Forget Genesis: Adam and Eve make NYTimes front page

From the Bible’s Genesis account of creation:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

That’s, of course, just a small section of the story, but it provides a nice flavor of it. Genesis will come into play — in a crucial way — later in this post.

But first, let’s consider this intriguing headline on the front page of today’s New York Times:

College Is Torn: Can Darwin and Eden Coexist?

And the top of the story:

DAYTON, Tenn. — William Jennings Bryan earned a permanent place in American history nearly nine decades ago in the Scopes trial, when he stood in a courtroom here and successfully prosecuted a teacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school.

While not quite “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” as Time magazine put it, that captivated the nation in 1925, a similar debate is again playing out in Dayton, this time at an evangelical Christian college named for Bryan, which is being sued as part of a controversy over its own stance on the origin of humans.

The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are, even splitting an institution whose motto is “Christ Above All.” Playing out at a time when the teaching of evolution remains a cultural hot spot to a degree that might have stunned its proponents in Bryan’s era, the debate also reflects the problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.

Um, did I read that last part right? “The problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.”

Is that, in fact, what Christian colleges are doing? Are they providing “secular education” with a little religion sprinkled on top? Or is “balance religious beliefs with secular education” a nice turn of phrase gone factually awry?

Bryan College belongs to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an international association of 120 “intentionally Christ-centered colleges and universities.” How many of those institutions would suggest they are trying to “balance religious beliefs with secular education?”  My guess: zero.

On the other hand, how many would suggest they are working to “transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth,” as CCCU’s mission statement puts it? My guess: all.

The real tension seems to be: How do Christian colleges balance their strong biblical worldview with rigorous academic scholarship and freedom? And later in the piece, the Times does a little better job hitting at that question.

But after that long tangent, let’s get back to the center of the Bryan College dispute. This is important:

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Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

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As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

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Hey, LA Times, there’s more to HHS fight than Hobby Lobby

First things first: I have to admit that I almost choked on my diet cherry cola when I read the double-decker headline on this Los Angeles Times news feature about the next round of cultural warfare at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ready? You have been warned:

In new term, Supreme Court may steer to right on key social issues

The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has a clear chance to shift the law to the right on abortion, contraception, religion and campaign funding

Now, faithful GetReligion readers will know that — as a pro-life Democrat — I am not pleased when journalists slap simplistic religious or political labels on people. In particular, it is often important to separate religious doctrine from political beliefs. When covering Republicans, it is also crucial to grasp that there are people who are conservative on economic and openly political issues, while veering to the left on moral and cultural issues. This familiar name leaps to mind: Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So I understand that, on some issues, the current high court does contain five people who from time to time form a “conservative bloc.” But does this court really contain a “conservative bloc” when addressing moral, cultural and religious issues?

To understand my main problem with the content of this story, it helps to see the framing. Let’s get started:

If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties and clear the way for exclusively Christian prayers at local government events.

Wait, what’s with the “clear the way” language? Isn’t the issue whether citizens, under the First Amendment, can CONTINUE to offer prayers that contain exclusively Christian images and language? I mean, I hate to break this to folks on the left coast, but lots of folks have been using Trinitarian language in public prayers in the American heartland for a long, long time. This is news? The issue is whether the state has the power to forbid, control or at the very least edit this form of speech.

Back to the story’s overture and the passage that sure as heckfire caught my attention:

By next spring, the justices are likely to revisit part of President Obama’s healthcare law to decide a religious-rights challenge to the requirement that large private employers provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives. Dozens of employers who run for-profit companies have sued, contending that providing health insurance that includes a full range of contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.

Yes, it is possible that the court will take a second look at the fine details in that healthcare law. We know that because one of its most liberal members dropped a hint about that in her written opinion in support of the “individual mandate” plank in the Health and Human Services regulations.

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The ‘exceptional importance’ of the Hobby Lobby case

It’s no surprise that the “Hobby Lobby” case is in the news. The valid headlines this week are that this religious-liberty case is on the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Hobby Lobby craft-store chain is owned by the evangelical Christian Green family of Oklahoma, and the family is seeking an exemption from the Health and Human Services mandate requiring employer payments for contraceptives — including those that induce abortions. Hobby Lobby is a national chain, and the Green family’s stance is well known.

