AP’s one-sided report on teaching Bible in public schools

Gotcha!

That’s the distinct tone of an Associated Press story out this week (just three weeks behind Religion News Service) on a new Bible elective approved by an Oklahoma school district.

But does this AP story, filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, deliver the actual journalistic goods?

Why don’t you help me decide, inquiring-mind GetReligion readers?

Let’s start at the top:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Steve Green’s faith led him to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he’s argued the nation’s new health care law and its requirement that his business provide certain types of birth control to employees violates his religious freedoms.

At the same time, the president of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores is working to add the Bible to the curriculum of public high schools nationwide. His purpose, stated more clearly at some times than at others, is for students to learn its text and put America on a righteous course.

“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green said last year to the National Bible Association, announcing his plan for the high school course. “There are lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it, and if we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”

Green has established a beachhead in his home state of Oklahoma, where the public Mustang School District in suburban Oklahoma City will begin teaching a class about the Bible as an elective beginning this fall. The goal is to place the Bible course in thousands of schools by 2017.

Green told the Mustang school board last fall that the one-year trial of the Bible curriculum developed by the Green Scholars Initiative wasn’t intended to proselytize or “go down denominational, religious-type roads,” and persuaded the board that the plan would pass any constitutional challenges.

Later in the story, readers learn that Green declined an interview with the AP. So readers are left with the wire service’s interpretation of what he has said in the past and what his motivations/intentions are. (For the record, I don’t think Green’s refusal to talk helps his side.)

Keep reading, and the AP quotes three “experts” — all concerned about the Bible elective approved by the suburban school district. First up and worried about a constitutional line possibly being crossed is Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University:

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Little argument, and little religion, after botched execution

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This is the headline on a Washington Post follow-up on the recent big story in my home state:

In Okla., little argument over the final outcome for inmate who died after botched execution

Little argument and little religion, based on this rather shallow Post story.

At GetReligion, we often refer to “holy ghosts.” In fact, as our editor tmatt explained at the very beginning (well, not that beginning), that’s why we’re here:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The first ghosts appear way up high in this Post story:

McALESTER, Okla. — Geneva Miller was a bit annoyed as she dug into an egg salad sandwich at the Heavenly Delights bakery, where wooden signs line the walls bearing affirmations of food and family.

She can’t believe that her state, with its strong support for capital punishment, is being pilloried across the nation because of one botched execution.

“We’re just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty,” Miller said. “We just don’t understand how they could think otherwise — that it wouldn’t be right.”

Um, Heavenly Delights? Affirmations of food and family? Is there a chance that religious faith might be a factor here? If so, the Post chooses to ignore it.

Let’s read on:

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Journalism, religion and a botched execution in Oklahoma

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What was it like?

How do you feel?

Years ago, when I covered the state prison system for The Oklahoman and began serving as an official media witness for executions, those were the kinds of questions friends asked.

Truth be told, I felt numb.

I mean, I knew I had watched someone die. But I did so in a controlled, sanitized environment. A needle was inserted into a convicted killer’s arm — like someone receiving anesthesia for surgery — and the person lost consciousness. Within a few minutes, a time of death was declared.

The process was so routine, in most cases, that I wrote a behind-the-scenes account in 2000 of a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma:

McALESTER — At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.

Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.

Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.

The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes — a prison shirt and jeans — in which to die.

After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.

Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him — or in him — that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.

Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.

After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.

Fast-forward 14 years, and my home state of Oklahoma is all over the news, and rightly so, after a botched execution involving the state’s first time using a new lethal drug combination.

The anything-but-routine lede from the Tulsa World:

McALESTER — The execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett was botched Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary before he died of a massive heart attack. The event prompted officials to postpone a second execution that had been scheduled for two hours later.

Lockett was given execution drugs and reacted violently, kicking and grimacing while lifting his head off the gurney to which he was strapped. He was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. inside the execution chamber — 43 minutes after the process began — Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said.

In a media conference, Patton said Lockett’s veins “exploded” during the execution, which began at 6:23 p.m. The inmate died from what Patton called a “massive heart attack.” The death occurred after the execution process had been halted.

In its daily religion headlines email today, the Pew Research Center included the Oklahoma execution as the top item, despite no overtly religious content in The Associated Press story to which Pew linked, and I find no fault with that. This is obviously a story with strong moral — and religious — overtones.

In perusing the major media coverage, CNN, in particular, seems to nail the moral angle:

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Flowers, cakes and objections to same-sex weddings

In two recent posts — here and here — I critiqued media coverage of proposed religious exemptions for florists, bakers, photographers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last month, I examined news reports on a federal judge striking down the ban on same-sex marriage in my home state of Oklahoma.

In Sunday’s Tulsa World, those subject areas came together in a front-page story:

Oklahoma may soon join a growing number of states where same-sex marriage laws and religious liberty concerns are on a collision course.

A federal judge’s ruling last month that Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional raises questions that eventually will need to be addressed by lawmakers and judges.

If the ruling is upheld, will a church that rents its facilities to the public for weddings be allowed to turn down a gay or lesbian wedding?

Can a photographer be fined for refusing to photograph a wedding over which he or she has religiously founded moral objections?

Can a bakery decline to make a wedding cake for such services?

These are not hypothetical questions.

In New Mexico, wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin was fined $6,000 for refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

In Colorado, Jack Phillips, a baker who would not bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony because it violated his religious principles, was ordered by a judge to bake the cake. And in Washington, a similar case against a florist is pending.

