Should some marriages be scare-quoted?

Many moons ago, when I was asking questions about why Religion News Service put “religious liberty” in quotes, defenders of the practice said it was just a way of signaling that while some people believe that a given issue deals with religious liberty, others do not. It’s a way to indicate that one is not taking sides on the matter. Astute readers noticed that if this were the policy, than we should see quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.”

But we never see such quotes in mainstream media stories, even though the key to abortion battles is whether there is, in fact, a “right” to abortion. And with marriage issues, it’s the same thing. Supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously think it’s a possibility that marriage law can be so changed while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility to have two people of the same sex in a marriage. And yet putting quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” would not be seen as neutrality at all, would it?

All that is background to a piece a reader sent in from the BBC this week, headlined “Kenyan trio in ‘wife-sharing’ deal.”

The quotes are all over the place in the article about two Kenyan men and the woman they both desire to marry:

Two Kenyan men have signed an agreement to “marry” the same woman…

Lawyers said the “marriage” would only be recognised if they could prove polyandry – a woman having more than one husband – was part of their custom…

People have reacted with shock to the “marriage”, arguing that it is not acceptable in terms of their culture, religion or the law, he says.

Defending the “marriage”, Mr Mwendwa told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that while he may acting in breach of the law, he had decided to enter into a contract with Mr Kimani to end their rivalry.

Later, though:

Community policing officer Adhalah Abdulrahman persuaded the two men to marry the woman after he saw them fighting over her in Mombasa county, the local Daily Nation newspaper reports.

The reader who sent it in:

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Guess which sin makes church discipline newsworthy?

Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).

The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.

So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>

Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:

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A front-page puff piece on same-sex marriage

The Sacramento Bee published this breaking news on its front page this week:

Gays are not guaranteed the right to wed in church

Who knew?

I vaguely recall some mention of freedom of religion in the U.S. Constitution, but apparently, the Bee has confirmed this.

Not that the California newspaper is happy about it.

The top of the puff piece — er, news story:

The congregation cheered.

When Barbara Brecher and Terry Allen married in June 2008, during the brief window that year when same-sex marriage was legal in California, they asked the entire membership of Congregation B’nai Israel to
witness the ceremony. Hundreds of congregants took them up on the invitation.

Senior rabbi Mona Alfi, a longtime supporter ofsame-sex unions, pronounced the couple legally wed, and the congregation erupted in applause.

“People went nuts,” said Barbara Allen-Brecher, now 57, an administrative law judge. “They were hooting and hollering. Did I cry? Oh, of course.”

What it meant to her to marry within her faith – not just in the eyes of the state but also the eyes of her congregation – is simple: It meant everything.

“I couldn’t imagine not doing it that way,” she said. “I can’t express the joy we experienced having the opportunity to do it in the
sanctuary.”

Alas, that’s not the end of the story. Prepare to be shocked. SHOCKED:

Gay and lesbian couples can legally marry today in 13 states, including California. But if they want to marry within their faith, like Barbara and Terry Allen-Brecher, options vary widely from denomination to denomination across the religious spectrum.

From the viewpoint of America’s religious institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark decisions on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 changed nothing.

Why don’t all churches allow same-sex marriage ceremonies? Does it have anything to do with 2,000-year-old teachings and beliefs?

No, not really.

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The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times

In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Silver Blaze, the clue that led to identifying the criminal was a dog that didn’t bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” ask the Chief of Police.

“Yes—to the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes, “Ah—that was the curious incident.”

In the media’s coverage of religion, we often stumble upon these “curious incidents” when something that should have happened doesn’t happen—and shapes an entire story.

Consider, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner.” The teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by the school “after he married his partner of 10 years” and the photos of the ceremony were published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Bencomo doesn’t comment in the story, but allows his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, to speak on his behalf.

Take a look at this section and see if you notice anything unusual:

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events.
In a statement released through an attorney, the school said it is “a community of faith for those who wish to express, practice and adhere to values in education based on the Roman Catholic tradition.”

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

Bencomo hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he has not ruled out filing a lawsuit, McGarrigle said.

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Is there any point, dear reader, to which I would wish to draw your attention? Indeed, to the curious incident of the omission of the reporter in reporting the “contractual obligations.”
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Round II: The LATimes ignores Supremes, covenant too

There were quite a few logical journalistic questions to ask after my post about the teacher who was fired by a Catholic school in Glendora, Calif., after his very public same-sex marriage to his long-time partner.

