Foggy beliefs lead to church-state crisis in hospital

One of my graduate-school professors had a saying that summed up one of the central truths of church-state law in the United States of America. Your religious liberty, he liked to remind students, has been purchased for you by a lot of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner.

What did he mean by that?

It is rare for cases involving the beliefs of mainstream religious groups to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Methodists and Baptists and Reform Jews and other cultural mainliners rarely clash with the principalities and powers of the state because, well, their beliefs tend to be viewed as safe and normal. Most of the edgy cases that draw the borders of First Amendment law are linked to the beliefs and actions of folks whose faith claims are viewed as suspect by run-of-the-mill believers.

We’re talking about Pentecostal and Christian Science believers who don’t want to take their young children to see a doctor, because they believe in divine healing — period. How about people who handle deadly snakes during worship services? Native Americans whose rites have, for generations, required them to consume mind-altering substances declared illegal by our legal authorities? How about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their belief that God does not want them to receive blood transfusions (a doctrine that has led to important research into low-blood-loss surgical techniques).

Want to have dinner and talk theology with these folks?

Methinks that few journalists would answer in the affirmative. Still, it’s important to know that courts have, time and time again, defended the rights of a wide range of religious groups, so long as their actions were not consistently linked to fraud, profit or a clear threat to life and health. It’s this last element that has caused such fierce debates, especially when the religious beliefs of parents appear to threaten the lives and health of their own children.

Thus the key, when covering these stories, is to provide as much factual detail about the doctrines and practice of the believers at the heart of the controversy. What do they believe? What do their scriptures — written or oral — teach? How long has this group practiced this ritual or acted on a given doctrine in a particular way?

I thought about all of that when reading a recent Elkhart Truth article about a controversy in a local hospital. Here’s the top of this hard-news report:

GOSHEN – Joyce Gingerich, an oncology nurse at IU Health Goshen Hospital, had two options — get a flu shot or lose her job.

It was a tough choice, but Gingerich and seven others at the hospital stood their ground and refused to receive the vaccination. …

“I knew that I could not compromise my personal belief system for a job,” explained Gingerich, who had worked at the hospital on and off since 1987. “It was really sad to leave that job. In all my years of nursing, it was my favorite.”

In early September, IU Health Goshen Hospital informed its staff that flu shots would no longer be optional. Beginning this year, all of the hospital’s staff, affiliated physicians, volunteers and vendors are required to receive a flu vaccination or apply for an exemption. The hospital’s requirements came as a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, the American Medical Association and other major regulatory health agencies, according to hospital spokeswoman Melanie McDonald.

“As a hospital and health system, our top priority is and should be patient safety, and we know that hospitalized people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk for illness and death from the flu,” McDonald said. “The flu has the highest death rate of any vaccine preventable disease, and it would be irresponsible from our perspective for health care providers to ignore that.”

OK, looking at this from a religion-story point of view, as well as from a church-state legal perspective, what are the most important questions that need to be answered in this story?

Let’s start with the obvious: Are her beliefs rooted in a specific, ongoing commitment to a religious tradition? What are its teachings? What scriptures or laws are linked to this conscience claim? If this person is taking this stand on her own, then how did she arrive at it.

Now, the fact that there are SEVEN nurses caught in this bind make it a near certainty that specific religious traditions and doctrines are involved.

So what do readers find out?

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Symbolic defeat for a Christian business in Maryland

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After spending more than a week on the road, I returned home — as always — to find a large stack of ink-stained dead tree pulp that needed to be sorted a read. I refer, of course, to all the back issues of the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

As you would expect, The Baltimore Sun folks are in full-tilt party mode with the advent of same-sex marriage in this very blue, very liberal Catholic state. Each and every one of these one-sided stories was precisely what one would expect, in this age of social-issues advocacy journalism in the mainstream press.

There was, however, one interesting page-one piece that sounded a slightly somber note. More on that in a minute.

