Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Just another generic do-gooder on a Baltimore pro team

At this point, I have just about decided that the editors of The Baltimore Sun sports section have banned the use of the word “Christian” in stories about local and national athletes. Several times a year (for an imperfect survey, click here), the newspaper that lands in my front door prints a sports story that, from beginning to end, is full of religious themes, yet stops short of printing a few crucial facts.

Consider, for example, this profile of Jemile Weeks, who is competing for a second-base slot in the Baltimore Orioles line-up. This is very ordinary sports-page stuff, although it is pretty obvious what Weeks is from a rather unusual family (and I’m not talking about the fact that his big brother is the better known pro Rickie Weeks).

The X-factor in his family? The only word that leaps to mind is “ministry.” Note the hook at the end of the opening anecdote.

In early December, Jemile Weeks’ baseball career was thrown upside down. He was traded away from the only organization he had ever known, the Oakland Athletics, and sent to the Orioles for one of the franchise’s most popular players, closer Jim Johnson, in what was immediately deemed a salary dump.

Although the 27-year-old second baseman viewed it as a new opportunity, the external pressure was once again descending on Weeks, a 2008 first-rounder who grew up playing in, and around, the shadow of his All-Star big brother, Rickie.

But Weeks didn’t have time to get caught up in the hoopla; he was too busy trying to figure out how to feed 1,000 people and how he could borrow a bounce house or two.

Feeding the 1,000? What is that all about? As it turns out, the event is linked to a charity near his old stomping grounds in Orlanda, Fla.

Spot the key word in this summary of the roots of this project:

A month before the deal, his offseason schedule got particularly complicated when he announced at a periodic family meeting — yes, two pro ballplayers and a community-relations professional sister still have occasional family meetings with their parents — that he wanted to host a community event for charity near where he grew up in Orlando, Fla. Never mind that Weeks had never attempted such an event or that Christmas was a month away. That was what he wanted to do. And so it was going to happen.

“With my own hands, I reached out to people I know and my sister did, along with my mom’s church,” Weeks said. “I just phoned friends. I got the bounce houses and the food, pizzas and ice cream, and asked for live performances from people I knew.”

Simple as that.

Now what, precisely, does the phrase “my mom’s church” mean? Also, what does it mean — a few lines later — when the story notes that the event featured the work of an “inspirational rapper”?

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HHS ‘religious employer’ definition changed? (updated)

It would be hard to find a city in American that contains more historic Catholic ministries than Baltimore. Thus, there are quite a few people here in Charm City who are involved in the legal warfare over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer their employees, and students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including “morning-after pills.”

In particular, the historic Baltimore suburb of Catonsville includes a group linked to a highly symbolic ministry caught up in this church-state fight. There is a good chance that, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court could hear a case that literally would be called The Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Kathleen Sebelius.

The Baltimore Sun team has to cover this group, of course. Today’s tiny Christmas Eve Eve edition includes an A1 report that is surprisingly good — except on one of the most crucial facts linked to this case.

The key, of course, is the unique three-level approach to religious liberty that is being used by this White House. The Sun team knows that the Little Sisters of the Poor are caught in the middle, between the for-profit companies that are fighting the mandate (think Hobby Lobby) and the churches and strictly denominational organizations that have been granted conscience-clause exemptions.

To its credit, the story includes — in addition to logical pro-White House sources — this strong passage, with a logical voice of authority, on the viewpoint argued by the Sisters:

Although dozens of for-profit and nonprofit employers have filed lawsuits over the requirement, the Becket Fund says the Little Sisters’ lawsuit was the first of its kind because it could potentially affect hundreds of nonprofit Catholic ministries. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said the Little Sisters’ service is “unmistakably a work of religion” and said the issue is one of religious liberty that could affect all religious people, not just Catholics.

“The government is drawing lines where the church does not draw them,” said Lori, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “We see serving the poor, educating the young, healing the sick, as a natural outgrowth from what we believe and how we worship. And so we believe that all of these ministries should be exempt.” …

Planned Parenthood characterizes the law’s religious exemption as expansive and says it will allow 350,000 churches, religious schools and houses of worship to get out of the requirement. At issue in this Little Sisters of the Poor case is whether groups that don’t fall under that exemption should be counted as “religious employers.”

