Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

A wise journalism professor once told me that it always helps, when trying to think through the implications of a controversial story, to try to imagine the same story being seen in a mirror, in reverse.

So let's say that there is a businessman in Indianapolis who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.

Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.

Whose religious rights are being violated? Can both sides find a way to show tolerance?

This is, of course, a highly specific parable -- full of the unique details that tend to show up in church-state law and, often, in cases linked to laws built on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) language. It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.

Is there any sign that reporters covering the RFRA madness in Indiana and, eventually, in dozens of states across the nation are beginning to see some of the gray areas in these cases?

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On that florist who refused flowers for gay wedding, Indy Star misses chance to provide real insight

On that florist who refused flowers for gay wedding, Indy Star misses chance to provide real insight

Hey Indianapolis Star, the florist has a name — and that's an important point you missed.

In an in-depth story this week, the Star attempted to explain "What the 'religious liberty' law really means for Indiana." 

Scare quotes aside, the story actually wasn't bad, particularly for a newspaper that showed its Poker hand Tuesday with a front-page editorial voicing its displeasure with the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In the "what it means" story, the Star looks to the Pacific Northwest for an example of a religious freedom case:

Consider this case from Washington state.
A florist, citing her relationship with Jesus Christ, refused to sell flowers for a gay couple's wedding. A court recently ruled, even when weighing her religious convictions, that she violated local nondiscrimination laws. News reports say she turned down a settlement offer and continues to appeal her case.
The florist declined to arrange the flowers, and so in some sense this confirms the fears of religious freedom law opponents that a door has been opened to discrimination. But she lost in court, and so this backs the supporters who say RFRA doesn't usurp local nondiscrimination laws.

The problem with that quick rundown of the Washington state case? It fails to provide any true context or insight.

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Salt Lake Tribune gingerly tackles transgendered Mormons

Salt Lake Tribune gingerly tackles transgendered Mormons

Mormons have gotten lots of publicity lately for their efforts to deal with same-sex marriage and the place of homosexuals in church doctrine. And now yet one more issue pokes up its head: Transgendered church members.

Trans issues are the flavor of the moment in media coverage of pop culture and universities, so it’s not too surprising that The Salt Lake Tribune devoted quite a bit of space to this topic on Monday. The report starts thusly:

Sixteen-year-old Grayson Moore had no label, only metaphors, to describe the disconnect he felt between his body and soul.
It was like car sickness, he says, when your eyes and inner ears disagree about whether you are moving.
"It makes you sick," Moore says. "That's the same with gender."
When Moore's mother gave her then-daughter a vocabulary for the feelings -- "gender dysphoria" or transgender -- there followed an immediate sense of relief and recognition.
And, he says, God confirmed that he was not just a tomboy. He was in the wrong body.
Such moments come in the life of all transgender persons -- times when vague feelings of general discomfort with their identity crystallize into that realization.
Annabel Jensen was deciding whether to serve a Mormon mission. Sara Jade Woodhouse was married and had fathered a child.
In these three cases, their Mormonism -- with its emphasis on the physical link between bodies and spirits and its insistence that gender is "eternal" -- initially made it tougher to acknowledge what was happening inside of them.
Since switching genders (though none has had sex-reassignment surgery), all three say they have found psychological and theological peace, even divine approval, and a surprising welcome from their local LDS leaders and congregations.

Next comes a quote from LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks that -- considering the massive theological problems the Mormons have with changing one’s gender -- is very conciliatory and open to change.

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Los Angeles Times sports section shows how to leap over all essential Indiana facts

Los Angeles Times sports section shows how to leap over all essential Indiana facts

To understand the current Indiana meltdown, it really helps to get off page one and look at how the basic elements of this state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) story are being covered in other sections of the typical American newspaper. In other words, in the hoops-crazy state of Indiana, it is crucial to see how RFRA is being covered on sports pages.

I'm afraid the following story in The Los Angeles Times is rather typical, starting with that headline: "NCAA feeling pressure to take stand against controversial Indiana law."

For starters, the words "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" do not appear in this story. Readers also do not learn that these state-level laws are in effect in 19 other states, with many other states operating with the understanding that the national RFRA -- a shining moment of church-state sanity from the Bill Clinton era -- will been seen as operative inside their borders. Instead, this is how the story tips things off:

This is usually a happy time of year for college basketball, a chance for the game to take center stage with all eyes focused on March Madness.
But just days before the Final Four tips off in Indianapolis, the mood surrounding the tournament has turned serious.
With both its title game and its headquarters located in Indiana's capital, the NCAA is facing widespread pressure to take a stand against a hotly debated state law that many fear will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The key words, of course, are "that many fear." Who needs names and titles? A few lines later, this same passive-aggressive journalistic approach is used once again:

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It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a front-page editorial in The Indianapolis Star. No, really ...