Throughout the election season, leaders of the gay-rights movement argued, and thus The Sun religiously emphasized, that the legislation legalizing same-sex marriage would not require clergy and religious organizations to perform these rites. Of course, no one ever suggested that this was the issue in the first place. Opponents of the bill tried to debate its impact on the work of religious non-profit groups, such as schools and social-welfare ministries, as well as ordinary religious believers, of a traditional-doctrine bent, whose careers are linked to the marriage industry.

It was almost impossible to find local coverage that took any of those issues seriously — DUH! — what really mattered was that clergy and their religious flocks would not be forced to perform these rites. Nothing to see here in conscience-clause land, so move along.

This division between religious liberty in sanctuaries and religious liberty in public life is, meanwhile, the key to our nation’s debates about the Health and Human Services mandate, the rights of military clergy, etc., etc. The high court has not addressed any of the big issues linked to this, but could soon — including the undecided question of whether homosexuality is a condition that leads to special-protection status under civil rights laws.

Anyway, about that sobering A1 story about a highly symbolic local business, which is led by a traditional Christian:

An Annapolis company whose old-fashioned trolleys are iconic in the city’s wedding scene has abandoned the nuptial industry rather than serve same-sex couples.

The owner of Discover Annapolis Tours said he decided to walk away from $50,000 in annual revenue instead of compromising his Christian convictions when same-sex marriages become legal in Maryland in less than a week. And he has urged prospective clients to lobby state lawmakers for a religious exemption for wedding vendors. While most wedding businesses across the country embraced the chance to serve same-sex couples, a small minority has struggled to balance religious beliefs against business interests.

Wedding vendors elsewhere who refused to accommodate same-sex couples have faced discrimination lawsuits — and lost. Legal experts said Discover Annapolis Tours sidesteps legal trouble by avoiding all weddings.

“If they’re providing services to the public, they can’t discriminate who they provide their services to,” said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The commission enforces public accommodation laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

And where, precisely, were those public-accommodation laws passed? Is that local, state or national law? This is crucial information that readers need to understand the legal debate that is raging around that issue. Plenty of cities, and some states, have added sexual orientation to these laws, but others have not.

Late in the story, The Sun team did offer some information about that crucial side of the issue, after talking to Frank Schubert, an opponent of laws that redefine marriage. A direct explanation of the state law shows up at the very end of this long report.

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Got news? That other 2012 Supreme Court case

Does anyone out there in GetReligion reader land remember that narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for arguments to continue about the Obama administration’s health-care law? On one level, that decision was about money and taxes, but buried down in one of the opinions written on the winning side was a highly significant, yet mostly overlooked, quote linked to the religious-liberty battles that dominated the religion-news beat in 2012.

At the time, I wrote a GetReligion post that pointed readers toward that important material buried deep inside the blog world at The Washington Post:

“I think the court’s decision makes clear Obama is still subject to legal challenges and that the Supreme Court is willing to entertain that the HHS regulations violate the rights of religious freedom,” said Hanna Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a D.C. firm involved in some of the 23 pending lawsuits against the White House. The lawsuits all focus on opposing a mandate announced by the Department of Health and Human Services after the law was passed.

Mark Rienzi, another Becket attorney, said in a phone conference call that the ruling today only spoke to whether Congress had the right to pass the act — not on the details of how it’s implemented. …

The attorneys honed in on two parts of Thursday’s ruling. One, from the majority opinion, said: “Even if the taxing power enables Congress to impose a tax on not obtaining health insurance, any tax must still comply with other requirements in the Constitution.”

The second, from Justice Ruth Ginsberg, (sic) said “A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.”

The key is the Ginsburg quote, especially since it came from one of the most important voices on the court’s left wing.

In my mind, I coupled that quote with another Supreme Court decision that received some attention. However, to my surprise, this other decision didn’t make it into the list of the year’s Top 10 stories produced by the Godbeat pros voting in the poll posted by the Religion Newswriters Association.

I’m talking about that 9-0 decision in which the court defended the “ministerial exception” that allows churches and religious organizations to take doctrine into account when hiring and firing employees. Yes, the U.S. Justice Department actually argued against religious groups on that issue. Yes, the court then voted 9-0 against the White House on that religious-liberty issue.

