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?

[Read more...]

NYTimes offers labels-free look at key free-speech fight

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

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‘Dozens of pastors’ not quoted in front-page story

Readers of The Oklahoman, my hometown newspaper and one-time employer, awoke today to a banner, front-page story on controversy over a play opening in Oklahoma City this week.

Yes, there’s a potentially strong religion angle (once you get past the junior-highish lede):

Jane, a scarf around her shoulders, works out a dance scene.

Mabel enters the room from backstage, a plastic container filled with snickerdoodles in hand. The cookies are a hit with cast and crew.

So begins a rehearsal for the play dozens of pastors have labeled
“gross pornography” and a Christmas-season affront to Christian values.

“The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” opens Thursday at CitySpace, a small, spare theater in the basement of the Civic Center Music Hall.

Dozens of pastors, huh?

As a reader, I’m immediately curious: Who are these pastors? I’d love to see some names. And, of course, I’d love to see some quotes.

But as I kept reading (the main story as well as the “Fact-checking pastors’ claims” sidebar that appeared with the jump), guess how many pastors The Oklahoman actually named?

Exactly one pastor, if you count this reference:

State Rep. Dan Fisher, a Republican who is a pastor in Yukon, first said Christian leaders would pressure city leaders to block the production.

For those unfamiliar with the play, here’s how the writer summarizes it:

[Read more...]

Grossman’s blog is back: Faith & Reason 2.0 at RNS

One of the first signs that the religion beat was in trouble at USA Today was the decision to shutter veteran scribe Cathy Grossman’s “Faith & Reason” weblog.

Using a question-and-answer format — Grossman asked a news-related questions and readers would chime in — it allowed her to put quite a bit of interesting material into play for people who wanted more than a few religion headlines in the regular news pages. Day after day, Grossman used the blog to point readers toward interesting links and information sources.

Then it vanished.

Then Grossman left USA Today, one of many veterans on the beat who have been on the move in the past year or two.

Now the blog is back, as part of her duties at Religion News Service. I saw a link on Twitter, commented on one of her early posts, and Grossman dropped me a line or two, adding this background.

When I accepted the USA TODAY buyout offer in May, RNS folks and I began discussing the right role for me at Religion News Service. High on all our lists was to revive Faith & Reason — my news-based blog designed to build a community of thoughtful, civil (mostly) readers.

I joined RNS in mid-September and took six weeks to get my footing as senior national correspondent. Covering news is my first love. But if you know me, you know I love questions — particularly those with more than one answer. The timing was right to reboot.

I hope you, the GR staff, and, of course, your readers, will subscribe, comment, react, club me now and then (what¹s life without a smart critique from peers?!)

For more info, check out the post that announced the Faith & Reason 2.0 project.

The first question?

[Read more...]

Innocence of Muslims filmmaker finally sentenced

Of the many curious coverage decisions the mainstream media made this year, I thought the relative lack of interest in the plight of Mark Bassely Youssef, who made “Innocence of Muslims,” was noteworthy. There’s no question the dude is shady and broke the law in matters unrelated to the YouTube phenomenon. But the Obama administration’s focus on him, the physical threats issued against him, and his incarceration over the last few months also merited some serious discussions about free speech as its practiced in the United States.

But the media could not really have been much less interested in him.

The Associated Press does give us a follow-up this week about the situation. It begins:

The California man behind an anti-Muslim film that led to violence in many parts of the Middle East was sentenced Wednesday to a year in federal prison for probation violations in an unrelated matter, then issued a provocative statement through his attorney.

What’s the provocative statement?

Shortly after Youssef left the courtroom, his lawyer, Steven Seiden, came to the front steps of the courthouse and told reporters his client wanted to send a message.

“The one thing he wanted me to tell all of you is President Obama may have gotten Osama bin Laden, but he didn’t kill the ideology,” Seiden said.

Asked what that meant, Seiden said, “I didn’t ask him, and I don’t know.”

Is that statement either provocative or unclear? It seems kind of obvious and clear as day to me. I was trying to figure out if the writer was just trying to play it straight, because it’s clear that there are all sorts of hints at what Youssef was getting at. We’re told that the U.S. attorney said the case had nothing to do with the film but that had he been truthful with people associated with the film, they may not have done the film:

He said they have had death threats and feel their careers have been ruined.

Even the worst Hollywood films don’t usually result in death threats. Is there a ghost there?

Or what about this?

Youssef, 55, was arrested in late September, just weeks after he went into hiding when the deadly violence erupted.

Enraged Muslims had demanded severe punishment for Youssef, with a Pakistani cabinet minister even offering $100,000 to anyone who kills him.

Hmm. Is there anything ideological or religious that could be unpacked here?

The piece goes into detail about the stiff sentencing the con man received. I’d love to see how this news is reported around the world.


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