Let them eat cake and — in Colorado — make others bake it

I’m no expert on baking, but I suspect that a layer cake should stand straight, not lean to one side. The Denver Post should have followed that recipe for its latest story on the man who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The Post article is brief and mostly factual, especially for a newspaper that has written a lot of stories on the case for nearly two years. But it favors the gay side, both in what it says and what it does not say. And it leaves a number of unanswered questions on a matter that has several levels.

Cake shop owner Jack Phillips has become something of a cause celebre for religious rights folks, but he’s still getting, shall we say, battered. Colorado has just imposed a penalty on him that sounds rather like thought police:

The state’s seven-member Civil Rights Commission reinforced a December ruling from an administrative law judge who said Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins when he refused to make them a wedding cake because of religious objections.

In its decision, the panel required Phillips to submit quarterly reports for two years that show how he has worked to change discriminatory practices by altering company policies and training employees. Phillips also must disclose the names of any clients who are turned away.

The article carries three paragraphs of background but sacrifices depth:

Colorado law bans discrimination in a public place on grounds of sexual orientation, but Phillips has argued that forcing him to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his right to First Amendment free-speech and freedom-of-religion rights.

Phillips and his attorney are considering an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He suggested on Friday that the rights of business owners with similar views were taken away by the commission.

“Not all of life is fair,” Phillips said after the commission’s decision. “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down.”

Freedom of religion, OK, that computes. If a religion says homosexuality is wrong, its adherents would object to doing anything that might appear to sanction it. But how does making a wedding cake for gays violate free speech?

And exactly what did Phillips mean by “Not all of life is fair”? Was he saying that he had the right to be unfair, or that the court was being unfair to him?

It’s possible that the reporter felt she could talk shorthand because the Post listed seven other stories on the case, going back to Aug. 4. But for those who just dropped in — you and me, for instance — it’s assuming too much.

The article says that Craig and Mullins, the gay couple, has been “inundated with support from people across the country.” Aside from the obvious follow-up questions — “How many? From how large an area? What have they been typically saying? Could I see some of the quotes?” — what about Jack Phillips, the opposition? Does he stand alone? Or have like-minded people spoken up for him as well?

The latter is likely, since the Post quotes a representative of the Alliance Defending Freedom taking Phillips’ side. But the newspaper reveals more favoritism there, calling the alliance a “conservative Christian organization.” It then cites the American Civil Liberties Union without attaching a sticker. It’s a common subtle way of weighting remarks: One group is normal and mainstream; the other group bears watching.

Other ingredients are missing from this story, too.

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Some compelling religion stories from Easter front pages

Fittingly, stories of rebirth and renewal made their way to many newspaper front pages on Easter Sunday.

One of my favorites ran in the Chicago Tribune. That story, by Angie Leventis Lourgos, highlighted Christians such as Edeette Chukro, a Syrian who celebrated her first Easter in America:

Easter is bittersweet for those seeking refuge like Chukro and her family, who were among the Christian minority in Syria. They fear for their loved ones overseas. They worry their mass exodus will diffuse their culture and identity.

And they note the paradox in fleeing Syria, a cradle of ancient Christendom, in order to worship freely.

St. Paul, once a tormentor of Christians, was converted on the road to Damascus in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken in pockets of Syria today and is sprinkled in the Mass at St. Mary’s.

“Jesus went to Syria to preach. St. Paul went to Syria to preach. St. Peter went to Syria to preach,” said Bishop Paulus Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, who is based in Chicago. “There’s a rich Christian history there. Unfortunately, Christians now must leave.”

Salt Lake Tribune Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack also told the story of a faithful foreigner finding freedom in the U.S.:

As Saman Lall joins other Utah Christians celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection on this spring-dappled Sunday, you could say the Pakistani educator has been reborn himself.

This is, after all, Lall’s first Easter in a country where freedom of religion is a bedrock principle, where all varieties of believers worship freely.

