July 21, 2014

As usual, there was a stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers waiting for me at the end of last week when I returned from a consulting trip to a campus in Iowa. One of the papers contained a very timely and newsworthy story.

My goal here is to argue that — just possibly — this story was even more newsworthy than the Sun editors thought that it was. More on that in a minute.

The immigrant children crisis is one of the hottest stories in America right now and justifiably so. As it turned out, there was a totally logical local angle here in Baltimore, one that ended up on A1:

Here is the top of the story:

Catholic Charities wants to care for about 50 children from Central America at a campus in Baltimore County, seeking a role in the immigration crisis even though the consideration of other sites in Maryland has met with fierce local opposition.

The organization plans to apply to federal officials to house the children at St. Vincent’s Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road, Catholic Charities head William J. McCarthy Jr. confirmed. … McCarthy said housing the children would amount to his organization doing its job.

“Our role and our mission is to meet the needs of these children,” he said. “This is obviously the result of things beyond my control — policies and political posturing that has left these children as victims.”

And more:

The Catholic Charities proposal would be on a much smaller scale than government proposals that would have placed hundreds of minors in an unused Social Security office in Baltimore or at the army center in Carroll County. … Catholic Charities developed the plan in response to a request from a federal agency that was looking for ways to house immigrant children before the crisis rose to the top of the national political agenda this summer. …

And the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church has already received grant money to house immigrant children at a home in Woodlawn. The organization is caring for about two dozen children there.

It seems to me that the implication is that Catholic Charities is doing this service as a partner with the federal agency. Are tax dollars involved, similar to the grant to the United Methodists? I am not sure.

Why do I raise that financial question?

(more…)

May 6, 2014

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print.

Wait. Say what?

Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

Readers quickly learn some important facts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion. …

Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” …

She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”

The situation in Greece, N.Y., is pretty familiar. Town officials insist that all kinds of people are welcome to line up to give prayers — atheists included — but, as the story notes, in practice “almost all of the chaplains were Christian.” Some believers have even made references to offensive concepts such as Jesus dying on the cross.

This has, of course, offended some citizens who have lawyers.

(more…)

April 10, 2014

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

(more…)

November 7, 2013

Welcome back to the First Amendment wars, an increasingly active front in our nation’s Culture Wars. Yesterday was a big church-state day at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the justices hearing testimony on the Town of Greece v. Galloway — yet another case centering on prayer in public life.

If coverage of this event was not prominently displayed in your local newspaper today, there could be a logical reason for that. Mainstream journalists tend to be pro-First Amendment, but for cultural reasons they may feel conflicted when writing and editing stories about the free speech rights of conservative religious believers.

The bottom line: It’s hard, even for a true liberal, to tolerate the free speech of people that you consider intolerant.

You can see the conflicts pretty clearly in the USA Today report on the testimony and that report followed a pretty solid A1 news feature by the same crew on this topic that ran ahead of the showdown in court.

This is confusing stuff and accurate stories will reflect that reality.

The top of the advance feature was an absolute classic, in the category of ironic anecdotal ledes. Classic.

GREECE, N.Y. — The Rev. Lou Sirianni opened the most recent monthly meeting of the Greece Town Board with a prayer that reached back 239 years.

“Be thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly,” he began, quoting from the Rev. Jacob Duche’s invocation before the first Continental Congress in 1774. The prayer ended, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.”

Not everyone in Greece — not even everyone at the sparsely attended town board sessions — prays to Jesus or believes in his saving powers. Some don’t pray at all. Many more don’t see a place for it at government meetings.

Thus, the court case. The USA Today team did a fine job, in a small amount of space, of summarizing the previous prayer-wars battles, showing why this topic tends to tie justices in knots. This following passage contains the key word, for those assigned the journalistic task of following the arguments this week in the high court. Can you spot it?

Most state legislatures open their sessions with a prayer, nearly half of them with guidelines. Many county legislatures open meetings with a prayer, according to an informal survey by the National Association of Counties. National data on prayer practices at the city, town and village levels do not exist.

The Supreme Court cracked down on prayer in schools in the 1960s, ruling against Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer or an official state prayer.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 case involving religion in legislation, the high court devised what became known as the “Lemon test.” Government action, it said, should have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must avoid too much government entanglement with religion.

Later, the story notes, the court “gave a green light” to legislative prayers that do not advance or attack any particular faith.

That raised a question that loomed over the Town of Greece debates.

(more…)

August 29, 2013

Other than arguments about the United States becoming entangled in Syria, and Miley Cyrus coming unwound at the MTV shindig, the big story the past few days here in Beltway land has been — thank God — the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

The other day, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway touched on some of the wonderful coverage that led up to this event. Check that out. And here is another faith-themed report from Religion News Service. Read that one too.

Still, I would like to note what I think is a religion ghost in one of the major Washington Post stories linked to these events, an important story that ran under this headline: “Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists.”

