How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

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Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

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Big news report card: Hobby Lobby and contraceptives

One of the big misconceptions about the Hobby Lobby case (with apologies to Conestoga Wood Specialties) is that the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts retailer refuses to pay for employees’ contraceptive coverage.

Alas, the National Review notes:

Hobby Lobby’s health care plan … includes access, copay-free, to the following categories of FDA-approved birth-control:

  1. Male condoms
  2. Female condoms
  3. Diaphragms with spermicide
  4. Sponges with spermicide
  5. Cervical caps with spermicide
  6. Spermicide alone
  7. Birth-control pills with estrogen and progestin (“Combined Pill)
  8. Birth-control pills with progestin alone (“The Mini Pill)
  9. Birth control pills (extended/continuous use)
  10. Contraceptive patches
  11. Contraceptive rings
  12. Progestin injections
  13. Implantable rods
  14. Vasectomies
  15. Female sterilization surgeries
  16. Female sterilization implants

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby, explains the family-owned company’s position:

The Green family has no moral objection to the use of 16 of 20 preventive contraceptives required in the mandate, and Hobby Lobby will continue its longstanding practice of covering these preventive contraceptives for its employees. However, the Green family cannot provide or pay for four potentially life-threatening drugs and devices. These drugs include Plan B and Ella, the so-called morning-after pill and the week-after pill. Covering these drugs and devices would violate their deeply held religious belief that life begins at the moment of conception, when an egg is fertilized.

Given the widespread confusion over the case, details concerning what Hobby Lobby will fund, what it won’t — and why — are crucial to understanding this week’s major U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Based strictly on that important question, I reviewed some of the major first-day news coverage of the high court’s 5-4 decision this week in Hobby Lobby’s favor (a hat tip to the Pew Research Center’s daily religion headlines for providing most of the below links).

Maybe I’m being overly generous in my summer grading, but the coverage I read — in general — did an adequate job of explaining the contraceptives issue:

Boston Globe: A.

Obama’s health care law requires company insurance plans to provide free access to 20 contraceptive methods that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood objected to having to cover two types of emergency contraceptive pills and two types of IUDs that they liken to abortion.

If the owners of the companies comply with the mandate, “they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies,” (Justice Samuel) Alito wrote.

Detroit Free Press: B.

Hobby Lobby objected to providing insurance for four contraceptives: two morning-after pills and two types of intrauterine devices. The high court’s ruling, however, applies to all 20 FDA-approved contraceptives in the following way: If a family business is opposed to any of them on religious grounds, it can’t be forced to pay for them. …

The decision involves two Christian-owned family businesses that challenged a provision of the federal Affordable Care Act, claiming it unlawfully required them to pay for contraception insurance or face hefty fines of up to $1.3 million a day. The owners of Hobby Lobby, along with those of a -based (sic) cabinet wood maker, said they believe that some contraceptives “end human life after conception” so they shouldn’t be forced to offer them.

The Free Press needed to make clearer that Hobby Lobby’s insurance plan covers most of the contraceptives.

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WPost writer wears too many hats at men’s conference

Remember Dr. Seuss’ story, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? Whenever Bartholomew took off one hat, another appeared beneath it.

Well, the fictional Cubbins has nothing on the real-life Monica Hesse. She covered the two-day International Conference on Men’s Issues near Detroit for the Washington Post. And in her writeup, she constantly switched hats: sometimes narrator, sometimes editorial writer, sometimes judge and jury.

Although this is supposed to be straight coverage — it’s not marked as commentary or opinion — attitude glares from the very headline: “Men’s rights activists, gathering to discuss all the ways society has done them wrong.” At least it’s accurate for an article that veers from scornful to sympathetic to clinically detached to argumentative.

Hesse paints the 200 men at the conference as self-absorbed, playing victim while ignoring actual violence against women. She mentions the current discussion at the White House on sexual assault, plus the shootings in California by the young man who felt spurned by women. Meanwhile, at the men’s conference:

… there was a parallel discussion of gender issues: Men, attendees believed, were the ones under threat of attack. This conference was their response, their rallying call to action.

“Men are second-class citizens,” said Gary Costanza, a pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island. He was particularly interested in divorce issues, saying that custody should always be split and financial child support should not exist. He just wanted the same rights as everyone else.

That’s all any of them said they wanted. The same rights as the “privileged women,” as various attendees described the female gender. The entitled, increasingly “narcissistic women.” That’s all.

She flirts with the usual stereotypes of meetings about which liberals disapprove. She describes the early arrivers as “a wispy trail of men — mostly white, college-through-retirement-age.” Another interviewee is a “pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island.” Interestingly, the two women she quotes are spared any physical descriptions.

