Surprise! A same-sex marriage story that gets religion

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For the latest Christian Chronicle, I wrote a news story on judicial authorities in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington formally admonishing a superior court judge — also a Church of Christ elder — for voicing his preference not to perform same-sex marriages.

As part of that story, I cited the Wall Street Journal’s recent reportpraised by GetReligion — on wedding professionals in at least six states running headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

I quoted Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., on the religious liberty implications:

“In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, this is less likely to be a problem,” Windham told the Chronicle. “But in states where there are same-sex unions, then some Christian business owners might be at risk.

“This is a developing area of law, so it’s too early to tell how these cases are going to turn out,” added Windham, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia and a graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas. “I am hopeful that courts and state legislatures will strike a balance between marriage laws and religious freedom.”

In past GetReligion posts — here, here and here, for example — I’ve highlighted the tendency of some major media to produce one-sided stories on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

But today, I come not to bury to the Chicago Tribune but to praise it. A Tribune story written this week by two reporters, including Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman, focuses on the clash between Illinois’ gay marriage bill and religious liberty:

Illinois’ gay marriage bill that awaits the governor’s signature doesn’t force religious clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or compel churches to open their doors for ceremonies. But similar safeguards aren’t spelled out for pastry chefs, florists, photographers and other vendors who, based on religious convictions, might not want to share a gay couple’s wedding day.

The lack of broader exceptions worries some who fear an erosion of religious freedoms, even as supporters of the law say it will eliminate discrimination.

“We’re going to have to wait for lawsuits to arrive,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a socially conservative legal group.

Critics of the bill that positions Illinois to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage point out that, though it protects clergy and houses of worship, it doesn’t spell out exemptions for people and businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, might not want to do business with same-sex couples. The text of the bill makes clear that it doesn’t alter two related laws: the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don’t harm the welfare of society.

In addition to the problem faced by wedding vendors, opponents worry that the law could force some doctors, social workers and counselors to go against their personal beliefs by providing services to married same-sex couples, or have their licenses revoked.

The Tribune does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns of religious opponents of same-sex marriage and the legal issues at play.

And yes, the Chicago paper also presents the perspective of same-sex marriage supporters:

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Jackpot! Godbeat pro shows her winning hand

If you’re in a hurry, there’s no need to finish the rest of this post.

Just make sure you take the time to read this story.

This 2,000-word piece by Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear exemplifies the absolute best of Godbeat journalism. It combines solid reporting, vivid writing, relevant context, excellent sourcing and real-life human drama, all produced by a seasoned professional who obviously gets religion — Judaism in this case.

Brachear goes behind the scenes of a rabbi’s gambling addiction and loss of his pulpit, telling a story that breaks news even for some within the clergyman’s own congregation.

A big chunk of the top of the story:

Rabbi Michael Sternfield had just started pushing buttons at an Indiana casino on a June day in 2011 when he watched the icons flash across the screen: ace, king, queen, jack and 10, all of the same suit.

Bells rang, lights flashed and casino staff descended upon the spiritual leader of one of Chicago’s most prominent Reform synagogues to congratulate him on his video poker royal flush and $10,000 jackpot.

But the big payoff proved to be unlucky. Sternfield, who six years earlier had asked to be banished from the casino because of a longtime but secret gambling problem, was charged with trespassing and identity deception. He said the incident and his initial denial when leaders of Chicago Sinai Congregation asked about it led them to demand that he quietly resign last month rather than explain himself to his congregation.

“If I’ve learned anything from these years of struggling, I’ve learned how terribly painful addictions of all kinds are and how incredibly difficult many are to get rid of,” Sternfield said in a recent interview with the Tribune. “This is a chapter of my life that I regret so very deeply and which is painful for those close to me.”

Temple President Michael Mannis called Sternfield’s departure a big loss for Chicago Sinai but otherwise declined to discuss what he called a confidential matter.

But Sternfield’s abrupt exit after nearly two decades at Chicago Sinai, and an explanation in a letter that it was simply time to retire, left some in the congregation suspicious, particularly because it happened just a month before the busy Jewish season of repentance that includes Rosh Hashana and the just-ended Yom Kippur.

“No one retires right before the High Holy Days. I found that excuse absurd,” said Rick Fizdale, 74, who has been part of the congregation for decades. “We feel slightly less of a gravitational pull toward the synagogue because he’s not there.”

Keep reading, and the Tribune writer paints a complicated portrait of the dismissed rabbi — a fragile human with faith and foibles.

This unbiased account portrays Sternfield neither as all-saint or all-sinner, instead letting the facts speak for themselves, such as this important background:

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