Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not

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If you enjoy quality journalism, feel free to skip an Associated Press story out today on Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality.

But if you’re in the mood for a puff piece, wow … AP has produced a doozy!

From start to finish, this quasi-news report engages in unfettered cheerleading. Ready? OK!:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Wendy and Tom Montgomery went door-to-door in their California neighborhood in 2008 campaigning for the passage of an anti-gay marriage proposition. They were among thousands of faithful Mormons following the direction of a church that spent millions on the cause.

Then they learned last year that their 15-year-old son is gay — a revelation that rocked their belief system.

Now, Wendy Montgomery is leading a growing movement among Mormons to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach that homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Alas, AP never gets around to providing any concrete data to back up the claim of “a growing movement.”

The story does provide this big chunk of “background,” all without any named sources:

The Utah-based church’s stance on homosexuality has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California’s Proposition 8. A new website launched this year encourages more compassion toward gays, implores them to stay in the faith and clarifies that church leaders no longer “necessarily advise” gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality. In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts’ policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships.

Who says the church’s stance has “softened considerably?” The story doesn’t say.

Who are the gay Mormons welcomed back and allowed to remain in same-sex relationships? AP doesn’t bother to quote any of them.

That giant paragraph is followed by this transition:

It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars say 2013 has been a landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.

How’s that for editorializing? (I’ll give it an A-plus.)

Throughout the story, AP presents the Montgomerys’ version of events as the gospel truth, such as:

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Hey, LA Times, there’s more to HHS fight than Hobby Lobby

First things first: I have to admit that I almost choked on my diet cherry cola when I read the double-decker headline on this Los Angeles Times news feature about the next round of cultural warfare at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ready? You have been warned:

In new term, Supreme Court may steer to right on key social issues

The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has a clear chance to shift the law to the right on abortion, contraception, religion and campaign funding

Now, faithful GetReligion readers will know that — as a pro-life Democrat — I am not pleased when journalists slap simplistic religious or political labels on people. In particular, it is often important to separate religious doctrine from political beliefs. When covering Republicans, it is also crucial to grasp that there are people who are conservative on economic and openly political issues, while veering to the left on moral and cultural issues. This familiar name leaps to mind: Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So I understand that, on some issues, the current high court does contain five people who from time to time form a “conservative bloc.” But does this court really contain a “conservative bloc” when addressing moral, cultural and religious issues?

To understand my main problem with the content of this story, it helps to see the framing. Let’s get started:

If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties and clear the way for exclusively Christian prayers at local government events.

Wait, what’s with the “clear the way” language? Isn’t the issue whether citizens, under the First Amendment, can CONTINUE to offer prayers that contain exclusively Christian images and language? I mean, I hate to break this to folks on the left coast, but lots of folks have been using Trinitarian language in public prayers in the American heartland for a long, long time. This is news? The issue is whether the state has the power to forbid, control or at the very least edit this form of speech.

Back to the story’s overture and the passage that sure as heckfire caught my attention:

By next spring, the justices are likely to revisit part of President Obama’s healthcare law to decide a religious-rights challenge to the requirement that large private employers provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives. Dozens of employers who run for-profit companies have sued, contending that providing health insurance that includes a full range of contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.

Yes, it is possible that the court will take a second look at the fine details in that healthcare law. We know that because one of its most liberal members dropped a hint about that in her written opinion in support of the “individual mandate” plank in the Health and Human Services regulations.

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When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

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

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

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

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

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

Let’s find out:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghost in that NYTimes Justice Kennedy hagiography

It’s time for a quick dip into my unusually thick GetReligion folder of guilt, that place where I stash stories that I know deserve a bite of criticism, but more pressing matters (think Syria) keep pushing them back in the cyber-queue.

The other day, The New York Times ran what was essentially a work of hagiography in praise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. There is not a single surprising word in this story, not a random thought that would upset the loyal community of Times readers who view it as holy writ and would be quick to challenge any violations of orthodoxy.

Also, I realize that — hello former editor and now columnist Bill Keller — as a tolerant, urban, intelligent source of information, there is no need for the Times team to provide any balancing or challenging information in this work of advocacy journalism.

Nevertheless, I do have a question about an interesting piece of information (yes, a religion ghost) that is missing in this report. We’re talking about basic information, here, not opposing points of view.

Now, note that — right up top — the key to the story is that gay rights leaders have been surprised by the strength of the justice’s convictions on this issue. In fact, they had reasons to believe he would not support their cause. Thus the headline: “Surprising Friend of Gay Rights in a High Place.” Here is the lede and then a crucial chunk of background material:

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Give ’Em Hope” for a revered and in some ways surprising guest who shared a California stage with them last month: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

And later:

The praise now being showered on Justice Kennedy by gay rights advocates — and the deep disappointment of conservatives — would have been hard to imagine when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1987. Gay rights groups were more than a little wary then. On the federal appeals court in California, where Justice Kennedy had served for 13 years, he heard five cases concerning gay rights. He voted against the gay rights claim every time.

“I have to say that Kennedy seems rather obtuse on important gay issues and must be counted as a likely vote against us on most matters likely to come before the Supreme Court,” Arthur S. Leonard, an authority on gay rights at New York Law School, wrote in The New York Native, a newspaper that focused on gay issues.