Yes, I still think that was one of the most important religion-news stories of the year. I ranked it No. 2 on my RNA ballot.

Bobby has served up scores of interesting links and viewpoints wrapping up Godbeat 2012, but I thought I would show GetReligion readers my whole ballot — in the form of last week’s column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

I started with a blast from a prominent pulpit in Dallas:

‘Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced.

His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

“I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all,” said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a “theological cult.”

“What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”

That’s some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded “don’t know” when asked to name the president’s faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim — down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was “yes,” with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including “morning-after pills.” The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.”

America’s Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried “foul,” claiming that the Obama team was separating mere “freedom of worship” from the First Amendment’s sweeping “free exercise of religion.” In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year’s top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years — or even months — ahead.

So let’s move on to the rest of my version of the RNA Top 10 list, after the HHS mandate conflict.

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Got news? Judge ‘mocks’ Obama’s religious-liberty move

The most control the media have in the news process is determining what stories get hyped and which get hidden, which get a ton of coverage and which get downplayed. A week or so ago, I read on the editorial page of the Washington Examiner about a rather juicy ruling by a U.S. district court judge. He said that the Archdiocese of New York’s lawsuit against the HHS mandate may proceed.

Judge Brian Cogan mocked the “accommodation” on religion liberty outlined by President Obama in regards to his health care law’s contraception mandate while ruling against a Justice Department motion to dismiss the Archdiocese of New York’s lawsuit against the regulation.

“There is no, ‘Trust us, changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution,” Cogan wrote in his ruling against DOJ. “To the contrary, the Bill of Rights itself, and the First Amendment in particular, reflect a degree of skepticism towards governmental self-restraint and self-correction.” …

As Cogan noted, though, the rule has not formally been changed.

I figured I’d look at the mainstream media news coverage once it came out. You might not know it from the curious way the media have covered this story, but there are dozens of lawsuits working their way through the courts on religious liberty claims against the mandate. Some reporters and media outlets scare-quote this as a “religious liberty” issue or otherwise downplay the religious liberty concerns. Here’s a judge saying the religious liberty concerns are legit. Surely we’ll see coverage.

But have we? Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote about the media coverage in his latest blog post:

Did you hear about the decision last week by U.S. District Court Judge Brian M. Cogan in the lawsuit brought by the Archdiocese of New York, ArchCare, (the agency coordinating our Catholic healthcare in the archdiocese) and three plaintiffs from the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, against the administration for the unconstitutional HHS mandate?

You probably did not, as there seems to have been virtually no mention of the decision – in favor of the archdiocese, by the way – in any local newspaper or on television.  As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked rather carefully, there hasn’t even been a story in the New York Times, which couldn’t wait to publish an editorial this past October, admonishing the bishops, when a federal judge in Missouri found for the administration and dismissed a similar case brought by a private, for-profit, mining company.   (The Times also didn’t have much to say last week, when the appeals court temporarily blocked the bad Missouri decision the Times had gushed over.)

Judge Cogan’s decision last week turned back a motion by the administration to have our lawsuit dismissed.  You’ll remember, perhaps, that back in May, the Archdiocese of New York, ArchCare, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Catholic Charities of Rockville Centre, and Catholic Health Systems of Long Island filed a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn, one of more than two dozen similar lawsuits filed around the country that day.  These lawsuits argue that the mandate from Health and Human Services would unconstitutionally presume to define the nature of the Church’s ministry, and force religious employers to violate their conscience or face onerous fines for not providing services in our health insurance that are contrary to our consciences and faith.

The judge’s decision doesn’t settle the case, but allows the case to proceed so that it might be heard in court…  That’s significant, because the administration has been successful in getting some of the other cases dismissed, but in his decision Judge Cogan found that there was very real possibility that we plaintiffs would “face future injuries stemming from their forced choice between incurring fines or acting in violation of their religious beliefs.”

