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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A ‘new twist’ in states’ same-sex marriage debates

A time or two, we’ve highlighted media coverage of what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported back in October:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

Now comes Reuters with what its headline characterizes as a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates.

The top of that wire story:

(Reuters) – Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate — as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

“This is not a sideshow issue,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. “This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement.”

The next frontier in the marriage debates? Perhaps.

A new twist? Maybe, although two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a story for Christianity Today with this headline:

Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?

But back to the Reuters story: What to make of the journalism?

Here’s my take: It’s a straightforward piece that presents the facts and quotes folks on both sides. (It’s written in inverted-pyramid style, but I don’t think it falls into the “suitcase lead” trap, to borrow a phrase I came across on Poynter.org this week.)

Among Reuters’ sources, we hear from an advocate for the proposed religious exemption:

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Wind of change comes sweeping down the plain

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My home state of Oklahoma made big news Tuesday when a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The New York Times noted that the ruling occurred in the “heart of the Bible Belt,” while The Associated Press characterized Oklahoma as “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” (Religion angle, anyone?)

For the Tulsa World — whose banner headline today proclaimed “Gay marriage wins” — the ruling hit especially close to home, and not just because a Tulsa-based judge made the ruling. Two of the four plaintiffs are World editors, a connection that — to its credit — the Tulsa newspaper made clear in its story.

A friend of mine who works for the World remarked on his Facebook page that “it’s not often you walk into the newsroom and watch news happen in front of your face. Like national news kind of stuff.”

From The New York Times story:

“We’re jubilant, we’re over the moon,” said one of the plaintiffs, Sharon Baldwin, 45, who has lived with her partner and co-plaintiff, Mary Bishop, 52, for 17 years.

The two both work as editors at The Tulsa World newspaper and had just arrived at work on Tuesday afternoon when the city editor told them of the decision.

“We’re taking the day off,” Ms. Baldwin said.

In the major outlets, the first-day news coverage focused on the national ramifications of the decision, and rightly so. CNN described the ruling as “yet another victory for same-sex marriage supporters.” The Washington Post termed it “the latest in a string of recent court decisions that have challenged such prohibitions.”

But a few news organizations — including the AP — delved into the meat of U.S. District Judge Terence Kern’s 68-page ruling:

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When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

This was the headline on a Wall Street Journal story this week:

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

Photographers, Bakers Face Legal Challenges After Rejecting Jobs on Religious Grounds

At this point, the Journal arrives at a critical juncture: the lede.

The opening sentences will give a pretty clear idea where this story is headed: Will it be a sympathetic portrayal of gay couples denied basic civil rights? Or will it be a compassionate accounting of businesspeople forced to compromise sincerely held religious beliefs?

Let’s find out:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

The issue gained attention in August, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photography business violated state antidiscrimination laws after its owners declined to snap photos of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Similar cases are pending in Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, and some experts think the underlying legal question — whether free-speech and religious rights should allow exceptions to state antidiscrimination laws — could ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do you think? It appears to me that the Journal decided to play the story down the middle — to report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this age of advocacy, that’s somewhat surprising, but it’s good journalism, right?

Keep reading, and the story immediately quotes national advocates on both sides of the issue — fairly framing each side’s broad arguments.

Then the story turns to specifics of the individual state cases, in each instance allowing the plaintiffs and defendants equal opportunity to comment. For example:

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Jeers, not cheers, for latest cheerleader story

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In the midst of the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting earlier this month, I did a quick, positive review of a New York Times story on a legal clash over Kountze, Texas, high school cheerleaders painting Bible-based messages on football banners.

Since that first story, the same Times writer has written about the East Texas lawsuit at least three more times. Two of the three follow-ups make sense to me. One reported on Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighing in on the case. The other concerned a court ruling.

But the latest story makes me wonder if it’s really that slow of a news month for a Times writer stationed in the Lone Star State. The headline on the 1,200-word report:

In Texas, a Legal Battle Over Biblical Banners

Um, yeah. We got the idea with the first story on the subject more than two weeks earlier.

To be fair, I recognize that reporters do not write their own headlines. So let’s judge the story on its own merits. The angle on this new report is that a Christian superintendent has gone against the predominant feelings in a largely Christian town.

Except that the first story already covered that angle quite adequately.

From the original report:

While testifying on Thursday, Mr. Weldon — he and school board members had been subpoenaed, though Judge Thomas later nullified those subpoenas — said two lawyers he contacted, a district lawyer and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, advised him to prohibit the students from writing Bible verses. But he said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints.

“I commend them for what they’re doing,” Mr. Weldon testified.

Mr. Weldon and lawyers representing the district have said that they would like to allow the cheerleaders to put religious messages on the banners, but a declaration from the judge was needed to determine whether the district is required to restrict such banners.

So what’s the new angle? Here’s the lede to the latest report:

KOUNTZE, Tex. — In a barrage of recent e-mails, telephone calls and letters to his office, Kevin Weldon has been called some of the worst things a Christian man in this predominantly Christian town can be called: un-Christian, and even anti-Christian.

“I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” said Mr. Weldon, the superintendent of the 1,300-student school district in Kountze, northeast of Houston. “People that know me know how I am. Even though I got those things, I’m going to be honest with you, this may sound very flippant, but it just went in one ear and out the other.”

Mr. Weldon, 53, is in a position that few superintendents in small-town Texas have found themselves: taking a stand on religious expression that has put him at odds with the majority of his students and his neighbors, not to mention the governor, the attorney general and, some in Kountze believe, his God.

So what actual evidence does the Times provide that Weldon has become persona non grata in this East Texas town?

The paper quotes one politician running for Congress who suggests that the superintendent “can either overturn his ban on religion, or pack his bags.”

Otherwise, there’s this:

Not everyone has been so harsh. Rebekah Richardson, 17, a Kountze High School cheerleader, said: “We understand that he’s in a hard situation.”

Mr. Weldon said that over all, people in Kountze have treated him respectfully. He has attended the football games without incident, watching the Kountze Lions burst through the very banners (“But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” one read) at issue in the lawsuit. “It’s a great small town, and they’re just standing up for what they truly believe in,” he said. “You can’t fault people for that.”

In a heavily wooded part of the state called the Big Thicket, Kountze is an old-fashioned town of 2,100 with a history of religious tolerance. In the early 1990s, residents elected their first black mayor, Charles Bilal, a Muslim. The majority white, Christian voters made Mr. Bilal the first Muslim mayor in the United States. His granddaughter, Nahissaa Bilal, 17, a Christian, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Just curious: Did the Times feel compelled to perpetuate stereotypes even when the facts did not support them? Rather than resort to a cliche lead about the superintendent receiving a “barrage” of complaints, would a more accurate opening have focused on a tolerant town generally respectful of its superintendent despite disagreeing with his action?

The weirdest part of the story: It’s based up high on the superintendent’s own Christianity, yet the Times never feels compelled to explore his faith or beliefs or even his specific denominational affiliation. He’s described only as a “Protestant,” while the offended politician is a “born-again Christian.”

Strange, strange, strange …

 


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