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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Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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WPost team looks at politics in 2014, sees zero folks in pews

It’s time to set the wayback (actually, it’s WABAC) machine for the year 2003, when editors of The Atlantic Monthly published one of the most famous anecdotal ledes in the recent history of American politics.

The article was called “Blue Movie: The “morality gap” is becoming the key variable in American politics” and the essay opened like this:

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.

Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors — and better indicators of partisan inclination — than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. …

Later on, of course, as the red zip code vs. blue zip code warfare became more refined, pollsters began to focus on a more refined research angle — which became known as “The Pew Gap.” The basic truth: The best way to predict the behavior of white voters — irregardless of their religious traditions — was to find out how often they attended worship services. The more often they were in a religious sanctuary, the more likely they were to vote for culturally conservative candidates (usually Republicans, in recent decades).

In other words, a person’s religious beliefs and practice matter, when it comes time to predict her or his actions in a voting booth.

This brings me to a recent story in The Washington Post, which ran under this headline: “Democrats seek to reshape midterm electorate along lines of a presidential year.” The lede is perfectly obvious, to anyone who lives here in Beltway-land or reads news produced by the scribes who gather here:

Democrats have a problem and everyone knows it. President Obama calls it a “congenital disease.” If they can’t control it, Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate.

Democrats don’t vote in midterm elections. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections. The Republican coalition — older and whiter — suffers less from midterm falloff.

So what is wrong with this story? What is the crucial element that the Post team totally ignored?

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Shocking news! T.D. Jakes doubts something!

“Replate 1A.” That was a favorite dry reaction at my old newspaper whenever someone announced something obvious, as if were front-page news.

That’s what I said when the Hollywood Reporter labeled T.D. Jakes as “a man of God who admits he has wrestled with doubt.” Clearly, the reporter hasn’t read Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama, let alone St. Paul or the prophet Elijah.

It’s one “revelation” of the Reporter’s lengthy profile on the Dallas-based author, pastor and filmmaker. The 2,200+ word story reads like a rambling patchwork of bio, indepth, newsfeature and inside baseball.

In the process, it veers among trade savvy, admiration and more interest in Jakes’ business side than his spiritual side. But at least it seems to get the facts right. Mostly.

It trips up, predictably, on the matter of homosexuality. And it seems to want to make Jakes sound more like a diplomat than a minister.

The Reporter’s reporter extravagantly calls him a “towering figure in the evangelical world” — indeed, a “6-foot-3, 250-pound giant whose low, rumbling voice only adds to his gravitas.” But he softens that with a closer look:

In person, as I discover when we sit in Jakes’ windowless office suite the day after the ceremony, he is a gentle man whose style is more considerate than commanding. He has the faintest hint of a lisp, which softens his powerful appearance.

The article reports extensively on Jakes’ multi-sided ministry, starting with an enthusiastic look at his Potter’s House megachurch. There’s a wrenching but happy-ending anecdote as a former inmate tells congregants how her life turned around. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, with phrases like “Waves of emotion course through them.”

We trot through Jakes’ books and TV appearances, but this being the Hollywood Reporter, we’re quickly directed to his four films and his upcoming movie Heaven Is for Real. The story also mentions his friendships with “an armada of celebrities, from Tyler Perry to Oprah Winfrey.”

There’s a brief bobble as the story says The Passion of the Christ “resurrected the religious movie.” That ignores earlier releases like 1998′s Prince of Egypt and 2003′s The Gospel of John. It also doesn’t account for the lack of subsequent films in the supposed revival.

The Reporter then delivers a heavy six paragraphs of biographical material, going back to his janitor father dying when Jakes was 16. We follow his success as a pastor in Charleston, W.Va., then his fateful decision to move to Dallas with its big-city problems.

Here, the story seems to blame that move for exposing his children to urban vices: first his daughter’s unwed pregnancy, then his son’s alleged experimentation with homosexuality. And here is where the narrative begins to wobble:

In 2009, he discovered his son Jermaine had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male officer. Back then, Jakes was circumspect in his comments about his son’s possible homosexuality; today he is bolder. “In a world where we all have to live together, I think everybody has a right to pursue their own life and their own beliefs and their own passions,” he says, “and that’s what makes this country great.”

Um, howso? Up to now, the article has said nothing on Jakes’ beliefs about homosexuality. And if the direct quote shows his boldness, how did his circumspectness sound?

Yet the article goes on to say that Jakes has critics “slinging arrows from the left and the right” on a wide swath of topics — including being accused of “hostility to homosexuals.”