And what of the administration’s contention that the suit should be dismissed because they were going to change the HHS mandate to address the concerns of religious employers? As Judge Cogan wrote, “…the First Amendment does not require citizens to accept assurances from the government that, if the government later determines it has made a misstep, it will take ameliorative action. There is no, ‘Trust us, changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution.”

I couldn’t believe that Dolan’s claims were true. Had the New York Times really not covered this, even briefly? What about other national media?

Well, this GoogleNews search shows the story was much bigger among Catholic, conservative and pro-life press than secular media. I didn’t find it in the Times.

There were wire reports from Bloomberg and Reuters, however. So kudos to them. The Reuters story is quite good.

As for why so few covered the court’s decision, not even the local paper that bills itself as the newspaper of record? I can’t begin to presume the answer to that.

Photo of judge’s gavel and scales of justice via Shutterstock.

On same-sex marriage: What is the chief justice thinking?

People who study the dynamics of this U.S. Supreme Court have, from the get-go, assumed two or three things about Chief Justice John Roberts.

First of all, he is a very cautious man, one who is very worried about the prestige of the court and the perception that it is above politics. This is not a man who wants to decide bitter, divisive, hot-button, explosive issues with 5-4 votes.

Roberts does not want to create judicial earthquakes. This is not a jurist who wants to blaze dangerous trails long before it is clear that the American public is ready to walk them. The last thing he wants is another Roe v. Wade, followed by decades of bitterness and civic strife.

Seen from this perspective, the Obamacare decision appeared to be an exception to the rules. While many conservatives called him a traitor, others noted that Roberts did that cautious thing that he does — he backed a narrow decision that made it harder to accuse the court of playing politics. After all, what is unusual about the federal government creating a new form of taxation that affects the whole population?

With that in mind, folks here inside the DC Beltway are asking a rather obvious question about the stunning news that the Supremes are going to address the nation’s hottest and most divisive issues — same-sex marriage and, perhaps, even whether sexual orientation can considered a condition leading to special, protected status for civil-rights claims, similar to race, gender, age, religion, etc. The court has, in the past, avoided a definitive statement on that issue, even in Romer v. Evans.

So the question many are asking: Why would the ever-cautious Roberts want to take on same-sex marriage at this point in the judicial game? Or look at that question from another point of view: Why would liberals on the high court want to take on this issue at this point, at the START of a second Barack Obama term? They know that their hand will only grow stronger in the next four years.

Thus, in recent weeks, most mainstream press coverage — while seeming to yearn for a clear gay-rights victory — has focused so much attention on the voices of liberal experts who were not sure that the timing was right for, well, a judicial earthquake. With all of that in mind, take a look at this Washington Post report, which begins by stating:

The Supreme Court put itself at the center of the nation’s debate over whether gay couples have the same fundamental right to marry as heterosexuals, agreeing Friday to review state and federal efforts to preserve a traditional definition of husband and wife.

In agreeing to hear cases from California and New York, the court raised the possibility of a groundbreaking constitutional decision on whether the right to marry may be limited because of sexual orientation. At the same time, the justices also will have the ability to issue narrower rulings on a subject that continues to divide the American public.

The cases will probably be heard in historic sessions at the court in late March, with decisions to come when the justices finish their work at the end of June.

As you would expect, a key part of this Post story focuses on the pivotal justice on the court — which would be Anthony M. Kennedy, a Republican who leans conservative on most economic issues and to the left on most cultural issues. Is it time for another landmark opinion that proves Kennedy is not one of THOSE Catholics?

The strategic implication is clear and has been for months: Will Roberts be able to prevent another 5-4 earthquake, with Kennedy providing more sweeping prose like the following in his Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, the famous meaning-of-the-universe passage which he then referenced in the landmark gay-rights case Lawrence v. Texas:

These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

Thus, the Post notes:

Central to the outcome of the term’s signature cases will be Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who normally sides with the court’s conservatives but has written some of the court’s most important cases upholding gay rights. For instance, he wrote the Romer decision that the 9th Circuit used as the template for overturning Prop 8.

But some gay rights activists have worried about asking Kennedy and the court to move too far too quickly on what would be a sea change in the way Americans view marriage.

