Back in Boston with abortion protesters and fair reporting!


I wasn’t expecting gifts for July 4 weekend, but I feel like I got one in this feature story in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a follow-up on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a law in Massachusetts meant to keep protesters away from abortion clinics.

The article is a good example of old-school long-form journalism. It’s nuanced, detail-rich and balanced — at least more balanced than I might have feared. We’ll discuss my reservations later.

For now, the Times joins Eleanor McCullen and fellow prolifers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. McCullen, you may recall, was the main plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court.

First lesson is not to judge a story by its headline, any more than you’d judge a book by its cover. This story starts with a hostile-sounding “Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones.” Sounds like they’re waving and yammering in people’s faces.

But no. Times reporter Alana Semuels joins the protesters on the sidewalk, watching as they gently try to dissuade women from aborting their babies:

The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

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How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

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Sun leaves Hobby Lobby out of its timely higher-wages story

So, are there any Hobby Lobby stores in the greater Baltimore area?

Yes, it appears that there are. Hold that thought for a moment, because I would like to connect two dots that I just read in two different newspapers.

We will start with an op-ed page column by Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Yes, it’s an editorial column — but I am interested in his timely news hook. The headline: “A Company Liberals Could Love.”

Douthat’s goal is to note that there are companies that model what can be called communitarian, if not old-guard “liberal,” values when it comes to policies that impact their employees. The leaders of some of these companies — whether they are religious or not — would even say that they are making choices that reflect their moral worldviews, even if that would appear to slice some dollar signs off their bottom line. Thus, Douthat writes:

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

OK, there is no need to repeat the rest of his argument here. Like I said, what interested me was the hard-news hook in that passage, especially the reference to higher wages in the current service-industry marketplace.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, the business section at the newspaper that lands in my front yard had an interesting local feature this weekend on the timely topic of fair wages, in an era of debates about the minimum wage. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story:

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Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

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Pod people: White House vs. the Wheaton College covenant

From the very beginning, some mainstream news organization have — appropriately so — emphasized that many, if not most, progressive religious organizations have not only supported Obamacare, but the controversial Health & Human Services mandate as well.

This raises a logical question: What are the doctrinal fault lines that are dividing religious groups on the many moral issues linked to the mandate?

Obviously, some groups oppose the mandate — period. Catholics oppose its requirement that all forms of contraception be covered. Then there are evangelicals, such as the Hobby Lobby owners, who have no problem with most forms of birth control, but oppose the so-called morning-after pill and other contraceptives that they believe — scientists are split on the issue — induce abortions.

That would seem to be that. However, there is another moral complication that is affecting many doctrinally defined ministries, non-profits and schools that continue to oppose the mandate. Yes, this is the Little Sisters of the Poor camp, which also includes many schools and universities, such as Wheaton College.

More on that in a moment, since this was the topic that drove this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen in.

So what is going on with Wheaton, the Little Sisters, et al.?

This brings us back to the infamous “tmatt trio,” those three doctrinal questions that I have long used — as a journalistic tactic — to probe the differences between warring camps inside various churches. Remember the three questions?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Think about that third question for a moment. In recent decades, churches have been fighting about the moral status of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. At times, it’s hard to remember that progressive and orthodox churches are also divided over the moral status of premarital sex and, in a few cases, even extramarital sex (some liberal theologians have argued that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can even been seen in some acts of infidelity).

This bring’s us back to Wheaton College and the other ministries, non-profits and schools that do not want to cooperate with the HHS mandate in any way. As I wrote the other day, many:

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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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Big news report card: Hobby Lobby and contraceptives

One of the big misconceptions about the Hobby Lobby case (with apologies to Conestoga Wood Specialties) is that the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts retailer refuses to pay for employees’ contraceptive coverage.

Alas, the National Review notes:

Hobby Lobby’s health care plan … includes access, copay-free, to the following categories of FDA-approved birth-control:

  1. Male condoms
  2. Female condoms
  3. Diaphragms with spermicide
  4. Sponges with spermicide
  5. Cervical caps with spermicide
  6. Spermicide alone
  7. Birth-control pills with estrogen and progestin (“Combined Pill)
  8. Birth-control pills with progestin alone (“The Mini Pill)
  9. Birth control pills (extended/continuous use)
  10. Contraceptive patches
  11. Contraceptive rings
  12. Progestin injections
  13. Implantable rods
  14. Vasectomies
  15. Female sterilization surgeries
  16. Female sterilization implants

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby, explains the family-owned company’s position:

The Green family has no moral objection to the use of 16 of 20 preventive contraceptives required in the mandate, and Hobby Lobby will continue its longstanding practice of covering these preventive contraceptives for its employees. However, the Green family cannot provide or pay for four potentially life-threatening drugs and devices. These drugs include Plan B and Ella, the so-called morning-after pill and the week-after pill. Covering these drugs and devices would violate their deeply held religious belief that life begins at the moment of conception, when an egg is fertilized.

Given the widespread confusion over the case, details concerning what Hobby Lobby will fund, what it won’t — and why — are crucial to understanding this week’s major U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Based strictly on that important question, I reviewed some of the major first-day news coverage of the high court’s 5-4 decision this week in Hobby Lobby’s favor (a hat tip to the Pew Research Center’s daily religion headlines for providing most of the below links).

Maybe I’m being overly generous in my summer grading, but the coverage I read — in general — did an adequate job of explaining the contraceptives issue:

Boston Globe: A.

Obama’s health care law requires company insurance plans to provide free access to 20 contraceptive methods that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood objected to having to cover two types of emergency contraceptive pills and two types of IUDs that they liken to abortion.

If the owners of the companies comply with the mandate, “they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies,” (Justice Samuel) Alito wrote.

Detroit Free Press: B.

Hobby Lobby objected to providing insurance for four contraceptives: two morning-after pills and two types of intrauterine devices. The high court’s ruling, however, applies to all 20 FDA-approved contraceptives in the following way: If a family business is opposed to any of them on religious grounds, it can’t be forced to pay for them. …

The decision involves two Christian-owned family businesses that challenged a provision of the federal Affordable Care Act, claiming it unlawfully required them to pay for contraception insurance or face hefty fines of up to $1.3 million a day. The owners of Hobby Lobby, along with those of a -based (sic) cabinet wood maker, said they believe that some contraceptives “end human life after conception” so they shouldn’t be forced to offer them.

The Free Press needed to make clearer that Hobby Lobby’s insurance plan covers most of the contraceptives.

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And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

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