Who you calling Pentecostal?

Gay_friendly_churchDon’t tell the folks at Westboro Baptist Church, but there was a story out of Kentucky last week that was bound to be circulated in newspapers and on TV Web sites. “Church to ordain sex offender” was the headline of an AP report from the Cincinnati Enquirer. First the news, then I’ll get to what was missing from it:

LOUISVILLE – A small Kentucky church is planning to ordain a convicted sex offender as a minister to its flock.

The decision has led some members of an abuse victims group to ask the church to reconsider.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests met outside the church Thursday and said in a letter that the ordination would be “a reckless move that will only put kids in harm’s way.” The group sent the letter to the church asking that it postpone any action and hold a public hearing.

At which point you might be wondering just what kind of church this is. The strange thing: The AP never says. It does, however, mention that it’s a “church that welcomes gays, lesbians and transgenders.” Not sure what parallels the AP did and didn’t intend to draw between child molesters and gays or why in the final paragraph the wire service refers to the church as Pentecostal.

That last one really got my attention. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered an open and affirming Pentecostal church. In fact, I never have. Surely the organization affiliation of such an unusual church needs to be mentioned. (I’m pretty sure it’s not Foursquare.)

Fortunately, we can thank Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal for doing some actual reporting — and reader Mike for passing this along.

To begin with, if City of Refuge Worship Center is Pentecostal, it’s not part of any denomination but would be so based on the formative Christian years of its pastor, Randy Meadows. That was immediately apparent when I visited the church’s website, and Smith picks up on it:

City of Refuge, an independent congregation on Goss Avenue that touts its acceptance of people of diverse sexual orientations and identities, plans to ordain Mark Edward Hourigan Sunday, according to a WHAS-TV report.

Hourigan, 41, of Rowena Road, is listed on the Kentucky State Police Sex Offender Registry, which says he was convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual abuse of an 11-year-old.

Randy Meadows, pastor of the congregation, did not return phone messages. When a reporter visited the church Wednesday night before its midweek service, a woman at Meadows’ office said the church was not granting interviews.

According to WHAS, Meadows defended the approaching ordination.

“God is a loving and forgiving God, and I’m doing what he’s telling me to do. And if that’s not popular, Jesus wasn’t either,” he was quoted as saying, adding that Hourigan would not be alone with children.

In an interview with CNN, Hourigan said: “God can use me to reach out to those people that need that hope and need that light. … I’ve learned that I have to change the way that I think in order to change my actions and my behaviors, and I’ve learned a lot of things as far as what situations not to place myself in.”

Trouble is, it’s the AP story that’s been picked up by smaller papers and appears to have been re-written by the Christian Post without re-visiting the Pentecostal question.

It seems pretty obvious the reporter didn’t really understand the greater complexities involved in this story, other than the fact that a church was ordained a sex offender and SNAP was protesting. The reporter was diligent and at least consulted the church’s Website for background info, but he really missed the mark.

The City of Refuge story reminds me of one I wrote four years ago for The Sun in San Bernardino. (It’s no longer online.) The article had nothing to do with a convicted sex offender being ordained — and that is an odd story hook, indeed — but involved the same themes of establishing a church to the LGBT community. Notice the difference in approach and the attention I paid to the church founder’s pastoral roots:

Three months after being ordained in a conservative Christian denomination, the Rev. Micah Royal found himself wrestling with his church’s condemnation of homosexual and transgender lifestyles.

So the 26-year-old assistant pastor left that church. Soon after, his 23-year-old wife, who had attended the World-wide Church of God with him, confessed she could no longer keep secret her attraction to women.

A year later, the former evangelical minister has launched Safe Haven Community Church. The nascent Colton congregation is reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as those, with mental and physical disabilities.

“There are too many people out there judging. And we really needed a place we all could go and feel loved and comfortable,’ Royal said. “Who people are is a gift from God to be celebrated not to be looked down on.”

