NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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Was Catholic ‘teaching’ involved in latest Ireland scandal?

If I have heard this statement once at pro-life rallies I have heard it a hundred times: There are crisis pregnancies, but there is no such thing — in the eyes of God — as an unwanted child. This statement is especially popular with doctrinally conservative Catholics.

So, try to combine that thought with the news coming out of Ireland. This is from the Associated Press:

DUBLIN – The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.

The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.

Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.

County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.

There is no need to discuss the details of that horrific vision.

The question the story has to address, of course, is why these lost children were buried in such a fashion. Also, the story says it is essential to know that, during the era in which this orphanage was open, Ireland had “one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.”

The essential question here is whether what happened here is essentially an Irish, or cultural, practice or was it justified at the time as uniquely Catholic, in terms of doctrine. Think of this issue, perhaps, as similar to the debates about whether “honor killings” in Pakistan are uniquely cultural, tribal or somehow, for those committing the acts, rooted in what they believe are Islamic beliefs.

This leads us to the crucial paragraphs in the story:

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Let them eat cake and — in Colorado — make others bake it

I’m no expert on baking, but I suspect that a layer cake should stand straight, not lean to one side. The Denver Post should have followed that recipe for its latest story on the man who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The Post article is brief and mostly factual, especially for a newspaper that has written a lot of stories on the case for nearly two years. But it favors the gay side, both in what it says and what it does not say. And it leaves a number of unanswered questions on a matter that has several levels.

Cake shop owner Jack Phillips has become something of a cause celebre for religious rights folks, but he’s still getting, shall we say, battered. Colorado has just imposed a penalty on him that sounds rather like thought police:

The state’s seven-member Civil Rights Commission reinforced a December ruling from an administrative law judge who said Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins when he refused to make them a wedding cake because of religious objections.

In its decision, the panel required Phillips to submit quarterly reports for two years that show how he has worked to change discriminatory practices by altering company policies and training employees. Phillips also must disclose the names of any clients who are turned away.

The article carries three paragraphs of background but sacrifices depth:

Colorado law bans discrimination in a public place on grounds of sexual orientation, but Phillips has argued that forcing him to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his right to First Amendment free-speech and freedom-of-religion rights.

Phillips and his attorney are considering an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He suggested on Friday that the rights of business owners with similar views were taken away by the commission.

“Not all of life is fair,” Phillips said after the commission’s decision. “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down.”

Freedom of religion, OK, that computes. If a religion says homosexuality is wrong, its adherents would object to doing anything that might appear to sanction it. But how does making a wedding cake for gays violate free speech?

And exactly what did Phillips mean by “Not all of life is fair”? Was he saying that he had the right to be unfair, or that the court was being unfair to him?

It’s possible that the reporter felt she could talk shorthand because the Post listed seven other stories on the case, going back to Aug. 4. But for those who just dropped in — you and me, for instance — it’s assuming too much.

The article says that Craig and Mullins, the gay couple, has been “inundated with support from people across the country.” Aside from the obvious follow-up questions — “How many? From how large an area? What have they been typically saying? Could I see some of the quotes?” — what about Jack Phillips, the opposition? Does he stand alone? Or have like-minded people spoken up for him as well?

The latter is likely, since the Post quotes a representative of the Alliance Defending Freedom taking Phillips’ side. But the newspaper reveals more favoritism there, calling the alliance a “conservative Christian organization.” It then cites the American Civil Liberties Union without attaching a sticker. It’s a common subtle way of weighting remarks: One group is normal and mainstream; the other group bears watching.

Other ingredients are missing from this story, too.

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‘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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United Methodists stand at a ‘tipping point’ — once again

Yes, it’s time to head into yet another oldline Protestant summer of sex.

This leads to a painful, and very old, oldline Protestant question. Here it is: Just how long have United Methodists been debating whether (a) local bishops have the right to ignore passages in the denomination’s Book of Discipline linked to homosexuality and (b) this means that it is inevitable that schism will result?

At this point, the evangelical (and international) wing of the denomination is openly discussing this equation, which led to a Religion News Service feature on the subject by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. After months of mainstream news coverage of the actions on the doctrinal and cultural left, her piece focuses on the painful discussions now being held on the other side of the denominational aisle.

Here is the section of the piece — the background, context material — that caught my eye:

Amidst a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but refused.

And here is the crucial statement that grew out of that:

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however, after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.

The key words, of course, are “tipping point.”

In other words, the alleged point of no return was McLee’s failure to enforce the teachings that he, as a bishop, is supposedly committed to enforcing — even more than one clergyperson’s actions in violation of the Book of Discipline. Bishops are supposed to be the doctrinal backstops, the defenders of the faith. It’s right there in their vows, to one degree or another in the various churches that claim to have bishops.