Jakes did, in fact, speak frankly on the topic in a 2012 interview on Oprah’s Next Chapter:

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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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Sister Jane drama: Observer still trying to catch up on news

The Charlotte Observer tried to play catch-up this week on the Sister Jane controversy. But it succeeded only partly, and it continued journalistic errors typical of those found in recent articles on this subject.

You may recall my own posts on April 2 and April 4 about the flap that started with the Observer’s‘s story on March 27, in which parents were upset over an assembly speech by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel. Her talk, at Catholic High School in Charlotte, allegedly criticized gay couplings and said children were best adjusted when raised in traditional nuclear families.

After the talk, some students launched a petition (which has since been taken down by its writer), parents launched an e-mail campaign, and the school held a stormy town hall meeting. And Sister Jane — who was a guest speaker, not a staffer at the school — was instructed to take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville.

The newest Observer episode is a rather unremarkable statement from Bishop Peter Jugis on the matter, after his return from dedicating a mission in the mountains of North Carolina. The article starts rather impatiently, then continues rather provocatively:

Bishop Peter Jugis has finally weighed in on the controversy that recently rocked Charlotte Catholic High School, saying the last few weeks have been “very difficult” for the school and that all concerned have “experienced a great deal of pain.”

In a statement Wednesday addressed to Catholics in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, Jugis said that after all the debate over a divisive speech at the school, it’s now time to “move forward toward healing with charity.”

But in comments likely to further inflame the situation, the conservative bishop also criticized parents and others who he said engaged in uncharitable talk before, during and after a meeting with high school officials last week that drew nearly 1,000 parents.

The article then summarizes parents’ objections, but then repeats a questionable statement from past coverage: “Some students who attended the assembly reported that Laurel said, for example, that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian.” That has yet to be established: The sister’s speech wasn’t recorded, and even the 10-point petition didn’t include such an accusation.

Next, the Observer says that parents at the town hall meeting “sought an apology” from the Rev. Matthew Kauth, the school chaplain, for not alerting them in advance about the delicate nature of the nun’s speech. And it quotes Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, that Sister Jane had gone beyond “the scope of her expertise” in some of her high school comments.

The previous day’s story in the Observer was similarly thin: a summary of remarks in the Sunday homily of a priest who has no obvious connection with the Catholic High controversy. The Rev. Timothy Reid was the only source quoted in the Observer’s March 27 story in support of Sister Jane and the school, and he devoted a little more than half the homily to the topic. The Observer did helpfully include a link to the whole homily for any interested readers.

Granted, the Tuesday article includes some vehement quotes from the priest against the protestors. But the quotes are graded as coming from a “traditionalist”:

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So who is Stephen Colbert really? Maybe ask a priest?

A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole “entertainment as news” trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.

After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?

Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman’s postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it’s official that Colbert has the “Late Show” nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional “Stephen Colbert” character?

In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the “Stephen Colbert” mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly “political” issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of “The Lucifer Effect.”

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

The Catholic side of Colbert’s work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new “Late Night” gig. As you would expect — with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire — publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.

So the New York Times offers this:

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Via AP, a tasty piece on a same-sex wedding cake

Sometimes, the best journalism relies on a really simple recipe.

That’s the case with a recent Associated Press news-feature headlined “How a wedding cake became a cause.”

Here at GetReligion, we have critiqued numerous mainstream media reports — here, here, here, here and here, for example — on the battle over religious freedom for bakers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

But few, if any, of those stories on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights have matched the quality of this AP story out of Colorado:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The encounter at Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop lasted less than a minute.

Phillips stepped out from behind the counter in his small, pastry-crammed shop to meet customers Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins. They told him they wanted a cake to celebrate their own marriage.

Phillips replied he couldn’t, but that he’d be glad to make one for other occasions, such as birthdays. Left unsaid was how making a gay wedding cake would violate his Christian faith, how he does not make ones for Halloween or bachelor parties, either.

Craig and Mullins left the shop, stunned. Left unsaid was how they viewed themselves as a regular couple, their wedding a private celebration, not a political statement. They simply wanted a no-frills cake.

Crushed, they posted a note about the encounter on Facebook and soon the cake had become a cause, with the sides becoming stand-ins for the culture wars: Phillips was portrayed as the intolerant business owner. The couple became the gay rights activists pushing their agenda, some claimed.

As Religion News Service’s Cathy Grossman did with her recent profile on Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green, AP’s Nicholas Riccardi puts a fresh face — make that faces — on this story.

Riccardi does so by focusing on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — and avoiding the kind of legalese and screaming talking heads that characterize much media coverage.

After a vague mention of Phillips growing up in a “religious household,” the AP story describes the baker’s conversion experience and provides insight into how his faith plays into his profession:

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