Here are several of them in one reader comment:

Thin story … leaves out too many details and, perhaps, the school does not wish to harm the person’s teaching reputation — the one who just stuck them in the eye.

The Church (or this school, evidently) does NOT discriminate against homosexuals; they are accepted as are all people. However, when one decides to live a disordered life (publicly marries his partner), then this becomes a similar situation to a heterosexual who decides to “shack up” — it’s just not a good Catholic example to give impressionable young people. So, you have the good old “morals” clause.

It would seem like the teacher knew EXACTLY what he was doing. Might we expect this to be run up to the almighty (sometimes called “supreme”) court of this land as an “anti-discrimination” issue? We await with bated breath.

– James Stagg

The problem, of course, is that one of the major points made in my post was that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled — with a headline grabbing 9-0 vote, against the expressed wishes of the current Justice Department — that doctrinally defined churches and educational institutions have the right to hire and fire in ways that defend their teachings and religious traditions.

So were the journalists involved in this story simply unaware of this recent blast from the Supremes? Or, is the subtext here that the gay-rights theme in this developing story cancels out this basic religious-liberty, First Amendment reality?

Several readers mentioned another key issue: That this particular Catholic school may or may not have a doctrinal covenant that is signed by faculty, students, parents, etc.

I get that. I know that there are schools that are living in the legal past — legal in terms of state law and the desires of Rome — and don’t want to do that whole religious covenant thing. There are also plenty of Catholic educators who disagree with the teachings of their own church and do not want them enforced.

Well, then you have photos in the local newspaper and, well, you know. That’s bad. So the reality in the school hallways clashes with the reality that is the Catholic tradition. That’s hard to explain to any traditional Catholic parents and donors linked to your school. There’s a major news story in there, methinks.

But that story does not fit the template that is in operation in the coverage.

Some GetReligion readers may, in fact, have been thinking something else: That this was just a story from small local newspaper that didn’t really cut the mustard. Things would be different if it was covered by a major newsroom, one that would certainly include the crucial missing pieces of this news puzzle (as in the covenant issue and the U.S. Supreme Court decision).

So how about The Los Angeles Times?

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Yes or no: This school has a Catholic doctrinal covenant?

Let’s start with an informal quiz.

Raise your hand if you think it would be acceptable for a Muslim school to fire a teacher who, after years in the classroom, went public with her commitment to Zionism?

Let’s try another: How about a teacher at an Episcopal High School who turned out to be an undercover representative of an evangelical Protestant ex-gay group?

One more: How about a Jewish academy firing a teacher who, in a public ceremony, was ordained by the Southern Baptists as a Messianic Jewish rabbi?

How many hands to we have up in the air, at this point?

Actually, the key to each of these scenarios is whether these faculty members had signed any kind of covenant in which she or he agreed to support (or at the very least, agreed not to publicly oppose) the doctrines advocated by the religious school or the denomination or movement that supports it.

The key word is “covenant.” Religious organizations are allowed to hire and fire people, while advocating their own doctrines.

If you have questions about that, check out that recent U.S. Supreme Court case called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the one that socked the current Justice Department team with a 9-0 verdict in favor of the church and its school.

With that in mind, let’s look for the crucial piece of information that is missing in this oh-so-familiar story from The Sun in San Bernardino County. The story hook is that a veteran teacher — 17 years in the classroom — was fired by a Catholic school after the public rite in which he married his long-time male partner.

While school representatives declined comment on the matter, an attorney representing 45-year-old Ken Bencomo says he was fired because of the same-sex ceremony.

“The reason given was that the marriage occurred and the school’s position was that it violated church teachings,” said Chatsworth attorney Patrick McGarrigle.

Bencomo, 45, was head of the English department at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, but also worked as a yearbook moderator and dance coach. Students say they were aware of Bencomo’s sexual orientation.

Note that it is merely the school’s position or opinion that this same-sex marriage commitment violated church teachings — as opposed to sacramental theology repeatedly stated by the Roman Catholic Church for a millennium or two.

There is no doubt, of course, that the rite violated Catholic teachings and doctrine.

But as I stated earlier, this is not the key question in the current legal climate. And what is the key question?

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The moral (and news) authority of Desmond Tutu

An article at BBC.com on the launch of a United Nations-backed campaign to promote gay rights in South Africa is a perfect example of the kinds of difficulties that mainstream journalists face when reporting on world figures who have left the public eye.

