Houston, we have a Presbyterian ‘evangelist’ problem (correction)

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Correction: The Houston Chronicle’s coverage was much more extensive than reported below. Read our apology to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson.

In her recent “State of the Godbeat 2014″ report for GetReligion, Julia Duin noted that the Houston Chronicle once had two full-time religion writers. These days, that big Texas paper has one writer covering religion, along with some other beats, Duin reported.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a major religion news story in the nation’s fourth-largest city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — generated 262 words in the Chronicle. That’s a glorified news brief, folks.

I was pleased to see that The Texas Tribune gave about three times that much space to the story, although I found the headline and lede paragraph a bit misleading.

The Tribune’s headline:

Houston Church Opts Not to Defect From Denomination

The lede:

HOUSTON — An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body. The vote stands in marked contrast to a slate of wealthy Texas congregations that have left the denomination over a disagreement about biblical interpretation and homosexuality.

Here’s my question: At this point, wouldn’t most readers assume that a majority of members voted to stay in the denomination?

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that we learn otherwise:

The results were tight. Of the 1,681 members voting, 1,085 cast ballots in favor of leaving PCUSA. That was just 36 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds to align with the new evangelical denomination.

So, in other words, 65 percent of the church supported leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the total fell just shy of the supermajority. Yes, that’s far below the 89 percent of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas members who voted last fall to leave the denomination. Still, the actual vote breakdown is a crucial detail that belongs in the first sentence, not the fourth, if you ask me. To the Chronicle’s credit, its short report did just that:

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Religious freedom vs. gay discrimination in Arizona

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Here we go again.

In Arizona, a religious freedom bill has riled gay rights supporters, as The Associated Press puts it. Or, as a Los Angeles Times headline describes it, gay rights activists are in an uproar over the “religious freedom” (scare quotes courtesy of the Times) measure headed to Gov. Jan Brewer.

In Phoenix, readers of The Arizona Republic woke up to this banner front-page headline this morning:

Religion bill OK’d, on way to Brewer

The subhead:

Measure pits freedom against discrimination

The Republic’s big type certainly plays the story down the middle, avoiding the seeming bias of some national media reports.

But what about the local newspaper’s story itself?

Let’s start at the top:

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.

House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.

The bill, which was introduced last month and has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage. Discussion of the bill went viral on social media during the House floor debate Thursday.

Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

So, the bill is controversial. It’s conservative. It’s concerning to gay rights advocates.

Is it just me, or does the Republic story — unlike the headline and subhead — seem tilted up high?

In the fifth paragraph, the Phoenix newspaper finally gets around to explaining the position of the supporters:

Proponents argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.

After that rough start, however, the Republic actually does an excellent job of highlighting the debate — pro and con — on the bill:

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Pod people: Local vs. national press on religious liberty

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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Flowers, cakes and objections to same-sex weddings

In two recent posts — here and here — I critiqued media coverage of proposed religious exemptions for florists, bakers, photographers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last month, I examined news reports on a federal judge striking down the ban on same-sex marriage in my home state of Oklahoma.

In Sunday’s Tulsa World, those subject areas came together in a front-page story:

Oklahoma may soon join a growing number of states where same-sex marriage laws and religious liberty concerns are on a collision course.

A federal judge’s ruling last month that Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional raises questions that eventually will need to be addressed by lawmakers and judges.

If the ruling is upheld, will a church that rents its facilities to the public for weddings be allowed to turn down a gay or lesbian wedding?

Can a photographer be fined for refusing to photograph a wedding over which he or she has religiously founded moral objections?

Can a bakery decline to make a wedding cake for such services?

These are not hypothetical questions.

In New Mexico, wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin was fined $6,000 for refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

In Colorado, Jack Phillips, a baker who would not bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony because it violated his religious principles, was ordered by a judge to bake the cake. And in Washington, a similar case against a florist is pending.

For those who have followed this issue closely, the World treads pretty basic ground (see the Wall Street Journal’s report on the subject from last fall). Still, I give the Tulsa newspaper credit for tackling this important angle.

And while some news stories have treated the religious concerns with seeming contempt, the World leans perhaps too far the other direction — quoting a number of exemption proponents before including an opposing voice:

These types of cases generally are based not on the legal status of gay marriage but on nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Tulsa and Oklahoma do not have such laws, but some people remain concerned.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, if you crack open that door,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, whose office will represent the defendant in the Oklahoma case, Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith, who issues marriage licenses.

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist  Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the religious liberty concerns are “justified by virtue of what’s happening across America.”

“Whether florists, caterers, or photographers, what we’re seeing is that any Christian who owns a business that provides material or artistic goods for weddings is liable for prosecution under state nondiscrimination law.

“What’s at stake is whether an individual will be coerced into  providing services for a practice that Christianity considers sinful,” he said.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the lead attorney in the New Mexico photography case, agreed that the threat to religious liberty is real.

“This is a genuine concern. There have been a number of cases nationally,” he said.

But after reading the entire 1,400-plus words, this story left me with one of those empty feelings you get after eating rice cakes for breakfast (not that I’ve ever tried that, but you get the point).

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Report both sides of the story, unless you’re HuffPost

A bill dealing with gay weddings is being hotly debated in Kansas, but not in a Huffington Post article about it. The clumsily titled “Being Gay Ain’t Okay in Kansas” would fit well in a journalism textbook chapter on one-sided reporting.

The article, summarizing a HuffPost Live video, loads the first paragraph with the warning that the bill, if passed, “would allow discrimination against same-sex couples on the basis of religious beliefs.” It then quotes legislator Emily Perry, interviewed in the video, and doesn’t go much beyond that point for the next 200 words or so.