I was not surprised that, in this early Post story on this explosive topic, there was absolutely zero attention given to religious-liberty concerns. Those discussions will come later, when it will be all but impossible for mainstream newsrooms to avoid them — since religious doctrines and traditions were at the heart of the debates about DOMA and Proposition 8.

But here is what did surprise me about this story. Did I miss something or is one very important name — John Roberts — missing from this report? What will we learn about Roberts and his role in the court taking on this hot-button issue at this particular moment in time?

Trust me. People from coast to coast will want to know the answer to that one. Does Roberts have a plan to protect his beloved court?

Pod people: Can the MSM find centrists in gay-rights wars?

As a journalist, there are few things that I find more interesting than listening to the views of liberal thinkers who ask questions that make liberals nervous, or upset, and conservative thinkers who ask questions that make their fellow conservatives nervous, or upset.

As a rule, I am pro-sweaty palms when it comes time to cover heated debates in the public square.

Thus, I have long been fascinated with the following passage in an essay at The Advocate by the gay commentator Jonathan Rauch. This is a rather long section of the piece, in which he discusses strategies in support of gay marriage, yet taking religious liberty concerns into account:

Two important strategic changes would go a long way toward doing that. First, accept legal exceptions that let religious organizations discriminate against gays whenever their doing so imposes a cost we can live with. Second, dial back the accusations of “bigot” and “hater.”

In the gay community, taking any kind of nonabsolutist attitude toward discrimination is controversial, to say the least—largely because we carry in our heads the paradigm of racial discrimination. In today’s America, though, the racial model is overkill for gays. Injustice persists, unquestionably, but the opposition is dying on its feet and discrimination is in decline. And, unlike white supremacism, disapproval of homosexuality is still intrinsic to orthodox doctrines of all three major religions. That will change and is already changing (younger evangelicals are much more accepting of same-sex relations than are their parents), but for now it is a fact we must live with.

Before we shrug and reply, “So what if it’s religious? It’s still bigotry, it’s still intolerable,” we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment. If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder.

Rauch wrote that in 2010 and I have wanted to write a column about that essay ever since.

Here was a prominent gay voice advocating a strategy for compromise that would (a) make it more likely for the gay-rights cause to survive a U.S. Supreme Court test and (b) one that undercut some of the arguments made by the more radical voices on the cultural right, simply by conceding that religious-liberty concerns are real in these debates. He is calling for gay-marriage, or civil gay unions, with conscience clauses strong enough to protect religious organizations, very broadly defined, and the rights of individual religious believers. In effect, he is saying to the cultural left, “We are winning. We must not botch this.”

So I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column on this topic, focusing on the potential for compromises that protect religious liberty. The column was also inspired by the recent blue-sky remarks by Catholic conservative George Weigel, in which he suggested that it might be time for the Catholic Church — yes, and by implication religious traditionalists in other flocks, be they Jewish, Muslim, Protestant or whatever — to get out of the business of signing off on civil marriages, period.

All of this ended up being the hook for this past week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to that.

Meanwhile, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher responded with the sad, but realistic note, that recent events have made Rauch’s commentary even less mainstream, on the left, than it was when he wrote it.

Yes, there is a religion-news, mainstream journalism hook in what Dreher has to say.

Rauch is right, but he’s not as right today as he was in 2010, when he wrote that piece for The Advocate. By which I mean that I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a liability to gay rights supporters to be seen as religious liberty opponents as it once was. That’s in part because the mainstream media have not explored the inherent clash between gay rights and religious liberty, and conservatives opposed to gay marriage have for some reason chosen not to make much of an issue of it.

It is certainly true that the loudest voices on the cultural right have been just as reluctant to talk about compromise as the liberal voices involved in all of these shouting matches.

So what’s up with the rest of my Scripps Howard column? In this case, I think — to set the stage for the podcast — the best thing I can do is run the second half of my piece, which focuses on the views of a conservative who is studying the compromises and then on the views of another pro-gay marriage thinker who also sees the reality of the coming high-court showdown on religious liberty.