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And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

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NYTimes revisits high court’s abortion buffer zone ruling

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In grading first-day coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law, I gave The New York Times a D.

My explanation for the near-failing grade:

The NYTimes’ front-page story does an excellent job of explaining where the justices came down. But the Old Gray Lady shows her bias when it comes to reporting reactions to the decision, giving top billing — and much more space — to Planned Parenthood than the winning plaintiff.

The newspaper improved its performance — let’s give it an A for enterprise and a B for overall content — with a second-day story out of Boston exploring what the Supreme Court decision means for both sides.

The NYTimes gives readers a firsthand view of a clinic where the yellow line no longer matters:

BOSTON — Lorraine Loewen, 74, says she comes here once a week to demonstrate against abortion outside of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts health care center.

On Friday, the morning after the Supreme Court struck down restrictions that had created no-protest buffer zones near abortion clinics, she stood inside the yellow line on the pavement that marked a 35-foot radius around the clinic’s entrance.

Ms. Loewen, a retiree from Dedham, Mass., approached a woman and a man who had climbed out of a taxi and were walking toward the clinic, which provides an array of sexual health services, including abortions, and spoke softly in the woman’s ear. She handed the woman a pamphlet depicting a woman’s face and the words, “It’s your choice.”

“I asked her if we could be of any help,” Ms. Loewen said, adding that she preferred talking close up with the people going to the clinic rather than yelling at them from outside the line.

On Friday, Ms. Loewen and a handful of other demonstrators were among the first anti-abortion activists, as a few police officers looked on and a volunteer escort stood ready to bring patients inside the clinic.

From there, the story offers brief background on the high court ruling and then turns to a long section outlining concerns of state officials and abortion-rights advocates who favored the buffer zone law.

The NYTimes allows one couple to complain anonymously about the protesters:

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Hobby Lobby in narrow win; Little Sisters of the Poor on deck

So why are the Little Sisters of the Poor at the top of this post as the tsunami of Hobby Lobby coverage continues? Hang on.

So far, the mainstream press coverage of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision (.pdf here) has been rather good. In particular, there has been a shockingly low rate of scare quotes around terms such as “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” almost certainly because this case — in the eyes of the 5-4 majority — pivoted on issues linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a major 1993 win for the old church-state liberalism of the past (RIP).

However, note the very interesting scare quotes in the following reaction statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ committee for Religious Liberty.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.

“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”

The key word is, of course, “accommodation.” In other words, the court did not deal with the Little Sisters of the Poor and appears to have left a door open for the White House to ask Hobby Lobby and other family-owned corporations to settle for the same “accommodation” it has offered to doctrinally defined religious non-profits, ministries and schools. The basic idea is that religious believers will not have to pay for services that they believe are damnable and heretical because the government will ask their insurance providers to provide these services for free (without quietly raising the rates to cover the cost).

I think major news organizations did fine with Hobby Lobby details, in part, because it was seen primarily as an extension of the whole “corporations are people too” political battles of recent years. Thus, the family-owned corporations have religious liberty rights, while massive impersonal corporations (none of which have sought exemptions) have not.

What about the doctrinally defined non-profits, the second level of this church-state fight that many journalists tend to miss?

Remember that New York Times report in 2013 noting that the White House has “excluded many religious organizations from the law’s requirements”? As I wrote at the time:

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Roadmaps should guide us, including through Sudan

Sudan may be hard for geography-challenged Americans to find on a map, but Reuters — one of the largest news organizations — is an old hand at world coverage.

Unfortunately, Reuters presents more of a puzzle than a map in its update on the case of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, who has been desperately trying to escape Sudan with her husband, her child and her life.

As you may remember, the militantly Islamic government of Sudan accused Ibrahim of deserting Islam for Christianity and for marrying an American Christian man. Her original sentence was 100 lashes for “adultery,” then execution for “apostasy.”

On June 23, an appellate court overturned the decision, and the family prepared to leave the country — only to have security agents re-arrest her at the airport in Khartoum. Now let’s see how well Reuters follows up.

Well, the story gets mushy right out of the gate:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese authorities and U.S. officials in Khartoum are negotiating to allow a Sudanese woman, who married an American and was recently spared the death penalty for converting to Christianity, to leave Sudan, sources close to the case said.

Not exactly. As CNN and other media report, Ibrahim has stated that she was raised Christian and never professed Islam.

Another puzzle in the story: Why were she and her family staying at the U.S. embassy? Reuters says:

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