(Cue: Audible sigh) Your GetReligionistas have a long, long, long, oh so long history of struggling with the question of whether mainstream reporters should continue covering the staged-for-media hatefests that seem to be the only reason for the existence of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.
Now there is nothing that we can do but shudder, because there are basic journalism issues that cannot be avoided in the wake of some important news here inside the DC Beltway.
Let's look at the Washington Post, for starters:
The Supreme Court will review whether anti-gay protests at funerals of American soldiers are protected by the First Amendment, taking up the appeal of a Maryland man who won and then had reversed a $10 million verdict against the small Kansas church that conducts the demonstrations.
The case will seek to balance a group's free speech rights with the rights of private individuals to be protected from unwanted demonstrations and defamatory remarks. A federal appeals court said the church's protests were "utterly distasteful" but protected because they were related to "matters of public concern." ...
The funeral protest case is brought by a Maryland father whose son's 2006 funeral in Westminster was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr. contends that the deaths of American soldiers are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality and has organized nearly 43,000 protests since 1991, according to the church's Web site.
Phelps and members of his church -- which consists primarily of him and members of his extended family -- say they were not targeting Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in action in Iraq. ... The signs they carried at Snyder's funeral at St. John's Catholic Church, made in the Kansas church's on-site sign shop, included, "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Semper Fi Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Priests Rape Boys."
America has a long and cherished history of protecting outrageous public speech and even emotionally painful public demonstrations, especially when the dispute is linked to politics, culture or public life. The most famous case would have to have been the march by neo-Nazis through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, where, in the late 1970s, one out of every six Jews was a survivor or the descendant of a survivor of the Holocaust.
But we are not here to argue about the court case itself. We're here to discuss how journalists can handle this media circus with a rare combination of accuracy, balance and perhaps even good taste. When I say balance, I mean that journalists will have to bite their lips and strive for balance when discussing the actual legal and doctrinal views linked to the Westboro case.
Why in the name of God would reporters want to wade into this church's religious views? Well, for starters, these people insist that faith is why they do what they do (as opposed to, say, economics). To test that claim, it must be accurately discussed. Their right to free speech is directly linked to the First Amendment, by which I mean claims of free speech and religious liberty.
But there's another reason to dig into the religious part of this story.
Note that the Post did a good job of noting that Westboro is a tiny congregation, almost a family cell group with a handful of disciples. What the story did not do, however, is stress that -- like thousands of other "Baptist" flocks of all sizes -- this church is totally independent from ties that bind it to any other group that calls itself "Baptist."
Like I said a few years ago here at GetReligion:
There's no doubt about it. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist -- because he says so.
Then again, so is Bill Clinton. So is Al Gore Jr., now that you mention it. Ditto for the Rev. Bill Moyers, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (last time I checked).
This fact must be stressed, one way or another. It would be good to start with actual quotes about the Westboro crew from Southern Baptist leaders, American Baptist leaders and representatives of the nation's other Baptist conventions and networks. Trust me, conservative Baptists (and Conservative Baptists, too) will have plenty to say about the theology involved in this story.
Simply stated, it is wrong to hang the actions of the Westboro team around the necks of other Baptists. It would only take one or two sentences to clear this up.
Consider the following Los Angeles Times report on the Supreme Court case, which offers this tiny, insubstantial crust of information about these infamous demonstrators:
... (The) victims were the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. When his family announced his funeral would be held in Westminster, Md., a Kansas preacher decided to travel there with a few followers to protest. In recent years, Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, has been protesting at military funerals around the nation because he believes the United States is too tolerant of homosexuality.
That's it. And that simply isn't enough information, as I am sure scores of mainstream Baptist leaders would agree.