The three-page bill itself seems pretty straightforward. Its main point is that:

[N]o individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:

(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement …

The HuffPost story links to the bill but doesn’t quote it directly. Instead, it helps Perry raise red flags about a host of civil wrongs:

“To me it really talks to the fact that an employer or even a governmental entity … could not provide services,” Perry said on HuffPost Live. She raised an example of a police officer arriving at the scene of a domestic violence complaint involving a gay couple. “We don’t want these public servants to be able to arrive at the scene of the crime, and decide that because of their religious beliefs, they don’t want to offer services,” she said.

The piece says that Gov. Sam Brownback hasn’t read the bill but “is a well-known supporter of religious liberty.” It’s apparently drawing from a Kansas City Star piece to which it links:

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Same-sex marriage vs. religious liberty … another twist

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love is in the air. Or at least more marriage headlines are filling up my computer screen. (And perhaps this would be a good time for me to give a shoutout to my lovely bride and fellow GetReligionista, Tamie. I know she’ll love this video.)

But I digress …

Earlier this month, I highlighted — and praised — Reuters’ coverage of what it called a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates: proposed religious exemptions for florists, cake makers and others opposed to the practice. In a straightforward account of an Oregon proposal, the wire service presented the facts and quoted both sides.

But in perusing this week’s news, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Oregon anymore. So, let’s try Kansas.

Here’s the top of a Yahoo! News report:

Gay rights advocates are outraged over a bill — passed by Kansas lawmakers earlier this week — that would allow businesses and state government employees to deny services to same-sex couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Honk if you have any idea which direction that story is headed. Let’s just say that the phrase “so-called religious exemptions laws,” which appears later, does little to hide the writer’s point of view.

A Time magazine trend piece to which Yahoo! links is better but still a little breathless for my liking (it reads like a written version of disagreeing talking heads going back and forth on Fox or MSNBC).

But then I clicked the Yahoo! link to a Wichita Eagle story on the issue. For anyone wanting to read the actual news and understand the arguments pro and con, this is the story to read. It’s a factual news report quoting a variety of perspectives. It’s just good, old-fashioned journalism.

Religious exemption supporters such as this lawmaker gets their say:

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Ghosts haunt AP story on Boy Scouts of America

When my oldest son was a Boy Scout, the entire experience was couched in church settings.

His pack meetings took place in church halls,  and ceremonies were scheduled in church sanctuaries and auditoriums. His pack leaders often doubled as congregational lay leaders, and the boys were asked once a year to don their uniforms and lead a special “Scout Sunday” worship. When the boys recited the oath, the “Under God” portion no doubt resonated within their surroundings.

I was surprised, then, by The Associated Press’ story on new statistics released Wednesday that show a 6 percent membership decline in the last year — a year during which new rules were put in place to accept and protect openly gay Scouts, from Cubs to Eagles.

The story had a Dallas dateline, undoubtedly tied to the organization’s national headquarters in nearby Irving, Texas. Beyond that obvious connection, what better area in the country to find a wide array of faith groups willing and able to speak intelligently about the impact of the change on troops with which they might have alliances or sponsorship?

But, no.

We hear from Scouting spokesman Deron Smith, who admitted the change might be partially responsible, but blamed the loss of thousands of boys and their families more on day-to-day time demands and the relevancy of its programs — and over the course of the last decade, not just nine months. And Smith touted the positives of the organization, as you might expect:

He pointed to several successes in 2013 for the Boy Scouts, which opened a new permanent site for its annual jamboree of Scouts from around the world and was featured on a National Geographic television series.

“Last year was a milestone year for the BSA in many ways,” he said.

He added that accepting openly gay boys “allows us to serve more kids.”

Well, not by the final count. Still, the most telling graf of the entire piece is yet to come — and without attribution, even!

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United Methodists fighting over gay marriage — period?

Maybe it’s because I covered religion in Colorado during the 1980s, but I find it so, so amusing that people are writing about the conflicts in the United Methodist Church as if they are brand new, or that the current uptick in ecclesiastical hostilities is unprecedented.

People, people, the United Methodists have been caught up in a doctrinal civil war, to one degree or another, ever since the Rev. Julian Rush of Denver came out of the closet in about 1982. A story that doesn’t include the larger time element is simply incomplete.

This is not hard to do. The activists on both sides know the history. Consider this chunk of a recent Associated Press report:

Since 2011, Methodist advocates for gay marriage have been recruiting clergy to openly officiate at same-sex ceremonies in protest of church policy. In response, theological conservatives have sought formal complaints against the defiant clergy, which could lead to church trials. One scholar has warned that Methodists are “retreating into our various camps” instead of seeking a resolution over an issue the church has formally debated since the 1970s.

“At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.”

Note the embedded “40 years” reference. Also, later in the story, there is this crucial reference to time:

Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching” and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position. … The church has also declared itself “dedicated to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations” and has committed to supporting “certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do. They have debated at every national legislative meeting, or General Conference, for four decades with the same result: the “incompatible” language — and the related prohibitions — have stayed.

This story also does a solid job of explaining the the regional and global angles of this conflict, which has affected the outcome. The growing segments of the American church are in the Sunbelt and more theologically conservative. The more liberal elements of the church, in the far West, the upper Midwest and the Northeast, are in statistical decline.

Meanwhile, more conservative churches in Africa and the Global South are experiencing rapid growth and, thus, their power in the United Methodist system is on the rise. This is a truly global church and that is a key element of the story.

So what is missing?

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