed psychotherapist the target of intense criticism over the years — so much so, he says, that he closely protects the address of the International Healing Foundation, the nearly 25-year-old nonprofit he runs.

“Unfortunately, we get targeted by activists,” Doyle said in the home on a recent morning.

In the latest salvo aimed at Doyle and his practice, gay rights activists in Maryland say they hope to ban clinical therapy for children that is based on the notion that their sexual orientation can change. They hope to build on success banning the practice in other states, and success here in securing same-sex marriage and protections for transgender residents.

Note, in this case, that the word “rid” is not inside the direct quote.

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AP sticks it to Mississippi religious freedom law

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Earlier this month, I wrote a post titled “Via AP, a tasty piece on a same-sex wedding cake.”

In that post, I praised an Associated Press story out of Colorado that did an exceptional job of reporting on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

That story excelled because the AP focused on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — while fairly representing both sides. Both the tone and presentation of that report seemed journalistically neutral.

Contrast that with an AP story out of Mississippi that hit the national wire today.

With the headline “Business window stickers protest Mississippi law,” this report drips with favoritism for one side — and dare I say comes across as advocacy journalism? — from the very beginning:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In conservative Mississippi, some business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion.

Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs — for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

Hundreds of businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

The sticker campaign started this month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Ah, the dreaded unnamed critics.

Are these critics responsible for the description of the law as “vaguely written,” or is that the AP’s opinion? And, is it journalistically proper to state “vaguely written” as a fact, given that supporters such as the Alliance Defending Freedom disagree?:

 
I asked Greg to clarify his concern with the story. Here’s what he said in an email:

The truth is that after 20 years and more than 300 RFRA cases, state and federal, no one has ever asserted a RFRA defense for refusing a generic commodity transaction or ejecting someone from a store or a restaurant. So, the sticker makers are essentially protesting an imaginary law, and it’s unfortunate that AP is promoting a false narrative about these religious freedom laws.

More from the AP story:
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Pentecostal gap in that LATimes immigration reform story

There was an important interfaith gathering the other day in Los Angeles that allowed some highly symbolic religious leaders to make a faith-based appeal for immigration reform. As you would expect, The Los Angeles Times produced a short news story that focused on the basic facts.

The double-decker headline pronounced:

Local religious leaders unite for change in immigration law

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Southern California hold vigil calling for a revamp in federal immigration laws.

As noted in the lede, the service attracted several of “Southern California’s most prominent religious leaders,” led by the local Catholic archbishop. The presence of a Catholic leader was par for the course, especially in this case:

Immigrants who are in the United States illegally “need mercy and they need justice,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, welcoming an array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to the gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Gomez, who has made changing immigration laws a hallmark of his three-year tenure leading the L.A. Archdiocese, described the current system as “totally broken,” adding that federal laws punished families and children unfairly.

“These are human souls, not statistics,” the archbishop said. “These are children of God. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering.”

I appreciated the fact that the Times team candidly reported that hardly anyone was in the cathedral’s pews during this event. The actual phrase was “only a few dozen in attendance.”

The story also noted that it was important that leaders from “each of the three main Abrahamic traditions” were in attendance, instead the usually rally for Christians, alone. That is certainly a newsworthy point.

So what is missing in this short report?

Read the following material from the story quite closely and tell me who is missing. What is the major hole in this coalition, especially if the goal is to make a faith-based case for immigration reform in the context of modern-day Southern California and the lands to the South of the United States?

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World Vision, donors, scripture and ‘online speculation’

It took a few days, but the newspaper of record has now produced a solid story on the World Vision U.S. firestorm. The piece includes several interesting facts and observations, including a rare sighting of the term “liberal evangelicals.”

The key to the story, at this point, is the emerging reality that there is no way for nondenominational groups to find a safe, compromise position on the redefinition of marriage or on attempts to edit thousands of years of doctrine stating that sex outside of marriage is sin. Here is a key chunk of that New York Times report:

From the start, World Vision’s decision to open its staff to married gay men and women was a test in tightrope walking. Richard Stearns, the charity’s president, called it a “very narrow policy change” and “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage” in an interview announcing the change in Christianity Today — like World Vision, one of the bedrock institutions of American evangelicalism.

Mr. Stearns explained that World Vision’s staff members belong to more than 50 denominations, and since some Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregational churches are now marrying same-sex couples, the charity’s board had decided to be “neutral.” He said this was no different from World Vision’s practice of deferring to churches on other doctrinal matters, such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership and evolution.

The story contains relevant quotes from articulate, qualified people on both sides of the debate and it’s clear that the Times did everything it could to talk to World Vision leaders who are now avoiding telephone calls. All well and good.

At one point Stearns said the board’s action was rooted in its desire to “avoid divisive debates.”

Good luck with that. If board members ever respond to calls from journalists, that’s a key statement that must be clarified. A majority of the board felt that this action would not be controversial? Stearns added this:

“What happened is we ended up creating a great deal more division than unity,” he said. “Our closest partners” told the board that “we had veered from our core values in a way that created a lot of dissonance in our own community.”

He said that despite online conjecture, World Vision had not been pressured by the government to hire married gay employees. World Vision’s annual budget is $1 billion, and the government provides 18 percent of its revenues, while 61 percent is from private cash contributions, a spokesman said. But the decision to make a U-turn was made after donors canceled “several thousand” child sponsorships in two days, Mr. Stearns said.

So, is it safe to say that I can be listed among the people gathered under that “online speculation” umbrella?

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Concerning all those angry white married men in pews

It’s mid-term election time, which means that it’s time, once again, for the mainstream press to try to figure out what is wrong with all of those angry white men.

You remember the angry white men, right? Remember the folks who keep insisting on clinging to their — what was that phrase again — guns, religion and antipathy to people who are not like them?

GetReligion readers can probably predict which one of those factors was ignored in the recent New York Times piece that ran under the headline, “Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men.” The key voice up top — in the thesis paragraphs — is that of Frank Houston, a man with working-class roots who is leads the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan.

Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.” …

Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.

It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.

There are several religious and cultural ghosts in this story, but the Times team never really names them.

Instead, the story does a great job — over and over — of telling readers what kind of voters are very loyal to the Democratic Party these days. Readers then have to do the math and try to spot the obvious patterns. Take this quote for example:

No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the so-called rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities. But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.

Carter, of course, did much better in the South and in the Midwest in his first campaign. And what was different that time around? I mean, other than having to run against Reagan?

Also, note another theme in the story: Democrats do much, much better with single adults, as opposed to married adults. In stories that dare to probe this, what usually shows up in that familiar “pew gap” indicating that people who attend worship more tend to vote for culturally conservative candidates. Married people also tend to more religious than single people.

But this is not a story that has the time to look into things like that.

Let’s see. So what else does this story tell us?

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