I do not doubt that Bailey is quoting her sources accurately. I also do not doubt that it is possible that McLee has created a “tipping point” for this long divided denomination. However, I do think it’s crucial to note that this is merely the latest in a long, long, long series of alleged “tipping points” for this Protestant body. Is this the one that cracks through the denominational inertia? Do the lessons of the past matter?

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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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Shock: Russian Orthodoxy gives drag queen thumbs down

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Dear GetReligion readers:

Some of you wrote to say that you wanted to know what I thought of the whole Conchita Wurst episode, referring to the drag queen — the term used in mainstream media reports — who won the recent Eurovision Song Contest. In particular, a few of you want to know what I thought of the coverage of the fact that Russian Orthodox Church leaders have condemned this minor earthquake in popular culture.

People, people, are you surprised that Eastern Orthodox Christian bishops do not think highly of modern trends in sexuality? Remember the case of the Russian bishop who had a church torn down because its priest — apparently he had been drinking — performed a same-sex union rite at its altar? The priest was defrocked and, if I recall correctly, the local bishop had the rubble from the building burned and workers then salted the ground? (I’m trying to find a URL for that old story.)

I am also not surprised that recent statements by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy have received some mainstream media attention, in the wake of events in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics, the media superstar status of the Pussy Riot activists, etc., etc. I mean, how often do you get to put “Russian,” “Orthodox,” “Patriarchate” and “drag queen” into the same news story or even in one spectacular headline?

Here at GetReligion, of course, we are more interested in the news coverage of the event than we are with the event itself. The link several people have shared is for a story by Sophia Kishkovsky, carried by Religion News Service. Readers may also know her byline from work published by The New York Times. Here is a key chunk of it:

The Eurovision contest draws well over 100 million viewers annually, and the contest has become a point of national pride in Russia, which began competing in the 1990s.

“The process of the legalization of that to which the Bible refers to as nothing less than an abomination is already long not news in the contemporary world,” Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, told the Interfax news agency. “Unfortunately, the legal and cultural spheres are moving in a parallel direction, to which the results of this competition bear witness.”

Legoyda said the result of the competition was “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture.”

No surprises there. It was good that the story noted that the church simply saw this as another example of a larger trend. It does not appear that bishops rushed to pound out a “Conchita Wurst” document. This rather blogging-style report — which is drawn from press statements and previous media reports — does have more than its share of vague attribution clauses, as in:

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What rights should parents of gay children have in Maryland?

Here we go again. The Baltimore Sun — the newspaper that lands in my front yard — recently published a very provocative piece about the next round in our state’s battles between conservative religious believers and gay-rights organizations. In this case, the battle is over the work of the “ex-gay” ministries and, in particular, the rights of religious parents who turn to them for help.

Looking at this from a religion-news perspective, the main problem with the story is that the issue of parental rights is never openly discussed. Instead, it is hidden between the lines of this news feature.

First, a word about comments on this post: Please do not click “comment” in order to express your disgust, or support, for whatever you think “ex-gay” ministries teach or do not teach.

Trust me, if you oppose the work of counselors who believe that men and women can modify their sexual behaviors and attractions, especially those whose sexual orientations can best be described as complex and/or bisexual, your point of view dominates this Sun piece. You may be unhappy that the piece does allow one particular counselor to briefly defend his work and that, at the very end of the piece, there is even a positive quote from one of his adult clients. However, this story — as is becoming the Sun norm on stories about conservative believers — primarily defines his work in terms of material gathered from his enemies and critics.

Meanwhile, after several decades of covering this issue, I do question the fact that the Sun team consistently reports that this counselor’s goal is to “change” the sexual orientation of patients. Just as I have never heard anyone claim that they can “pray the gay away,” I have rarely heard anyone claim that there is some kind of simplistic sexual-orientation switch that can be flipped from gay to straight.

This is how the story states the question in the lede:

Christopher Doyle says he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being gay, but he also believes he can help children and others rid themselves of “unwanted same-sex attractions” through therapy sessions in a tidy suburban home in Bowie.

That has made the licensed psychotherapist the target of intense criticism over the years — so much so, he says, that he closely protects the address of the International Healing Foundation, the nearly 25-year-old nonprofit he runs.

“Unfortunately, we get targeted by activists,” Doyle said in the home on a recent morning.

In the latest salvo aimed at Doyle and his practice, gay rights activists in Maryland say they hope to ban clinical therapy for children that is based on the notion that their sexual orientation can change. They hope to build on success banning the practice in other states, and success here in securing same-sex marriage and protections for transgender residents.

Note, in this case, that the word “rid” is not inside the direct quote.

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