This was not a good story, only 459 words and written in my second year as a professional reporter. It was, for lack of a better expression, nothing to write home about. But if a rookie reporter can identify the importance of something so simple, is it too much to ask of the veterans at the AP?

PHOTO: An open-and-affirming church from Wikimedia Commons

Westboro worthy of newsprint?

The Westboro Baptist Church must be the most objectionable Christian community in the United States. You know them from their “God Hates Fags” and “God Loves Dead Soldiers” posters and from their inability to find communion with pretty much any other Christians. They are a fringe organization, not simply “fundamentalists,” with less followers than countless minority religious groups spread across the country.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an article about Jainism, or even Buddhism, so when should journalists spill ink on the Westboro Baptist Church?

That’s a question Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear, who chose not to pay any attention to Fred Phelps and his Westboro congregation when they showed up in Chi-Town to blame Jews for killing Jesus, asked at her blog, The Seeker. Brachear doesn’t actually answer the question, but, in a blogging style that is more reportorial than most, she speaks with a few rabbis and the head of Religion News Service about whether Westboro is worthy of newsprint:

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom in Chicago said members of the congregation faced the same “tough decision” I did and decided shouting back would give the group too much legitimacy.

“There are lots of different and creative ways to protest,” Conover said. “But the more we do to get press coverage for them, the more we do a disservice to religion in general.”

Kevin Eckstrom, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, said “you can’t not cover them. The question is how much coverage do you give them.”

“The best way to cover them is to put them in perspective,” he added. “Say they’re radical, fringe, outside the mainstream and let their rhetoric speak for itself.”

I tend to agree with Eckstrom, though I think Westboro only needs to be covered when they are actually making news. (See: the lawsuit that followed their protest of Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral.) But at the same time reporters should be mindful that when they devote one of a finite number of daily news stories to a single church notable only because of the noise they make, that inevitably means there is that much less news space for more significant religion stories.

Not to extol the reportorial balance of Michael Moore, but in this video a skinnier Moore invites Phelps onto a very unholy bus

Hate preachers anonymous

Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.

That’s what seemed to be brewing in the land of Shakespeare when it became public knowledge that British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had banned 22 people from entering the country (only 16 are named). Apparently the drawbridges against the “least-wanted” have been raised since October, but Smith only just made the decision to publish the list, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

What’s the religion angle here? Well, a number of the folks on that list are identified with extremist branches of a denomination, or, like American “shock-jock” Michael Savage, have had controversial encounters with Catholics, Islamic groups and Jews.

Others include a Lebanese who killed four Israeli soldiers, and a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

None of the articles I saw did an in-depth job of explaining the religious angles, and a few were simply misleading — possibly understandable on a day when Smith’s comments and Savage’s threat to sue Smith for defamation were so compelling.

Here’s a lede from a story on the Independent website:

Sixteen people banned from entering the UK were “named and shamed” by the Home Office today.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she decided to make public the names of 16 people banned since October so others could better understand what sort of behaviour Britain was not prepared to tolerate.

The list includes hate preachers, anti-gay protesters and a far- right US talk show host

What is a “hate preacher”? Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper apparently fit that bill. Phelps is identified in this article as an “American Baptist.” Yes, he is American, and yes, he is a Baptist, but he certainly is not a member of the liberal mainline American Baptist Churches, USA (nor of the Southern Baptists).

Later in the same story, “Jewish extremist” Mike Guzovsky is named, without any explanation of his nationality or why he is on the list. Although apparently the government provided few details, the Los Angeles Times was able to come up with a few of its own:

Among those named were Yunis al-Astal, a radical anti-Western Islamic cleric and Hamas member in the Gaza Strip; Mike Guzovsky, an Israeli Jewish extremist said to be involved in militant training camps; and Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, Russian skinheads who, as teenagers, boasted two years ago of killing about 20 members of ethnic minorities.

Overall, CNN did a better job of exploring the angle probably most interesting, and most controversial to American readers — including Michael Savage on a list with murderers. It also gives a fuller picture of Fred Phelps and his daughter. However, it doesn’t explain why the Islamic clerics were included — and what kind of “hate” they were preaching.

