Ready, set, go! Hobby Lobby at the Supremes

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Hobby Lobby gets its hearing before the Supreme Court this morning.

This is big, folks.

As the Los Angeles Times describes it:

WASHINGTON — A challenge to part of President Obama’s healthcare law that hits the Supreme Court on Tuesday could lead to one of the most significant religious freedom rulings in the high court’s history.

USA Today puts it even more dramatically:

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s health care law gets a return engagement at the Supreme Court (this week) in a case full of hot-button issues: religious freedom, corporate rights, federal regulation, abortion and contraception.

Put another way, it’s a case about God, money, power, sex — and Obamacare.

Nearly two years after the court’s 5-4 decision upheld the law and its controversial individual and employer mandates, the justices will consider a different requirement — that companies pay for their workers’ birth control.

In a Supreme Court term that has lacked the drama of last year’s gay marriage and civil rights cases or the prior term’s health care showdown, the so-called “contraception mandate” now commands center stage.

The New York Times characterizes the high stakes this way:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments in a case that pits religious liberty against women’s rights.

That issue is momentous enough. But it only begins to touch on the potential consequences of the court’s ruling in the case, notably for laws banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

The question directly before the justices is whether for-profit corporations must provide insurance coverage for contraception, a requirement of the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, challenged the requirement, saying it conflicts with the company’s religious principles.

“If Hobby Lobby were to prevail, the consequences would extend far beyond the issue of contraception,” said Walter Dellinger, a former acting United States solicitor general who filed a brief urging the court to uphold the law.

Like Religion News Service did last week, The Wall Street Journal puts a face on the Green family — billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby — to explain the case:

OKLAHOMA CITY — David Green calls the chain of 560 Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts stores he founded a religious business.

A 53-employee choir was belting out hymns one recent morning at the headquarters here. Stores close Sundays. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.’s true owner, Mr. Green says, is God.

That is why Mr. Green will find himself seated in the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday for a landmark religious-freedom case brought by his company.

“I have deeply held convictions,” he says “and I should not have to be required by the government to violate my conscience.”

Mr. Green says closely held Hobby Lobby can’t comply with Affordable Care Act regulations that require it to offer certain contraceptives in employee health plans.

The Obama administration disagrees. In court papers, the federal government says for-profit companies like family owned Hobby Lobby aren’t entitled to religious-freedom protections. The Green family’s religious beliefs are sincere, it says, but don’t trump the law.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing will be the second time the health law will be scrutinized by the justices. At issue is whether for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby are entitled to the same religious protections as people or churches.

If you’re wondering how a former GetReligionista might approach the story, here’s Mark A. Kellner’s lede at the Deseret News National Edition:

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WPost hints at religious ghosts in India’s rape crisis

Several years ago, during a tour to promote The Media Project book called “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I took part in an excellent forum about religion and the news at a media institute in Bangalore, India. Here’s how I described that scene in a 2010 post that ran with the headline, “Life and death (and faith) in India.”

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

I thought about that scene again while reading yet another Washington Post report about India’s ongoing protests linked to rape and, to be specific, the lukewarm efforts by the nation’s powers that be to deal with the crisis.

What does this have to do with religion?

A year ago, during a conference on religion and the news in Kiev, I showed friends of mine who work in the mainstream press in India several examples of American coverage of the infamous incident in which a young woman died after being gang raped on a bus. They were all struck by the fact that the stories consistently avoided issues of race, religion and, of course, caste.

The bottom line: For better and for worst, India is one of the most intensely religious cultures on earth and there are few moral and cultural issues in modern India that do not involve religion in one way or another.

Is it easy to describe the role that religion plays? More often than not, the answer is “no.” Culture and religion and race and caste are all tumbled together in daily life in India.

Thus, I would like to stress that this latest rape crisis story in the Post is better than most in that it at least mentions two of the major religious themes linked to this issue — even if it doesn’t specifically explain or even mention the religious specifics. For example, there is this:

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Some journalists waking up to Egyptian realities?

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Day after day the news from Egypt seems to get darker and more confusing. This morning, in The Los Angeles Times, things were summed up like this:

CAIRO – Anger between Egypt’s rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to antigovernment demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation’s proposed constitution.

Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.

Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists, shouting: “God is great! The people support the president’s decision!”

Through the years, I have heard journalists who work in these kinds of environments make one statement over and over: It doesn’t matter what a nation’s laws say about free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc., if the police will not stop a riot. Rioters often make their own laws and hold instant elections and the majority usual wins.

What we are seeing, on one level, is the collapse of the whole Muslim Brotherhood-as-moderate influence template that has driven so much of the mainstream news coverage in recent months.

While there have been stories that stressed the strategic differences between Morsi and the more traditionalist Salafis, the reports we are seeing now are united in their emphasis that, on the crucial question of Islamic law being codified into the new Constitution, the leaders of these two Islamist camps are merely arguing about a few details, not the big picture. Many journalists are responding with a kind of, “Oh my gosh, who knew?” wonder and awe.

It is also crucial for reporters and editors to realize that Egypt, as a whole, is not conflicted on the big questions. Believers in religious minorities are truly at peril, according to the numbers in a very important — but largely overlooked — Pew Forum survey a year or so ago. Writing for Scripps, I summed the numbers up like this, in the midst of a discussion of that vague and often meaningless term “fundamentalist.”

Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life — a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

So, how pragmatic and “moderate” has Morsi turned out to be?

Some mainstream journalists are starting to ask that question. This remarkable essay by NBC’s Jim Maceda stumbles through the wreckage and makes some rather bracing concessions to the reality of majority rule:

The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.

“President Obama is supporting a terrorist,” a man told me amid chants of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and “Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.” Before, it was “Down, down with Mubarak.”

Egypt was torn in half … when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.

And the bottom line? Read it all, including this sobering passage:

Protected by the president’s new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution “a jewel.” Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.

The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women’s rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.

Journalists and others involved in researching these topics need to parse the Pew Forum numbers again. Are the current events surprising? Is the reality that Morsi represents a powerful majority that, with no need for the approval of the West, can proceed to act on its convictions? How will the American press deal with these realities, including the clear threats now looming for the large Coptic Orthodox minority, secular liberals, progressive Muslims, feminists and members of other religious minority groups?

Is the existing news template being crushed under the feet of the rioters?


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