Let me state right up front that this story contains all kinds of painful information about race and poverty that all Americans need to take seriously. I say that as a old-school conservative Democrat who has a large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his office. Here’s the top of the story:

Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.

When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites.

Later in the story, there is this information that hints at some of the complex realities inside these horrible numbers:

(more…)

April 26, 2013

Catholics here in America have a very intense and interesting relationship with the mainstream press.

First of all, there are just so many of them and so many different kinds — with active and inactive, believing and non-believing being the simple points of reference.

Second, their sheer numbers make it impossible to ignore Catholics when it comes to the raw, swing-vote data so often used when talking (journalists may want to cross themselves here) POLITICS.

Third, there are so many Catholic politicians out there that issues of doctrine (does this or that vice president openly attack the teachings of the church) often become entangled with the practice of the faith, especially the Sacraments. Honestly, it often seems that many journalists truly believe that there is a Constitutional right to receive Holy Communion that cannot be denied by weird bishops and priests who think they have something to do with hearing confessions and protecting the Sacraments of the church.

You add all of that up and it’s pretty clear that it is pretty important to take a look at the faith content and status of any Catholic who may or may not be seeking the presidency.

This is especially true if the candidate speaks Spanish.

Yes, this is true even if the candidate’s last name is B-U-S-H. In fact, that fact may make the candidate’s Catholicism even more interesting.

If that is the case, then what is going on in the following Style piece from The Washington Post? I’m talking about the one with the headline, “Hispanic consciousness lends weight to Jeb Bush as GOP eyes 2016 presidential race.”

Marriage and family are at the heart of the story, of course, but so are issues of Latino culture, broadly defined. Here’s the opening:

MIAMI — She was almost like a member of the family. An employee, but almost one of them. For three years, Maria Magdalena Romero had tended to the suburban Miami home of Jeb and Columba Bush, had helped to raise their three children, had twined into the fabric of their lives.

Then, with lurching swiftness, she was yanked away. On a mild winter morning in 1991, two immigration agents appeared at the door of the family home looking for the woman Bush’s younger son and namesake, then just 10 years old, remembers as “a super nice lady.” They carried deportation orders.

It didn’t matter that Bush’s father was president of the United States at the time or that a Secret Service agent had answered the door. Romero, who was in the country illegally but had a work permit, wasn’t getting a reprieve.

“It was a difficult time for all of us, but most of all for Maria,” Jeb Bush said in an e-mail about that day. His son, Jeb Jr., hadn’t even realized she’d been deported. “I thought she just left,” Jeb Jr. said in a recent interview.

That long-ago deportation is one among many inflection points for the elder Bush in what has been a lifetime of intimate proximity to America’s Hispanic community, to its searing pain and its buoyant joy, to its mores and its politics. While Republicans cast about for leaders who can connect with Spanish-speaking voters, this tall Texas native with the Mexican American wife has remarkably come to represent a kind of Hispanic consciousness for the party.

I would not argue with any of that material, in terms of its placement in the story. The Post team had to deal, immediately, with Jeb Bush’s broader contacts with the complex, multifaceted Latino world that is Florida and, especially, South Florida (I say that as someone who was living in West Palm Beach during four years of his time as governor). The man speaks Spanish for a reason — in fact, for multiple reasons.

So how important is this Bush’s faith, especially in an era in which (a) moral/religious concerns continue to frame key political debates about religious liberty and (b) the rising Latino population all but requires additional attention to Catholic institutions?

(more…)

November 20, 2012

Oh my! We may have a Nativity Lent miracle on our hands!

Trust me that I have read enough horrible “Christmas wars” stories in my journalistic life to recognize a decently reported one when I see it. I think the following Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing Santa Monica Nativity scene battles includes a few paragraphs of material — from a qualified, informed source — that make all the difference.

First, here is the sad, sad drama that is playing out once again:

Santa Monica may bar Nativity and other seasonal displays in public spaces, a federal judge tentatively ruled Monday.

In a case that has drawn national attention, Judge Audrey B. Collins of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a church coalition’s request that the court require the city to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed in Palisades Park this year, as it has for nearly 60 years.

“The atheists won on this,” said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. Standing in front of TV news cameras outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, Becker predicted that the court on Dec. 3 would also grant the city’s request that his group’s lawsuit be dismissed.

That likely outcome, he said, marked “the erosion of 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech.” He compared the city to Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus’ trial, saying: “It’s a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator.”

Atheist groups praised the judge’s ruling as an example of the upholding of the separation of church and state.

So far, so predictable.

The key, of course, is that officials of the state — under “equal access” principles firmed up back in the 1990s by a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives — have one of two options.

First, they can throw the public spaces open to snarky holiday chaos with all comers treated equally. This gives you the “Pastafarian religion” exhibit, complete with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” sitting next to a traditional Christian Nativity scene. Then again, officials can elect to treat all faiths and interest groups equally by denying all requests for exhibitions of this kind. Legally, the state has to go to one extreme or the other, thus avoiding “viewpoint discrimination.”