The justice’s trajectory since then has been a product of overlapping factors, associates and observers say. His Supreme Court jurisprudence is characterized by an expansive commitment to individual liberty. He believes that American courts should consider international norms, and foreign courts have expanded gay rights. His politics, reflecting his background as a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist, tend toward fiscal conservatism and moderate social views. And he has long had gay friends.

Yes, Kennedy is a Republican, the story notes, but he is a California Republican. Good point, that. Culture and context are important.

However, there is an interesting “C” word missing in this piece, a word that probably had something to do with the original decision by Reagan & Co. to put Kennedy on the high court.

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Imagine Pope Francis; help artists win prizes

So, unless you have spent quite a bit of time on another planet in recent months, you probably know that Pope Francis is a rock star in global mass media and that condition will probably continue until he stands up in some crucial public-square location — Comedy Central perhaps — and makes a bunch of statements defending Catholic moral teachings.

THe bubbly Jesuit from Latin America is everywhere right now.

With that in mind, the pros over at Religion News Service decided to celebrate wonder that is Pope Francis in a rather unique way, with a rather fun multi-media project. The online announcement for this operation saith:

Religion News Service readers will vote for the best artistic rendering of Pope Francis as part of the nonprofit news site’s first ever art contest.

Public voting online begins Tuesday, Sept 3, at: http://www.religionnews.com

Two-dozen artists from the U.S. as well as Canada, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia have submitted their artistic renderings. Submissions will be accepted until midnight on Monday, Sept.2. Winners will be announced on Sept. 9. First, second and third place winners will have their art published on religionnews.com. In addition:

* 1st Place will receive a $100 Visa Card.

* 2nd Place will receive a $25 Visa Card and an RNS gift package that includes an RNS zippered drawstring bag, golf towel and solar power pack.

* 3rd Place will receive an RNS gift package that includes an RNS zippered drawstring bag, golf towel and solar power pack.

Do the math. That means you have over the weekend to hit the RNS website and cast your votes. Trust me, there are images there that are both fun and graceful, as well as traditional and rather inspiring.

The direct link to the contest ballot is found RIGHT HERE. Just do it folks.

I put one of my favorite images at the top of this post (although I could have chosen one of several others that I liked a lot).

The caption for this particular entry says:

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Gay rights in San Antonio: simple quote, complex subject

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In San Antonio, a battle over a proposed ordinance to add “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the city’s nondiscrimination code has dominated headlines the last few weeks.

The San Antonio Express-News has been all over the story, including a report last week by award-winning Godbeat pro Abe Levy (who has been tweeting about the debate) on black and Latino clergy rallying against the measure.

A GetReligion reader complained that one story this week contained this criticism with no reference to a statement by Roman Catholic Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller:

Some in the gathering lamented the lack of more vocal opposition by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which has supported the proposal’s spirit but has joined other pastors in expressing concerns about religious liberty and free speech.

True confession: I have not read all the coverage or even a huge amount of it.

So I want to be completely open about what I am about to do, which is to nitpick two paragraphs in a single story — today’s front-page report on the ordinance’s passage.

But before I get to those two paragraphs, here’s the top of the story:

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Hey AP: Where is religious left on religious liberty issues?

A long, long time ago, 1998 to be precise, I wrote a column marking the 10th anniversary of my weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. I opened it with an observation about one of the major changes I had witnessed on the religion beat during the previous 20 years or so.

Add that all up and we’re talking about events in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. At the top, I noted that, when covering news events:

I kept seeing a fascinating cast of characters at events centering on faith, politics and morality. A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a “moderate” Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.

Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today’s social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about “strange bedfellows,” it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

This led me to the work of a famous scholar who was seeing the same pattern:

Then, in 1986, a sociologist of religion had an epiphany while serving as a witness in a church-state case in Mobile, Ala. The question was whether “secular humanism” had evolved into a state-mandated religion, leading to discrimination against traditional “Judeo-Christian” believers. Once more, two seemingly bizarre coalitions faced off in the public square.

“I realized something there in that courtroom. We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism,” said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. “Divisions that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind- blowing. The ground was moving.”

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

Why bring this up? This is the first thing I thought of the other day when GetReligion readers started sending in links to an Associated Press report noting that — prepare to be shocked — various groups in America are taking different stands on same-sex marriage. Thus, they are also taking different stands on some of the public-square issues linked to the right of doctrinal traditionalists to live out their beliefs in the practical details of public life.

In other words, the doctrinal, philosophical divisions of the “culture wars” era are now affecting how our nation’s leaders view religious liberty and, specifically, the free exercise clause in the First Amendment.

Surprised? There is no need to be. The problem is that this story paints this as a division primarily between religious people and secular people. More on that in a minute.

Now, here’s another key fact that is in the background of this Associated Press news feature. Truth is, the old coalitions that used to support religious liberty have been shattered — especially the remarkable left-right coalition that worked with the Clinton White House on issues of “equal access” and religious freedom in the workplace. That change in the legal landscape is now affecting debates among traditionalists about how to defend their beliefs on marriage and family (and religious liberty). Here is some key material near the top of the story:

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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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