So here goes, opening with the viewpoint of Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, that Weigel’s strategy is powerfully symbolic, but beside the point.

Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government’s definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

“The other question, ” he said, “is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. … We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises.”

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the “inculcation of religious values” as their primary purpose, primarily employ “persons who share … religious tenets” and primarily serve those “who share … religious tenets.”

Critics insist this protects mere “freedom of worship,” not the First Amendment’s wider “free exercise of religion.”

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter (.pdf here) to the governor of New Hampshire.

“I support same-sex marriage,” he stressed. Nevertheless, the “net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

“Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. … Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive.”

So what journalistic issues should we discuss here, since your GetReligionistas strive (and often fail) to prevent folks in the comments pages from yelling at each other about the political and religious issues at the heart of these issues?

In this case, I will simply ask two two-part questions: Have you seen, in mainstream news coverage, the centrist, compromise-friendly viewpoints of people like Rauch, Laycock and others (because they are out there) and, if so, where did you see them? If you have not seen their viewpoints represented in mainstream coverage, then why is that and is that void good, in the long run, for public discourse on these crucial issues?

Enjoy the podcast.

Gov’t RFID tracking: Creepy or mark of the beast?

When I first heard rumblings about school districts in Texas using locator chips to track students, I assumed it wasn’t true.

So my jaw dropped while reading this Associated Press story. It begins:

To 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, the tracking microchip embedded in her student ID card is a “mark of the beast,” sacrilege to her Christian faith – not to mention how it pinpoints her location, even in the school bathroom.

But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in classroom funds.

Starting this fall, the fourth-largest school district in Texas is experimenting with “locator” chips in student ID badges on two of its campuses, allowing administrators to track the whereabouts of 4,200 students with GPS-like precision. Hernandez’s refusal to participate isn’t a twist on teenage rebellion, but has launched a debate over privacy and religion that has forged a rare like-mindedness between typically opposing groups.

When Hernandez and her parents balked at the so-called SmartID, the school agreed to remove the chip but still required her to wear the badge. The family refused on religious grounds, stating in a lawsuit that even wearing the badge was tantamount to “submission of a false god” because the card still indicated her participation.

Now I find government agencies electronically stalking children to be creeptastic just for basic civil liberties reasons, but I’m intrigued by this religion argument. Most of the story focuses on either the involvement of civil liberties groups against the practice or the school district’s justification for the practice, which it assures everyone is mostly financial, with a bit of a nod to efficiency and security. (Funds are paid to schools based on attendance so kids who are ditching one class but still on campus can be counted for the daily tally.)

What I was really hoping for, though, was an explanation of the family’s religious views on the mark of the beast and how this RFID card relates to those views. On that front, I was a bit disappointed:

John Whitehead, [founder of Virginia-based civil rights group, The Rutherford Institute] believes the religious component of the lawsuit makes it stronger than if it only objected on grounds of privacy. The lawsuit cites scriptures in the book of Revelation, stating that “acceptance of a certain code … from a secular ruling authority” is a form of idolatry.

Wearing the badge, the family argues, takes it a step further.

“It starts with that religious concern,” Whitehead said. “There is a large mark of Evangelicals that believe in the `mark of the beast.’ “

At first I tried to find the scripture verse quoted above. Then I realized that it’s just a quote from the lawsuit and that the lawsuit cites scripture. I’m sure that if you’re already familiar with the line of thinking espoused here, you understand perfectly what this all means. But it’s a bit oblique for those of us who aren’t as familiar. I don’t quite get the religious objection, based on this story’s characterization of it at least. I found this Courthouse News Service write-up of the lawsuit a bit more helpful just because it quotes a bit more from the lawsuit:

A magnet high school is booting out a Christian student because she has religious objections to wearing the school’s chip-embedded ID badge, the student claims in court.

Andrea Hernandez, a student at John Jay High School and John Jay Science and Engineering Academy, sued the Northside Independent School District, Jay High School Principal Robert Harris and Jay Academy Principal Jay Sumpter, in Bexar County Court…

Hernandez and her father object to the badges, based on Scripture in the book of Revelation.