Lall could repeat the ancient prayers and ceremonies in a new land: Foot-washing, taking communion, carrying the cross, tracing the “stations of the cross,” experiencing darkness in the sanctuary, followed by lit candles, a flood of light, and then, hallelujah.

All without fear.

Other moving Easter stories included Oklahoman religion editor Carla Hinton’s piece on “New Life for Emma” and Tennessean writer Heidi Hall’s profile of a former drug addict and prostitute who found “A rebirth of her own.”

The Houston Chronicle reported on the reopening of a Galveston, Texas, cathedral closed for almost six years after Hurricane Ike. And the Arizona Republic produced a compelling narrative on a shrine scarred but still standing after a wildfire.

Some other Easter Page 1 angles:

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Weed in Denver, but Easter news on other front pages

If you live in the Mile High City (no pun intended), you woke up Sunday morning to this banner headline on your hometown paper’s front page:

Welcome to Weed Country

Happy Easter to you, too, Denver Post!

Another Colorado newspaper had a much better week than the Post — and not just because it won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. The Colorado Springs Gazette, edited my my friend and former colleague Joe Hight, filled up two-thirds of its Sunday front page with this headline:

The road to Chimayo

Yes, the Gazette published a major religion story — and not a marijuana tourism piece — on its Easter front page:

The road to Chimayo, N.M. is long and tiring during the Christian holy week leading up to Easter.

But the spirits of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 pilgrims who walk for hours to reach a famous Roman Catholic church outside of Santa Fe are anything but weary.

George Warda of Parker has made the journey for the past 20 years. Maybe more; he’s lost count.

At about mile 13 of his 15-mile trek on Good Friday, Warda was sending thanks to God for his family’s blessings and praying for a little help with health challenges.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than this time,” he said. “It’s very spiritual. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Pilgrims, from babies in strollers to the elderly with canes, come from nearby towns and faraway states. Warda wore a Colorado T-shirt.

Across the nation, some papers — like the Post — failed to acknowledge Easter on the front page.

But many others — like the Gazette — recognized the news value of Christianity’s most important holiday.

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Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage

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Good Episcopalian that I am, I am ready to believe the worst about the Catholic Church.

Perhaps it was my upbringing, the culture in which I was formed, the schools where I was educated, my crowd. But accusations hurled against the Catholic Church of corruption, cruelty, mendacity — of being downright un-American –stick in the back of my mind. “Why not?”

I was also reared in Philadelphia and as a boy worshiped at the altar of the Eagles and Phillies. Longing and loss then were taught to me early on, as was support for the underdog.

Yet as much as I enjoy watching a good thrashing of the Vatican, I also am troubled by unfairness, foul play and sneakiness.

Which brings me to the documentary broadcast by PBS’s Frontline show entitled “Secrets of the Vatican“. This is an extraordinary film. It is beautifully made. I would not hesitate to say that the camera work, the musical scoring, the editing, and the writing are exquisite. Documentary film making does not get any better.

And yet, “Secrets of the Vatican” is also vile. Repulsive in that art and the extraordinary talent of its creators are put to malign purposes. It is propaganda — a film crafted to make arguments rather than to speak the truth.

At this point I must stop and respond to the cries of two competing choruses. My opening remarks about my own anti-Catholic bigotry are hyperbole designed to introduced the topic of bias. Nor am I claiming “Secrets of the Vatican” has suborned perjury from those whom it has presented on film.

It is, however, exaggerated, unbalanced, and seeks to inflame rather than inform. I do not expect a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases to present both sides of an argument in the documentary, but I would expect a film maker to do so, giving voice to the opposing side.

Catholic commentators have excoriated the film, accusing it of rehashing old stories and telling only half the tale. The popular conservative blogger Fr. Z wrote:

 The objectives of the show are to pin all responsibility for every case of clerical sexual abuse not just on local authorities but on “the Vatican”, to detach sexual abuse from homosexuality, to undermine a celibate clergy, and to convince you that there are more homosexual priests than there really are.  Finally, Pope Francis is the most wonderfullest Pope ehvurrr.