Like I said, this is a pretty good report and it did appear on A1. So what is the problem?

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Got news? Bishops stand on HHS mandate (updated)

What you see at the top of this post is the content of today’s Baltimore Sun report on yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops — or at least, many of them — to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.

Right. The box is empty.

I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There’s more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”

Now, everyone knew — coming into this Baltimore meeting — that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.

In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be “religious liberty”), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).

Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.

Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?

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A mere 1 million 20th century Christian martyrs? (updated)

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Every now and then, a journalist gets pulled into a serious error when covering a speech or some other form of public presentation of complicated material.

It happens. It’s especially disturbing when the speaker — perhaps a person of great authority — makes an error and the reporter is in the position of having to quote the bad information or to challenge the information in print. Awkward.

However, it appears that The Baltimore Sun needs to run an immediate correction after this morning’s coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is the context of what almost certainly is a horrible and painful error.

“Painful”? Yes, especially if there are any Orthodox Armenians, Russians, Egyptians, Syrians or Romanians (I could make this list longer with ease) who still read this particular newspaper. Frankly, I know very few who are still subscribers.

Here is the top of the story, including the quote I am questioning:

At a time when the nation’s top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year’s convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Actually, this lede is misleading. It’s clear that Dolan’s emphasis was on religious liberty AROUND THE WORLD, including the United States. Let’s move on:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — more than suffered such a fate during the entire 20th century.

What was that again? There were a million Christian martyrs — or fewer than that — in the 20th century?

What about the Armenian genocide alone? That’s a controversial issue, but you will frequently see claims that 1.2 million or more believers died in that wave of persecution.

And what about the persecution of the church in Russia in the decades before and after the establishment of the Communist regime?

Once again, statistics vary widely for the number of Russian Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died as martyrs. However, most academic studies put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million killed. And what about Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe? What about previous rounds of persecution in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc.? And I in no way mean to imply that the Orthodox in these lands were the only Christians to die for their faith in the troubled 20th century! No way. I am simply noting some obvious cases.

I have searched to see if other media outlets have quoted Cardinal Dolan making this error.

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Praise be to Soros for investing millions in Baltimore

So, does the cultural left have a leader who might play the role that the Rev. Pat Robertson plays for the mainstream press when it is covering life on the religious right? I mean, is there a person on the religious or anti-religious left whose views are so predictable and, often, so predictably extreme that one can always count on him for that symbolic action or quote that you need to stereotype all of the other people on that side of the cultural aisle?

I mean, other than Madonna or Bill Maher?

At the level of real-life power, I think it would be hard to find a better nominee than mega-billionaire George Soros, the financial titan whose presence looms behind so many important institutions and projects on the cultural and religious left. Yes, I realize that Soros can be found on many lists of prominent celebrity atheists. However, the big tent on the cultural and religious left includes a wide array of people along the spectrum from proud atheism to progressive forms of religious faith. So there is room for this man and his wallet.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that there is a huge flaw in comparing Soros with Robertson, when it comes to the role of providing journalists with easy headlines and soundbites (I mean, other than the fact that Robertson is nowhere near as rich). Robertson talks all the time. Soros does not.

Still, both mean are oh so predictable in their motivations and actions.

Thus, I was interested when the newspaper that lands in my front yard featured a long A1 story built on an actual interview with Soros, focusing on the 15th anniversary of the creation of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. Is there a GetReligion ghost in the story?

Well, the word “atheist” does not appear in the text, which I think is rather strange. Why is that? To be frank, the elements of the Open Society Institute’s work that are covered by The Baltimore Sun strike me as being, well, so similar to the kinds of social-ministry projects that are taken on by religious groups. In a way, what we have here is a kind of a secular alternative to the work of the major Catholic and Jewish groups that are so powerful here in Charm City.

Like what? Here is a key chunk of the story, right after the description of one outreach program to young internationals:

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

“A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide,” Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted. “Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most,” he said. “From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most.”

Now, what we have here are projects linked to ethics and moral choices — topics that journalists must not, repeat must NOT, assume are inherently religious in nature. What I think is missing here — in light of Soros’ beliefs as an atheist — is a story that truly explores precisely why he wants to get involved in this kind of, to be blunt, urban ministry.

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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