“According to these scriptures, an individual’s acceptance of a certain code, identified with his or her person, as a pass conferring certain privileges from a secular ruling authority, is a form of idolatry or submission to a false god,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff was offered an ‘accommodation’ whereby the radio chip would be removed from the plaintiff’s badge. Under this ‘accommodation,’ however, plaintiff would still be required to wear the badge around her neck as an outward symbol of her ‘participation’ in the project.”

Hernandez says defendant Harris has banned her from distributing flyers and petitions to other students at the school, arguing against the project.

I’m sure there’s much more that could be written about this passage from Revelation and how it relates to some people’s objections to RFID tracking devices issued by government agencies. It sounds like there was not much explanation in the court filings.

Sandra Fluke, Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and tender stories

Time magazine is doing its annual PR blitz for its “Person of the Year.” After I won the designation in 2006, I stopped paying attention to it. Since then the honor has gone to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “the protester.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the tradition of selecting a Man of the Year began in 1927 with Time editors contemplating newsworthy stories possible during a slow news week. We’ve all been there.

Among the nominees this year are Ai Weiwei, Bashar Assad, Felix Baumgartner, Joe Biden (fer real), Bo Xilai, Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Douglas, Roger Goodell, the Higgs boson, E.L. James, Jay-Z, Kim Jong Un, the Mars Rover, Marissa Mayer, Mohamed Morsi, Psy, Pussy Riot, John Roberts, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Undocumented Immigrants, Malala Yousafzai.

The winners, no matter how unworthy, tend to be from the United States. But we have a fair number of nominees from other countries. I’m a bit surprised Chen Guangcheng wasn’t on there. I might also note that the religious dimensions of the list are somewhat slight. Readers of our recent post on the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood may appreciate that the write-up for Morsi included this line, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity is moderate, or at least moderated by pragmatism; its politics are populist and likely the template for a number of other fledgling democracies in the region.”

The entry for Yousafzai was a nice tribute to her devout Muslim father who supports her and her educational goals. The last line is “It is among the tenderest of stories in the world of conservative Islam.”

But I bring all this up because of the write-up for another deserving nominee — Sandra Fluke. While I tend to think the prize is too American-focused, if it goes in that direction again this year, she should definitely win. I only wish she could win it in conjunction with the media that has been so supportive of her during her entire public relations journey. You could say their love for her is among the tenderest of stories in the world of mainstream media. (For more on that, you can see some of our posts on the coverage of Fluke here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And if/when Fluke does win, I hope she can accept the award with Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell and the whole Church of Planned Parenthood. They all had an amazing year and they deserve credit.)

Anyway, here’s the write-up of our Person of the Year:

The daughter of a conservative Christian pastor, Sandra Fluke, 31, became a women’s-rights activist in college and continued her advocacy as a law student at Georgetown. After she complained about being denied a chance to testify at a Republican-run House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control, Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut.” Democrats and many Republicans reacted with outrage, and the left made Limbaugh’s slur Exhibit A in what they called a GOP “war on women.” Fluke, meanwhile, weathered the attention with poise and maturity and emerged as a political celebrity. Democrats gave her a national-convention speaking slot as part of their push to make reproductive rights a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — one that helped Barack Obama trounce Mitt Romney among single women on Election Day.

Technically the hearing was on religious liberty, but the media have long decided that the issue is best framed otherwise.

But what I found interesting was that Time has described Fluke’s father as a “conservative Christian pastor.” We learned earlier that “The Rev. Richard Fluke, Sandra’s father, is a part-time licensed local pastor who shares the pulpit at Tatesville United Methodist Church in Everett, Pa., with two other pastors. Both he and his wife, Betty Kay, are proud of their daughter.”

I know enough Methodists to know that some are very conservative and some are very progressive. The leadership of the denomination tends to be liberal but Methodist polity and culture permits some significant variance. I would love to know more about his conservatism or how that descriptor was chosen. What does it mean in this context? Maybe when she wins the award, we’ll get some substantiation about Fluke’s conservative Christian upbringing.


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