‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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Worst religion story of the year? AP trashes Phil Robertson

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Sigh…no context, just a quick Associated Press gotcha blurb. 

Yep, that reader’s email to GetReligion pretty much sums up an atrocious, 135-word piece of AP “journalism” on Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.

The headline:

New anti-gay remarks by ‘Duck Dynasty’ star emerge

The lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — A&E has declined to comment on new video of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson reviving past anti-gay remarks.

His comments are included in a sermon delivered at his church in West Monroe, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday. Robertson includes homosexuals with other groups such as thieves and adulterers as hell-bound sinners.

What exactly did Robertson say? Did he quote the Bible inside a church (say, 1 Corinthians 6:9)? Why is it important for A&E — and not Robertson himself — to be contacted for comment?

AP provides no details at all.

Let’s keep reading:

Robertson is the bearded patriarch of a clan that manufactures duck calls and became reality-TV stars. In December he set off a firestorm after GQ magazine quoted him linking homosexual behavior to bestiality.

Here is what GQ originally reported:

What, in your mind, is sinful?

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Is that linking homosexual behavior to bestiality?

More from AP:

He also made racist statements.

From the original GQ article:

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That deacon and CBS veteran sacks a Womenpriests ‘story’

Should visitors to GetReligion choose to search our archives for the term “Womenpriests” they will find eight pages of results, most of them dedicated to dissecting alleged news reports about this tiny splinter movement on the left side of the world of American Catholicism.

I say “alleged” because most of these stories resemble public relations essays, rather than news reports that take seriously the beliefs of people on both sides of this issue. In at least one case (“If Womenpriests were rabbis“) it appeared that the Baltimore Sun team actually cooperated with the organizers of a Womenpriests ordination rite to help protect local Catholics (some on the payroll of the real church) who attended the event. For a few other hot links to past coverage, including the work of GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway, click here, here, here and here.

Now, Deacon Greg Kandra — scribe at the fine weblog “The Deacon’s Bench” — has taken his turn at pounding his head, as a veteran journalist, on this particular wall. For those not familiar with his work, Kandra is a former CBS Evening News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. So when this Catholic clergyman chooses to dissect a report from a CBS affiliate, his commentary has a unique level of clout.

This is poor on so many levels. Reporter Maria Medina should be embarrassed. My only conclusion is that it’s sweeps month and the affiliate is desperate for ratings.

Offered as another in his occasional series called “Great moments in journalism,” Kandra called this post, “How NOT to report on women priests.” It helped that the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., published a transcript of its alleged news story on the movement officially known as “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.”

Let’s let the deacon walk readers through this primer on how not to do this job. Here’s a few choice samples:

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Baptists ‘unofficially’ changing doctrine on homosexuality?

Southern Baptist leaders are seeking a “softer approach on homosexuality,” reports National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

While noting that “the country’s largest protestant (sic) group … still preaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman,” NPR points to a recent, vaguely identified meeting of pastors to back up its headline:

The Southern Baptist Convention held a gathering of pastors at its Nashville headquarters in April. For an organization that has previously used opposition to gay marriage as a rallying point, statements here from church leaders, like Kevin Smith of Kentucky, shocked the auditorium of pastors into silence.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Florida went even further.

“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage,” Scroggins told the pastors.

A quick aside: As noted previously by GetReligion, Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce,” so Smith isn’t exactly the first Baptist to bring up that subject.

Another quick aside: Did all those “silenced” pastors lose their voices for as long as Zechariah? Otherwise, it would have been nice to hear their direct reaction to what was said.

But back to the main point: Hang on to your keyboards, tablets and smartphones and swallow any coffee or other hot liquids before considering this next broad statement of fact by NPR:

Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that homosexuality is sinful. Gays and lesbians are still barred from church membership without first repenting. But Scroggins says they’re sitting in his pews and shouldn’t be the butt of preacher humor. He calls that “redneck theology.”

Officially!?

Does that mean that “unofficially,” Southern Baptists are backing down from their belief that homosexuality in sinful? Seriously, NPR? This story certainly provides no evidence of that dramatic change in doctrine. (I have written about a similar effort in my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — that aims to change approach, not doctrine.)

If Southern Baptist pastors were to tout a more loving approach toward Christian men who struggle with viewing images of naked women online, would NPR write, “Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that pornography is sinful.” Or would the difference in tone and doctrine be clear?

Let’s keep reading:

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NYTimes leans to the right in Christian legal profile?

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No, the “socially liberal” New York Times didn’t lean all the way to the right.

But it’s difficult to imagine a conservative Christian legal organization receiving fairer, more serious coverage than the Alliance Defending Freedom did in Monday’s newspaper.

