Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

boybible02My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

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Attention editors: Is there a ‘Little Sisters’ case in your area?

While the post-Hobby Lobby meltdown continues on the cultural and journalistic left — this New Yorker piece is beyond parody — it’s important to remember that, from a church-state separation point of view, the most serious issues linked to the Health & Human Services mandate have not been settled.

Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters and editors to look at this as a story that is unfolding on three levels.

(1) First, there are churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that are directly linked to “freedom of worship” and, thus, in the eyes of the White House, should be granted a full exemption by the state. The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never been anxious to define what is and what is not “worship,” since that is a doctrinal matter.

(2) Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities. More on this shortly.

(3) For-profit, closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby which are owned by believers who do not want to be required to violate their own beliefs.

There are no conflicts, at this point, about group one. A major case linked to group three has just been addressed by the high court. But did the so-called Hobby Lobby decision also settle the cases in that second category? That’s the question that many newsrooms managers need to be asking because, as I argued the other day, in journalism “all news is local.”

So, journalists in Chicago, I am looking at you. This Associated Press report can serve as a wake-up call:

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government’s position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented nonprofit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday’s court filing was the administration’s first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The problem, of course, is that the Wheaton College community covenant document includes a clear statement that this voluntary association will:

… uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4). …

Must the college cooperate in offering its students and unmarried employees — in violation of its own doctrines — all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

As I noted the other day, there is more to this conflict than the mere signing of a piece of paper that says these services will, allegedly be funded by the health-care providers themselves, with the government’s guidance (as opposed to these providers simply raising health-care rates for the affected ministries). The groups in this second, doctrinally defined ministry category are, in effect, asking that the government allow their voluntary associations to defend their own teachings when dealing with members of their own communities. Wheaton, for example, doesn’t want the government to help students and employees violate the vows they have, of their own free will, taken when they signed on with the college. (Wheaton College is, of course, part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach and the CCCU has backed the school’s stance.)

The Associated Press editors take all of that complexity and condense it — in a set of unattributed factual statements — to the precise language used in White House talking points:

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Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

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Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

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Whoa! Religion chapter added to AP Stylebook

Big news for Godbeat style geeks: The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist’s Bible — has added a religion chapter.

The Poynter Institute reports:

The 2014 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook comes out Wednesday, with about 200 changes and additions, including a new chapter devoted to religion, updates to social media terms, weather terms and the chapter on food.

Some of those additions include (sic)MERS and Buffalo wings, “B is capitalized in Buffalo,” said Sally Jacobsen, AP Stylebook editor, in a phone interview with Poynter. (AP puts the word “selfie” on the edition’s cover.)

“The key thing is the new chapter on religion,” she said. “We have 208 entries in that chapter.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported those entries out for the Stylebook editors, speaking with religious scholars, communication specialists within denominations and AP reporters in different regions, including Jerusalem and Haiti. The goal is to be respectful to the groups themselves, to listen to them, Zoll told Poynter in a phone interview, but ultimately to be clear for the journalists for whom the book is made.

The Stylebook changes and grows with both language and culture, and this year, the new religion chapter includes an entry on Coptic Christians, for instance, and a more detailed entry on Easter, which acknowledges that not everyone using the Stylebook may be familiar with the holiday.

AP itself notes:

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The pope and the Palestinians: AP tries balanced reporting

As Pope Francis prepares to visit the Holy Land this weekend, the Associated Press takes a stab at balance in a story on West Bank Palestinians — a report that nevertheless leaves a number of holes.

The story at first walks the beaten path of the Palestinian plight — poverty, crowded camps, unemployment — but for once, it isn’t all blamed on Israel:

Many feel increasingly neglected by the Palestinian self-rule government and the United Nations agency responsible for their welfare. Resentment can be seen in the rise in stone-throwing protests by camp youths and a recent two-month strike of thousands of local employees of the U.N. aid agency demanding higher wages.

The article does play a familiar note: the supposed right of return of Palestinians to their homeland.

In Palestinian public discourse, a large-scale return is seen as the main goal. Israel vehemently objects, saying this would dilute its Jewish majority. Palestinian leaders say each refugee has the right to choose where to live, including in a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to set up such a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

As you can see, however, the story does give at least a sentence to Israel’s position. And in a previous paragraph, it points out that Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number more than 5 million people.

The AP story has other fresh material as well. It tells of a budget cutback in free meals in schools by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. It says that the refugees “feel looked down upon by their better-off urban neighbors” and ignored by the Palestinian Authority. And it cites an unemployed refugee accusing the PA of nepotism, saving jobs for families of officials.

AP also says that “Teens routinely throw stones at Israeli troops or at cars with Israeli license plates passing near the camps,” blunting the image of refugees as total doves. But AP also reports a “sharp rise” in Israeli troop violence against Palestinian refugees — from zero dead and 38 injuries in 2012 to 17 dead and 486 injured in 2013. Fair enough.

What’s wrong with the AP article, then? At least four things.

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