Let’s look at one vignette from the film — the claim that Catholic clergy are more likely to be child molesters than non-Catholic clergy — that illustrates my disquiet.

Frontline interviewed Dr. Martin Kafka, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has studied this issue. Kafka made the claim:

The number of Catholic clergy who are accused of or prosecuted for child and adolescent sexual abuse vastly outnumber the number of Protestant clergy.

Taken in isolation this statement could be construed to mean that reports of child abuse by Catholic clergy “vastly outnumber” reports of child abuse by Protestant clergy. That would be a statistic compiled by the FBI that would speak to reports of abuse.

However, in light of the surrounding comments, images and testimony offered by the film, the implication of Dr. Kafka’s statement is that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend than non-Catholic clergy.

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Scoring spiritual points before Super Bowl Sunday

Every year about this time, we face a blitz of profile stories of coaches, athletes, owners, fans and even pets preparing to square off on Super Bowl Sunday (I’m a huge fan of Puppy Bowl, by the way).

The big story in advance of the 2014 human installment: the frigid temperatures and whether or not the Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos matchup can attract a proper crowd within the confines of New Jersey’s undomed MetLife Stadium.

Second to that, we’re being treated to a lineup of features on the teams, faith angles and other more spiritual sides of the Sunday offering.

Some stories, like some Super Bowl pairings, are better than others.

From the Chicago Tribune comes a winner on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his Christian faith:

Seattle’s franchise quarterback is a devout Christian, so fans should hope he doesn’t cut his hair prior to Sunday and lose strength much like Samson in the Old Testament book of Judges. Samson got power from his flowing locks until the temptress Delilah took shears to his dome piece.

(Christianity) has helped Wilson both on and off the football field, and there is no better time than now at the Super Bowl to have faith in what he believes in. Scroll through Wilson’s Twitter page and you will be reminded where his heart and soul reside.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

That was taken from the book of Matthew and perfectly defines Wilson, who has been searching for success in sports and as a human being. The former Wisconsin star takes excerpts from various books of the Bible and uses them in his every day life.

Touchdown, Tribune! A fine example of using Scripture and its application in proper context. We never learn precisely what faith group with which Wilson aligns himself, but we delve more deeply into his beliefs and perspective here than any other report I found.

Not to be outdone, the Denver Post found a creative angle with its piece on Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a fervent Broncos fan who plans to celebrate Mass with a group of players and coaches at the team’s hotel Saturday night.

Aquila has become close to Broncos defensive coordinator Jack DelRio, and the two men are allowed to explain more about their faith journey that developed through the course of this season:

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So long, GetReligion

It was about eight years ago exactly when I surprised Terry Mattingly by shouting his name as I encountered him on the street. His visage was familiar to me because I’d grown up reading him in “the Rocky” — the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado. My parents had always encouraged my siblings and me to read the newspapers and I devoured both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News every day. Front page to last page. I was interested in journalism from a young age, starting a newspaper at my elementary school and eventually editing the Yearbook at my high school in my junior and my senior year.

But for some odd reason, I never thought of journalism as an actual way to earn a living. I studied economics and headed into a different career field. But all of my journalist friends were having so much fun, even if they didn’t make a lot of money. I asked for advice and then took the plunge, somehow faking good enough Spanish-language skills to get a job at Radio & Records (and its sister publication Radio y Musica). One job led to another and I was living the dream — covering the federal bureaucracy on the waste, fraud and mismanagement beat for a Gannett publication.

I wanted to be writing about things that really mattered, though. Mostly that meant baseball, but also economics. And religion. Like most people, I’m religious. And while I loved reading a good news story about religion, I couldn’t believe how poorly much of the media covered religion news. The laughable mistakes, the complete distortion of doctrine, the hostility. So when GetReligion launched in 2004 or so, I was an early reader. I learned so much. It helped me develop a critical eye — an important first step to becoming a good writer.

By the time I chased Terry Mattingly down the street in 2005, I had begun writing about religion in my freelance time. I found that editors were actually quite anxious to pay people to write reported pieces on news and responded well to informed writers.

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