The name and the work of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to most educated newspaper readers — but is a reputation built 25 years ago in the anti-apartheid struggle transferable to the modern debate on gay rights? Why should reporters automatically assume that the words of Tutu are major news?

Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour. The ebullient archbishop will announce he is withdrawing from public life and then pop up again in conjunction with another cause or campaign. On 26 July the BBC ran a story under the catchy headline “Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God.’” The article begins:

South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will never worship a “homophobic God” and will rather go to hell. The retired archbishop was speaking at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. Despite same-sex relationships being legal in South Africa, it had some of the worst cases of homophobic violence, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Archbishop Tutu, 81, is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, but has remained the moral conscience of the nation, correspondents say.

While it is tempting to focus on the first line of the story in this post, to do so would breach the parameters of this blog by discussing a religious and cultural issue, not journalism. Thus, my focus is on the last line of the paragraph, the “moral conscience of the nation” line.

Should the BBC be making this claim, or is this editorial advocacy? Is the Corporation making a value judgment that equates a struggle over race and politics with a struggle over sex and politics?

Tutu’s role in the transformation of the South African state is part of the historical record, and he is rightly honored for his work. Yet he is not universally beloved. The pull quotes from a story reporting on comments made during a campaign rally this week by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe were unkind — and not unexpected.

“Never, never, never will we support homosexuality in Zimbabwe,” Mr Mugabe said. “Archbishop Tutu said it is nice to be gay, yet he has a wife, he should have begun by getting himself a man for a woman.

“When you are a bishop and cannot interpret the Bible, you should resign and give it to those who can. We will not compromise our tradition and tolerate homosexuality.”

For many years Mugabe has played upon the religio-cultural disapprobation of homosexuality in Zimbabwe for political gain. It may be an act — a way of demonizing or scapegoating an unfavored minority to distract the people from the woes of the country. Sources in Zimbabwe, however, tell me that this is not feigned anger — he means what he says.

Being the object of Mugabe’s invective, however, is a badge of honor and would tend to boost Desmond Tutu’s credentials. Yet within the archbishop’s church his post-apartheid actions have made him yesterday’s man.

In 1998 I attended a meeting of the Anglican bishops of Africa held on the margins of the Lambeth Conference. What played out at this dinner was a contest for the unofficial leadership of Africa — who would be the paramount bishop. The new archbishop of Cape Town, a protege of Tutu — who had retired by this point — had his following. But the mantle of authority passed from South Africa to Nigeria. No votes were taken, nothing official occurred but at that dinner the Anglican churches of Africa moved on from apartheid. The culture wars and homosexuality took center stage.

One thing I took away from these encounters with African bishops was their visceral dislike of breaking ranks and of voicing public criticism of their own. As an American clergyman, I was used to one style of church warfare — Smite the Amalekites Oh Lord, smite them hip and thigh — not the African softly softly approach.

Thus when I saw this denunciation of Tutu by the Archbishop of Ghana following the publication of the BBC piece printed above, I was taken aback by its vehemence.

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Can’t headline writers and reporters get on the same page?

We live in an age of unprecedented communications technology. With access to cell phones, Skype, email, Twitter, etc., it is has never been easier for people to communicate with one another. So why then is it so hard for reporters and headline writers to talk to each other?

Headlines that mislead or that do not fairly represent a writer’s article are a perennial problem. A recent, especially egregious example can be found in the U.K.’s The Telegraph. Here is the headline and subhead on an article by religious affairs editor John Bingham:

Religion told to halt weddings over gay rights

The future of traditional Indian weddings in Britain is in doubt because of the fallout from gay marriage passing into law, it has emerged.

An entire category of human experience – “religion” — is told to halt weddings? By whom? And if the headline is intended to refer to a specific religion, why not just say so?

Perhaps the subhead is intended to provide a clue by mentioning “traditional Indian weddings.” But that doesn’t really narrow it down since India is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

It’s advisable to never use a nationality as a stand-in for any religion, but since the headline does, can we assume it’s a reference to Hinduism? Since Hindus account for 80 percent of the population of India that must be the religion that holds “traditional Indian weddings,” right? Well, no. This article is about Sikhism, which is not only a minority religion in the U.K. (accounting for only 0.8 percent of the population) but is a minority religion in India too (only 1.9 percent of Indians are Sikhs).

Aside from the confusing and grammatically suspect headline (what does “it has emerged” even mean?), the article itself does a commendable job of reporting on the controversy without editorializing:

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