Lo and behold, the Times team found someone, and even quoted them, who (a) is not connected with either warring camp and (b) actually knows something about the laws that are in play.

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, called Collins’ decision “consistent with other rulings.”

“It’s all or nothing in these cases,” he said. “If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can’t practice viewpoint discrimination. But it can say, well, we’re not going to have any. … There has to be a level playing field in the public sphere.”

So, for good and for ill, that is the state of church-state affairs at this point in time. You don’t have to like it to note that this newspaper report managed to get the crucial legal facts into the story. All too often, journalists just let the Christians shout at the atheists and the atheists shout at the Christians and that’s that.

This story gives us some of the shouting, of course, such as:

Since 1953, the coalition each December has erected a tableau of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. … To keep things fair and legal, the city held a lottery to parcel out slots. Atheists won 18 of 21 spaces. A Jewish group won another. The Nativity story that traditionally took up 14 displays was jammed into two.

A flap ensued. Vandals ripped down a banner the Freedom From Religion Foundation had hung at the park. The banner began: “At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail.”

Last June, concerned that the lottery would become increasingly costly because of the rising tensions, the City Council voted to ban all private, unattended displays in city parks. The city has cited other reasons for the prohibition, including damage to the park’s turf and some residents’ statements that they would prefer unobstructed ocean views to seasonal displays.

Tragically, this is one of those cases in which the most calm, logical and, dare I say, reverent option is silence. Then again, loyal GetReligion readers already know where I stand on these matters. Last year I summed up my views in three simple thoughts. Here they are again, cleaned up a bit:

(1) I, personally, have never understood why so many religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s secular headquarters.

(2) Then again, I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christians to go to court and argue that a Nativity Scene is not really religious and, thus, is a mere cultural symbol that belongs on tax-funded land. Since when is that a victory for traditional faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would — if their leaders choose to do so — put up their own creches and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to host warring armies of believers, unbelievers and other tense folks from various camps in between.

So once again, just to be clear, I am praising the Times for actually quoting an authoritative voice that knew enough about church-state law to realize that Santa Monica has not, in this case, banned Christmas. Instead, this story has noted that the government’s leaders have chosen to cease being entangled in Holiday red tape and, well, spaghetti.

October 15, 2012

Every now and then, when I a traveling, I discover another layer of torn-out articles for GetReligion review buried deep inside some pocket of my shoulder bag. It’s sort of like the analog, portable version of the gigantic digital tmatt “folder of guilt” in my email program that I open up from time to time.

You see, there’s just so much to write about and so little time. There are religion-news ghosts all over the place.

Consider, for example, that recent Washington Post story about the ongoing tensions between Hong Kong and its rulers on the Chinese mainland. There was no real news hook in this one. Still I appreciated the update, since I was fortunate enough to have attended a journalism conference in Hong Kong during the final days and, literally, hours before the 1997 handover.

As you would expect, I focused — in my writing for the Scripps Howard News Service — on ways in which that great city’s future unity with the mainland could affect human rights and religious freedom. Click here and especially here, if you wish, to see what I wrote way back then. The key, according to the people I interviewed in Hong Kong, was Article 23 of the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law, especially the part stating that the city’s new leadership:

“… shall enact laws … to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People’s Government, … to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Of course, to paraphrase a famous statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during the apartheid era, one man’s street-corner evangelist is another man’s dangerous political activist. Anyone who has studied church-state history at the global level knows that governments often like to say that religion equals politics, when the religious believers in any way clash with the state. That’s a formula for conflict in the United States, as well. Ask Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Anyway, I was disappointed — to say the least — that the Post team included zero, zilch, nada, religious content in this story. Clearly, the goal of the story is to talk about tensions in Hong Kong about human rights. That’s clear, right up front, with its talk about protesters marching in the street waving flags “emblazoned with the British Union Jack.”

The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule. But, after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.

Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a “crown colony” into a “special administrative region of China,” marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: only the party can “wipe clean the shame” of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese. Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as “anti-communist” but now vilifies them as “anti-China,” an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.

What does this have to do with religion? That’s the question I would like to see addressed.

Why? Check out this crucial paragraph in this long news feature.

Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.

So things are going fine, except for those issues linked to “defense and foreign relations.”

Thinking back to 1997, that leads me to ask this question: When it comes to “foreign relations,” are the Chinese authorities starting to get entangled in relations between, let’s, Catholics and the hierarchy in Rome? There are plenty of reasons — millions and millions of them — for Chinese Catholics to worry on that front. And when it comes to self-censorship, how are Hong Kong’s other religious leaders doing these days?

The bottom line: Find me a land in which journalists are worrying about freedom of the press and I will find you a land in which religious believers have good cause to worry about religious freedom. The equation works the other way around, too (and more journalists need to ponder that).

So what’s the state of religious liberty in Hong Kong? Are any of those flag-waving protesters concerned about that? I’d like to know, how about you?

IMAGE: Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong.

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