Outspoken Kansas Rev. Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, are also listed for “engaging in unacceptable behavior and fostering hatred.”

Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church oppose homosexuality. They picket the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, saying their deaths are God’s way of punishing the United States for supporting homosexuals. They have expressed similar views about the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

The church’s slogan is “God Hates Fags.”

The story does have a slightly farcical element, always appealing to the British press. According to the Times of London, most of the people on the list hadn’t applied for permission to visit Britain anyway. Two of them are serving 20-year sentences in Russian prisons.

So many questions here — can you legislate appropriate speech? Isn’t there a difference between a Savage, a Phelps, and a skinhead? A discussion of what it means to “preach hate” in a free society, when the right to free speech infringes on someone else’s rights, and what can be done to counter “hate speech” would be instructive — but will probably get subsumed in media chatter about Labor Party strategy and whether Michael Savage, “shock-jock” extraordinaire, will be able to win the lawsuit he is planning agains the woman he calls a “witch.” And by witch, I doubt he means Wiccan — although we might be hearing from them soon, too.

Jaws: The Christmas special

DKMZY SANTA JAWS 1Tell me, you dedicated readers of religion news, can you imagine anything worse than seeing the following pairs of words in the same story — “Fred Phelps” and “Christmas wars.”

Actually, a “Christmas wars” link is merely implied in the mess that is getting started — probably — at the state capitol in Washington state.

What? You haven’t heard? Here’s the news, care of the Spokesman-Review:

OLYMPIA – The emotional saga over religious displays at Washington’s state Capitol grew more bizarre Wednesday, as a controversial Kansas group requested permission to put up a sign titled “Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, which spreads its virulently anti-gay message by demonstrating at funerals and high-profile events, wants the sign posted near a Nativity scene and atheist sign at the Capitol. The sign claims that “God’s hate” is to blame for the weak economy, that Santa is a child molester, and that the deaths of U.S. troops are somehow the fault of Santa.

“Holy cow,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of General Administration, when e-mailed the text. “I guess we’ll consider it like all the other requests.”

No, believe it or not, there are no signs — yet — of prejudice against St. Nicholas (the ancient Christian saint from Myra) in this story. It may take time for Phelps and family to find that angle.

So what, you ask, is the actual news story that is buried under this stuff?

That’s where the “Christmas wars” roots show up. You see, this is another equal access story.

Once the state decides that its job is to sponsor forums about religious diversity, this is where things end up. Just for the record, I wish that churches and private organizations offered waves of real, undiluted Christmas displays as far as the eye can see and that states fled the generic holiday decorations business altogether. Don’t deck the city halls, people. Is anyone out there writing anything about that option?

But let’s return to “Jaws: The Christmas special.”

State officials say that after a lawsuit a couple of years ago to allow the Nativity scene, they cannot discriminate among holiday displays. …

Washington’s Capitol has been in the national spotlight for more than a week. Thousands of people from across the country have called the governor’s office over the state’s decision to allow the atheist sign next to the Nativity scene on the Statehouse’s third floor. A large evergreen “Holiday Tree” surrounded by gifts has been erected in the Capitol rotunda each December for decades.

The atheist sign was stolen last week, recovered hours later by state police, and reinstalled in its display case. Since then, religious groups have added signs critical of atheism. State officials ordered the displays roped off to protect them. Security cameras and a state trooper now watch over the competing displays.

Wait! Here comes the Flying Spaghetti Monster lawyers! And what about Festivus?

Actually, this is a pretty solid story. Trust me, I really feel for reporters that have to cover this. I know that it’s hard to offer the facts about the law in this kind of church-state circus. Meanwhile, please help me keep an eye open for the more serious follow-up reports. Sad to say, but this is a real story. Tragic, even.

What’s in the Westboro name?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt is interesting to watch how journalists cover the ongoing legal saga of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The most recent news has a judge cutting in half the punitive damage award granted by a jury to the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after the group protested at the Marine’s funeral.

