And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

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Hobby Lobby in narrow win; Little Sisters of the Poor on deck

So why are the Little Sisters of the Poor at the top of this post as the tsunami of Hobby Lobby coverage continues? Hang on.

So far, the mainstream press coverage of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision (.pdf here) has been rather good. In particular, there has been a shockingly low rate of scare quotes around terms such as “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” almost certainly because this case — in the eyes of the 5-4 majority — pivoted on issues linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a major 1993 win for the old church-state liberalism of the past (RIP).

However, note the very interesting scare quotes in the following reaction statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ committee for Religious Liberty.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.

“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”

The key word is, of course, “accommodation.” In other words, the court did not deal with the Little Sisters of the Poor and appears to have left a door open for the White House to ask Hobby Lobby and other family-owned corporations to settle for the same “accommodation” it has offered to doctrinally defined religious non-profits, ministries and schools. The basic idea is that religious believers will not have to pay for services that they believe are damnable and heretical because the government will ask their insurance providers to provide these services for free (without quietly raising the rates to cover the cost).

I think major news organizations did fine with Hobby Lobby details, in part, because it was seen primarily as an extension of the whole “corporations are people too” political battles of recent years. Thus, the family-owned corporations have religious liberty rights, while massive impersonal corporations (none of which have sought exemptions) have not.

What about the doctrinally defined non-profits, the second level of this church-state fight that many journalists tend to miss?

Remember that New York Times report in 2013 noting that the White House has “excluded many religious organizations from the law’s requirements”? As I wrote at the time:

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Ghost in that NYTimes Justice Kennedy hagiography

It’s time for a quick dip into my unusually thick GetReligion folder of guilt, that place where I stash stories that I know deserve a bite of criticism, but more pressing matters (think Syria) keep pushing them back in the cyber-queue.

The other day, The New York Times ran what was essentially a work of hagiography in praise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. There is not a single surprising word in this story, not a random thought that would upset the loyal community of Times readers who view it as holy writ and would be quick to challenge any violations of orthodoxy.

Also, I realize that — hello former editor and now columnist Bill Keller — as a tolerant, urban, intelligent source of information, there is no need for the Times team to provide any balancing or challenging information in this work of advocacy journalism.

Nevertheless, I do have a question about an interesting piece of information (yes, a religion ghost) that is missing in this report. We’re talking about basic information, here, not opposing points of view.

Now, note that — right up top — the key to the story is that gay rights leaders have been surprised by the strength of the justice’s convictions on this issue. In fact, they had reasons to believe he would not support their cause. Thus the headline: “Surprising Friend of Gay Rights in a High Place.” Here is the lede and then a crucial chunk of background material:

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Give ’Em Hope” for a revered and in some ways surprising guest who shared a California stage with them last month: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

And later:

The praise now being showered on Justice Kennedy by gay rights advocates — and the deep disappointment of conservatives — would have been hard to imagine when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1987. Gay rights groups were more than a little wary then. On the federal appeals court in California, where Justice Kennedy had served for 13 years, he heard five cases concerning gay rights. He voted against the gay rights claim every time.

“I have to say that Kennedy seems rather obtuse on important gay issues and must be counted as a likely vote against us on most matters likely to come before the Supreme Court,” Arthur S. Leonard, an authority on gay rights at New York Law School, wrote in The New York Native, a newspaper that focused on gay issues.

The justice’s trajectory since then has been a product of overlapping factors, associates and observers say. His Supreme Court jurisprudence is characterized by an expansive commitment to individual liberty. He believes that American courts should consider international norms, and foreign courts have expanded gay rights. His politics, reflecting his background as a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist, tend toward fiscal conservatism and moderate social views. And he has long had gay friends.

Yes, Kennedy is a Republican, the story notes, but he is a California Republican. Good point, that. Culture and context are important.

However, there is an interesting “C” word missing in this piece, a word that probably had something to do with the original decision by Reagan & Co. to put Kennedy on the high court.

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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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