With the headline “Legal Alliance Gains Host of Court Victories for Conservative Christian Movement,” the Times used the group’s major Supreme Court victory last week in the Town of Greece, N.Y., prayer case as a timely news peg:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Alan Sears, who has run the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom since its founding 20 years ago, turned to a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office here and noted the decades of blood and tears it took to abolish slavery.

“I think there is no question that one day, this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Sears, a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department.

The comparison may or may not prove apt, but these are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.

A meaty section of the story highlights the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Christian roots:

Alliance Defending Freedom was created by Christian leaders including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James C. Dobson Jr., the founder of Focus on the Family. In the early 1990s the groups had watched with growing dismay as secular groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used the courts to ban school prayer and advance abortion rights even as an emerging gay-rights movement threatened, in their view, to upend the country’s social values.

“People of faith were being outgunned in court,” said Mr. Sears, 62, a Roman Catholic in an organization populated with evangelical Protestants. So the group — then called the Alliance Defense Fund — was founded to foster Christian legal firepower.

The new Christian lawyers have proved to be sophisticated litigants in court, wielding constitutional arguments without invoking religion. But outside the courtroom, the group has provoked the enmity of gay-rights advocates, in particular, by expressing harsh views such as those in a book Mr. Sears co-wrote in 2003, “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” It describes gay people as “trapped” and gay-rights advocates as bent on creating a nation of “broken families and broken lives.”

I was pleased that the Times contrasted Sears’ Catholic background with the prevalence of evangelical attorneys. That detail intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about that dynamic and how, if at all, it plays into the group’s culture and approach. Alas, the Times story ran only 1,200 words. Granted, that’s a full-length novel by concerning new Associated Press standards, but it’s hardly enough space to cover every angle or conceivable question.

Later in the piece, the Times provides more interesting background:

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That ‘throuple’ rite: Who led them through their vows?

First, let me assure regular GetReligion readers that I am not writing this post out of the desire to be able to put the trendy word “throuple” in a digital headline. And, besides, the wits at The New York Daily News had already put the rather obvious “Three women and a baby!” in their lede.

No there were some real, live religious questions that nagged at me after seeing several news references to the polygamous relationship between Brynn, Doll and Kitten Young, a trio of either lesbian or bisexual women (the personal histories are complex) who are testing the limits of legal relationships in the always edgy state of Massachusetts. Here is a key section of the story, which points back to its origins in the splashy pages of British newspapers:

Doll, 30, and Brynn, 32, had been together for 2-and-a-half years when they decided to spice up their relationship with an additional partner.

Smitten after meeting Kitten, 27, through a threesomes’ website, they decided to tie the knot to each other last August. And, after undergoing IVF with an unknown sperm donor, the youngest of the group is now with child.

“The three of us have always wanted kids and wanted to grow our family,” Kitten, who like Doll took IT expert Brynn’s surname because she is the main breadwinner, told The Sun.

“We decided that I’d be the one to carry the babies because I’d like to be a full-time mom,” she added.

Massachusetts became, in 2004, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. It does not allow polygamy, however, meaning the trio’s marriage is not officially recognized. Despite this, they claim their union is the real deal.

So, my first Godbeat question: They walked down what brand of aisle? A newspaper photo makes it clear that this is an outdoor wedding, so the religious context for the rite could be just about anything. The art also shows what appears to be a formally dressed man who is leading the brides through their vows.

Now, the mainstream media stories about this social development answer all kinds of questions, both intimate (yes, who sleeps where, plans for future conceptions, etc., etc.) and legal. However, the precise nature of the religious rite — one that they appear to have done everything in their power to make similar to a wedding — goes completely unexplored.

Why? Isn’t that, potentially, one of the most newsworthy elements of this story?

However, the coverage across the pond in The Daily Mail offers another crucial clue.

Maybe.

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LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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Same-sex marriage, religious freedom and a liberal twist

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An extremely interesting — and potentially highly important — twist came Monday in the ongoing culture wars over religious liberty.

New York Times religion writer Michael Paulson reports:

In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”

The relatively brief Times story quotes Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports same-sex marriage:

“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”

The report also quotes a same-sex marriage opponent (the same one used by The Associated Press):

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”

“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”

Here’s what I find intriguing: If North Carolina can tell clergy that they can’t perform same-sex marriages (regardless of whether the state recognizes them), what’s to prevent states that allow gay weddings from telling clergy that they must perform them? The values coalition source doesn’t seem to answer that direct question.

In a front-page Charlotte Observer story on the lawsuit, religious conservatives also address the rightness/wrongness of same-sex marriage itself:

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