If you haven’t heard, this group isn’t you average set of protesters. They show up at soldiers funerals and hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and say they believe soldiers are being killed overseas as part of God’s punishment for “the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.”

Here’s the Associated Press in The Kansas City Star:

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has upheld the October jury verdict in the lawsuit brought against a Kansas-based fundamentalist church group for its anti-gay protest at the 2006 Maryland funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq….

Westboro members believe U.S. deaths in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Needless to say, these protests are especially disgusting, and it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

Since free speech is not really the issue anymore in this case, the big question is whether or not $10.9 million is a proper amount of money to both deter the group and restore the family of Lance Cpl. Snyder.

As the author of The Baltimore Sun version of the story rightly states, the federal judge’s reduction in the punitive damage award to $2.1 million may not ultimately stand. The jury in the trial granted additional compensatory damages totaling $2.9 million.

This Sun story does an especially good job describing the legal posture of the case and accurately explains the issues at stake. But take a look at how the author frames the Westboro group in both the lead and later on in the story because it has some significant implications:

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced Monday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster….

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The story refers to the group as a church several times throughout the story but only refers to its claim to be a Baptist church once, and that is when its technical title is mentioned. Clearly there are plenty of Baptists out there who would not want to associate with the Westboro group. While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

Also note that the AP described the group as fundamentalist. Can journalists really use that word to describe anything these days? There are so many ways to criticize the use of that word that it’s grown rather useless for the purposes of news reporting.

Of course there is the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call this group a church. They claim to follow Calvinist and Baptist principles, but some believe that the group is more accurately described as a cult than a church. Of course, how you define a cult? As Terry pointed out earlier, it’s not easily done.

With Baptists like these

godhates 01I’m not sure if it’s GetReligion policy or anything, but we try our best to avoid giving hatemongering Westboro Baptist Church any more publicity than that which its members so desperately crave and receive. But this month’s $10.9 million judgment against the group makes it a bit hard to ignore. The Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Dolan went to Topeka, Kan., to see how Westboro has affected its hometown:

In the quiet shadow of the state Capitol, Bill Duckworth stands just inside the Tool Shed Tap bar and lets out a long sigh.

He’s a veteran and openly gay member of a community long unhappy about pickets by a virulently anti-homosexual religious group based here. But on this Saturday night, Duckworth says he’s still wary about the biggest news in town: the $10.9 million judgment against the group, Westboro Baptist Church, in a Baltimore courtroom.

“I felt like it might have been offensive, but that’s their right,” the 55-year-old printing press worker says of the military funeral protest in Maryland that prompted a deceased Marine’s father to sue Westboro. “That’s what our military is fighting for. It’s why our country was founded.”

Just how to deal with Westboro — whose members believe God’s wrath is killing soldiers because of America’s tolerance of gays — remains an open question for this exhausted prairie city. For more than 15 years, civic leaders have tried to rein in Westboro’s inflammatory picketing without violating constitutional rights.

I was happy to see someone raise Constitutional questions. I read a thorough critique of the jury decision at The Volokh Conspiracy but didn’t see anything in the mainstream media. This article, however, wasn’t about that. It was about how the town deals with its least favorite citizens — and the citizens themselves. It had some interesting tidbits. Fred Phelps Sr. was disbarred in 1979. Eleven of his 13 children are lawyers. Most of his congregants are related to him. At least four of Phelps’ children and several grandchildren “have left his church or been cast out as unworthy.”

All in all, Dolan paints a picture of a media-hungry group of extremists:

To its critics, Westboro is more a savvy cult of personality than organized religion. They say its acolytes carry signs with offending words and stick figures engaged in sexual acts because they want to attract the media spotlight. . . .

Inside the wood-paneled sanctuary with roughly 20 small pews with burnt-orange cushions, Phelps hosts a weekly Sunday service. Men mostly dress without ties, but women cover their heads. A baby grand piano sits on one side of the front of the room, and maps of the biblical Holy Land fill the other side.