However, the Los Angeles Times team let a few ghosts into its examination of the high-court development, which begins in an apocalyptic tone:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration set the stage Thursday for another Supreme Court showdown on the president’s healthcare law, this time to decide whether for-profit companies can be forced to provide full contraceptive coverage for their employees despite religious objections from their owners.

The administration’s lawyers asked the justices to take up the issue this fall to decide whether these corporations can claim a religious exemption to this part of the healthcare law.

U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. called the issue one of “exceptional importance” that needs to be resolved soon.

While the Greens may appreciate the move to get a quick decision from the Supreme Court, we have to wonder just why this is suddenly an issue of “exceptional importance” to the administration.

We also wonder what a reader coming to this story for the first time might make of the “religious objections” alluded to in the piece. That’s because allusion is all that happens here: we’re not told, in the story, anything about what the Green family believes, or why. There’s a mention of the abortifacient drug issue, but it’s almost too, well, casual.

Large employers are required to provide health coverage, and the law says this insurance must pay for standard contraceptives, including the “morning after” pill.

But some employers object on religious grounds. They went to court, arguing that they cannot be compelled by the government to subsidize birth control or abortions.

As it has doubtless been mentioned here numerous times, a wide range of differences exist among Christians of differing stripes (i.e., faith communities) over what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of birth control.

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Covering Cal Baptist, MTV, the law and gender identity

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Here we go again, once more into the legal thicket that surrounds private colleges and universities, on the cultural left or right.

Once again, let me note that the school involved in this story — California Baptist University — is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the national and global network in which I work and teach, as director of the Washington Journalism Center. I have close friends and associates at California Baptist. I also am a graduate of a major Baptist school, Baylor University, and I have taught at three different Christian schools, as well as a major seminary.

Come to think of it, I have also had positive professional dealings — via an internship for one of my WJC students — with The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif.

Thus, it goes without saying, that my goals in this post will be quite narrow and journalistic. I want to note, once again, that reporters need to understand that private colleges and universities (let me stress, that is this true on the cultural left as well as the right) are voluntary associations and operate differently than state schools. That’s a simple fact.

Now, let’s jump into this story, with offers a variation on themes that pop into the headlines every year or so. The key is that a transgender student is suing California Baptist for “allegedly expelling her because of her gender identity.”

Domaine Javier, 25, was expelled in August 2011 after she revealed in an episode of MTV’s “True Life” that she is biologically male. “CBU suspended her, excluded her from campus, and expelled her for one reason: she is transgender,” the lawsuit said.

The suit, filed Monday, Feb. 25, in Riverside County Superior Court, accuses Cal Baptist of violations of state anti-discrimination laws and breach of contract. It asks for $500,000 in damages.

Theodore Stream, an attorney for Cal Baptist, said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment. University documents attached to the lawsuit say that Javier was expelled because of “fraud, or concealing identity.”

Javier said a Cal Baptist official told her she inaccurately stated on her university application that she is a female. …

Javier said in the 2011 interview that Cal Baptist officials told her they discovered her appearance on an MTV “True Life” episode titled, “I’m Passing as Someone I’m Not” while conducting a background check on her.

Of course, part of the problem in the story is that the university cannot, at this point in the legal process, make any comment whatsoever — in part because of privacy concerns related to what, I would assume, was a disciplinary process on campus. The school literally cannot comment.

However, the story does make it clear that the legal team working on Javier’s behalf is trying to break some new ground in the law. In effect, it is arguing that California Baptist is not religious enough and that freedom and association and religious liberty are not relevant to a school that accepts a wide variety of students. Yes, this is very similar to the point being debated in the Health and Human Services mandate cases, in which the religious-liberty rights of churches are protected, but not religious ministries that deal with the public. Religious liberty, when facing disputed claims of civil rights, stops at the church door. The “free exercise” of religion does not include the marketplace, in this view of the Bill of Rights.

Thus, readers are told:

The discrimination claim is based on the state Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based upon gender identity. But Jim Wood, a senior pro bono counsel for the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, said the law generally does not cover private universities.

Southwick argued that Cal Baptist, which is open to people of all faiths and primarily offers degrees in secular fields, functions as a business establishment offering services to the general public, which means it is covered under the law.

“We’re not talking about a private seminary or Bible college,” he said. “Just because Cal Baptist is a religiously affiliated institution doesn’t give it a right to discriminate.”

The story does not — this is crucial — mention one absolutely crucial detail, one linked to the forming of the voluntary association.

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