For those who have followed this issue closely, the World treads pretty basic ground (see the Wall Street Journal’s report on the subject from last fall). Still, I give the Tulsa newspaper credit for tackling this important angle.

And while some news stories have treated the religious concerns with seeming contempt, the World leans perhaps too far the other direction — quoting a number of exemption proponents before including an opposing voice:

These types of cases generally are based not on the legal status of gay marriage but on nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Tulsa and Oklahoma do not have such laws, but some people remain concerned.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, if you crack open that door,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, whose office will represent the defendant in the Oklahoma case, Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith, who issues marriage licenses.

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist  Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the religious liberty concerns are “justified by virtue of what’s happening across America.”

“Whether florists, caterers, or photographers, what we’re seeing is that any Christian who owns a business that provides material or artistic goods for weddings is liable for prosecution under state nondiscrimination law.

“What’s at stake is whether an individual will be coerced into  providing services for a practice that Christianity considers sinful,” he said.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the lead attorney in the New Mexico photography case, agreed that the threat to religious liberty is real.

“This is a genuine concern. There have been a number of cases nationally,” he said.

But after reading the entire 1,400-plus words, this story left me with one of those empty feelings you get after eating rice cakes for breakfast (not that I’ve ever tried that, but you get the point).

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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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Oklahoma news: A Christmas ‘miracle’ via the local atheists

News stories blending the miraculous with Christmas aren’t difficult to find: families reunited, poor children receiving presents, the homeless fed. A common denominator, though, is usually a denomination, most likely a Christian one. After all, it’s the Christians who connected charity to the whole thing to begin with, right?

Well, things apparently are different in Chickasha, Oklahoma. While I fear to step onto the home turf of Sooner GetReligion duo Bobby and Tamie Ross, tread I must.

The Chickasha Express-News reported a”Christmas miracle” story, but this time, it was area atheists who saved the day, as opposed to reprising what others often view as their “Grinch” role:

CHICKASHA – A group of local atheists saved Christmas for a Chickasha woman after she and her baby were allegedly put through the ringer [sic] at a church’s toy give away.

Tiffany Wait said she, her husband and their 7-month-old baby went to Bible Baptist Church’s Toy Shop Christmas morning to get gifts for their child, but were met with animosity because Wait did not want to give her baby to the volunteers.

“I am poor and would not be able to celebrate Christmas this year without their charity,” she said. “I went last year and it was a life saver. This year however, I was treated shockingly bad.”

Wait said her baby doesn’t like strangers and she’d prefer to be with him. She said the volunteer said it has to be done this way, or the family wouldn’t be able to participate.

“I stood there, fighting back tears and asked, ‘You would turn a baby away on Christmas,’” said Wait.

Two initial questions: (1) Was it a look-alike of some sort (“ringer”) Wait had to somehow be “put through” or was it the metaphorical “wringer” (or clothes press or what the British call a “mangle“) to which the reporter was referring? Also, what’s up with the alleged demand for Wait to “give her baby to the volunteers” at the toy distribution? The church folks could only hand presents directly to the child? Say what?

Anyway, this being the Year of Our Lord 2013, Wait — whose Twitter account describes her as an  Avon representative and one of whose Facebook photos show her with her husband and two children — did what anyone would do, these digital days.

She sought solace online:

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A more graceful Ross joins GetReligion crew

Some folks get annoyed when they read a news story with holes, a piece with errors, prose with pockmarks. Me? I see it as an opportunity to learn and to teach. And when there’s nothing to fix, when all angles are covered and no questions remain by the ending, I rejoice and join in the celebration of good journalism. Everyone wins!

That’s part of why GetReligion captivates me, and it’s a big reason why I’m thrilled by the opportunity to join this stellar group of religion news hounds.

I’ve been reading this site for years, since my husband Bobby Ross Jr. turned me on to its efforts to shine a bright light on the dimly lit ghosts of secular religion coverage. I’ve always thought the Almighty has a sense of humor, and the commentary here affirms that for me. I love journalism, too, and that’s what this blog is all about.

Besides loving a good laugh, though, who am I really? A good friend calls me Jobette, the feminine form of the Bible’s most prolific yet long-suffering man. I think that’s much better that being called Sarah/Sarai, though, because that wing of the house is firmly closed.

I ended my 20-year career in journalism in 2012 after a trio of as-yet-untamable autoimmune diseases made it impossible to stay vertical for even moderate periods of time, much less type, travel or transcribe notes. During my byline years, however, I worked as religion editor for The Oklahoman, promoted up from copy editor and assistant features editor. I’ve also done freelance work for The Associated Press and United Methodist News Service. My most recent gig was with The Christian Chronicle, which truly was a homecoming for me, as I interned there during my college years at Oklahoma Christian University.

I ended my 43-year career as my mother’s favorite (and only) daughter just three weeks ago after she suffered a massive heart attack and died 48 hours later. I sat with my dad in a different heart hospital three days after her memorial service and listened as he described for doctors numbness, tingling and pain I had never heard about before. (My own ticker seems to be keeping excellent time at the moment, in spite of its brokenness.)

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God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

Sure enough, it has been.

I saw the devastation for the first time Sunday when I made my way to that side of Oklahoma City to work on a Christianity Today piece on the “Faith-Based FEMA”:

At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

On the Sunday after a major disaster, news organizations often send reporters to cover worship services. The challenge is turning such a predictable assignment into a truly insightful story. I’m not so sure the Los Angeles Times accomplished that feat in its report on Sunday’s services in Moore.

Here’s the lede of the L.A. Times’ story:

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