A hymn begins and ends the two-hour, noontime service. In between is Phelps’ fiery preaching. . . .

Though church members describe their ministry as both fundamentalist and evangelical, they expect almost no one to agree with their message or join their church. Almost all members are part of the Phelps family.

As for what Dolan mentioned, I think he navigated things well. He emphasized Phelps’ domination of Westboro Baptist Church rather than trying to make it seem like Westboro was a mainstream Baptist group. However, he neglected to mention — even in a cursory manner — any religious content that would help the reader place the group in context of its place among Baptists or American religious adherents in general. The article tried to explain how Topekans have responded to Westboro. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to talk to some local Baptists about how they like sharing a name with this group?

Define ‘Baptist,’ give three examples

westboro 2There’s no doubt about it. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist — because he says so.

Then again, so is Bill Clinton. So is Al Gore Jr., now that you mention it. Ditto for the Rev. Bill Moyers, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (last time I checked).

What’s the point? Well, one of the big stories of the week was that a federal jury in Baltimore delivered a $10.9 million verdict against Phelps and his Westboro congregation, due to its ugly protests at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.

It’s a story that everyone, or almost everyone, wishes would go away. It’s the dark side of free speech and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Can ACT UP crash a Mass? How far could protesters go at a funeral for, let’s say, Vice President Dick Cheney if he died with the Iraq war still raging? Is a soldier a “public figure” if he died in a war? So many ugly, ugly questions.

Veteran Julia Duin of The Washington Times found an interesting angle on all of this, the one I was hinting at with my references to Phelps, Clinton, et al.

How would you like to be a Baptist minister in Kansas right now? How would you like to have the same brand name on your church sign as the Westboro crew? Duin wrote this, focusing on the efforts of other Baptists to disavow Phelps and his church:

Although the 75-member church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps uses the name “Baptist,” it is an independent congregation not affiliated with any known Baptist convention or association.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” said a ministry official at First Baptist Church of Topeka, who asked that his name not be used.

“People want to know why Baptists allow it,” the First Baptist official said. “Every church is locally autonomous, and anybody can call themselves ‘Baptist’ if they want to.” Speaking of the Westboro congregation, he said, “Their views don’t reflect anything at all of our church.”

One of Westboro Baptist Church’s most vociferous opponents has been the Southern Baptist Convention, chiefly because Mr. Phelps was ordained an SBC minister in 1947 at age 17. It is not clear when he left the denomination, but Westboro was founded in 1955 as an independent church.

godhatesSo what does the word “Baptist” mean, in the first place? I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist pastor and executive and, you know what, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone agree on a common definition. Here is one online take:

A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship, and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers.

Ah, but the Baptists predate the “evangelical” movement. And is that “reformed” or “Reformed”? And are Baptists united in a common definition of the “separation of church and state”? Clearly not.

So you have to start stacking up the adjectives. Duin notes:

Westboro describes itself on its Web site as an “old school or primitive Baptist” congregation. Primitive Baptists are a decentralized denomination scattered across the country. A call to their Arkansas headquarters got no response.

Mr. Phelps describes himself on the same site as a “five-point Calvinist who urges all people to carefully study and discern what are the signs of the times.” The church also says it is a “TULIP Baptist church,” referring to the acronym TULIP for the five points of Calvinist thought: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

As you would imagine, that draws yowls from Calvinists. It isn’t fair to pin Phelps on them, either.

So what should the totally free-church Baptists do to shut down a free-church Baptist without violating all the principles of what it means to be a free-church Baptist?

Just asking. It’s a sad story and, alas, a good news story.

Watching that circle go round and round

phelps2Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals.

I’ve held in the past that Phelps’ attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can’t help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.

For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let’s not forget the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” Falwell said on The 700 Club.

So now we’ve come full circle:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.

God and gaysIt’s tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It’s certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I’ll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:

“I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them,” said Phelps’s daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. “At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.”

A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper’s comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote — with no background or context — fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.

Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.