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a front-page editorial in The Indianapolis Star. No, really ...

"Journalism!" said the email I received last night with an image of today's Indianapolis Star front page.

The sender — an advocate of the religious freedom law passed in Indiana last week — was not making a compliment.

Obviously, the Star's editors have had enough of the national debate over the measure enacted in their state.

Heaven knows my Twitter feed has been filled with debate and links on the subject — on all sides.

Here at GetReligion, our mission is clear: We critique mainstream media coverage of religion. We praise strong journalism. We point out holes, bias and, yes, holy ghosts in less-than-perfect stories.

We don't, as a general rule, review editorials. And I'm not going to take sides on the content of the Star's editorial.

But the front-page placement certainly raises questions that reflect on the Star's overall journalism: Foremost among them, can a newspaper take such a "bold" stand — as the Twitter user above described it — and still produce fair, impartial news stories?

 

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Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier, 86, is an extraordinary French-Canadian humanitarian, Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a federation of communities worldwide for people with disabilities. I had friends who would spend up to a year at his communities in Trosly-Breuil, France and near Toronto.

There are few things in my mind less glamorous than helping the mentally ill, so I was glad to hear that his years of efforts had resulted in winning the Templeton Prize earlier this month. I’m sure he’ll put that $2.1 million to good use.

So what is the journalism problem here?

To be blunt about it: I was surprised at how many of the mainstream news stories about this humble man skirted his Christian commitment.

Is it hard to find this information?

Look, here’s a man who almost became a Catholic priest, but instead found he had a more unusual worldwide parish. He’s never married and any interview with him -- such as this 2006 piece by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly -- will produce a ton of quotes having to do with God.

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Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

As the media firestorm continues in Indiana, your GetReligionistas have heard from readers asking to know the essential differences between the Indiana law that is under attack and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan enthusiasm during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Simply stated, the national RFRA has served as the models for the various state RFRA bills through the years, including the law that -- when he was in the Illinois state senate -- drew the support of Barack Obama.

Reporters covering this story may, in addition to actually studying the contents of the bill, want to study the impact these state bills have had in the 19 states that have adopted the same language. This Washington Post piece, with map, is quite helpful. Have these bills been abused? There may be stories there.

Yes, it's crucial for reporters to actually consider what happens when these bills are used in real cases, with real defendants, in real courts, even in conservative zip codes. Consider, for example, this Texas press release in 2009 in which the American Civil Liberties Union cheered the state's RFRA law:

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pastor Rick Barr who challenged an ordinance passed by the City of Sinton (Barr v. City of Sinton) to close a half-way house for low-level offenders across from the pastor’s church, Grace Christian Fellowship.
“Today’s decision is significant because it is one of the Court’s first cases to affirmatively construe Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. ...
“This decision sends a strong message to state and local governments in Texas that the Court will not tolerate state action that targets a religious group, whatever their faith,” said Graybill. The court’s ruling upholds the intent of the RFRA to prevent state and local government officials from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion, including religious practices and religiously motivated conduct, without a compelling justification for doing so, she explained.  ”This is a major victory not just for Pastor Barr and Philemon Homes, but for all Texans who cherish religious freedom.”

However, journalists seeking guidance on style issues related to RFRA laws -- should, for example, terms such as "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" be framed with scare quotes -- may want to consult another authoritative source. That would be The New York Times. However, in this case we are talking about the Times of 1993.

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Blurring news and views: RNS dissects cardinal's quotes on gay marriage

Blurring news and views: RNS dissects cardinal's quotes on gay marriage

A week after praising Presbyterians for endorsing same-sex marriage -- and scolding United Methodists for not doing the same -- the Religion News Service caricatures the views of  a Catholic cardinal about gays.

This week, the target is Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was moved from a powerful Vatican post to patron of the Knights of Malta. When LifeSite News sought him out, he agreed to an interview.

An interview that displeased RNS, which summarized Burke's views in a startling headline: "Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, murderers are all the same."

Whoa. Keep that guy away from electric chairs, right?

What Burke told LifeSite, of course -- again, after he was asked -- was that the Catholic Church still considers some deeds to be grave sins.  He continues:

And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.
LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it's true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?
CB: Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people…

RNS writer David Gibson acknowledges that the comments "break little theological ground; the church has always taught that sin is sin, and some sins are especially serious." But he presses his case:

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Once again: Do journalists believe there is good religion and then bad religion?

Once again: Do journalists believe there is good religion and then bad religion?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on one of those nasty Godbeat topics that I have been wrestling with since, oh, 1980 or so. The question: Does the press hate religion and/or religious people?

This subject, of course, came up in a post here at GetReligion recently, in which I reacted to a classic M.Z. Hemingway piece at The Federalist that ran under a flaming headline: "Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell."

In her piece, M.Z. made a reference to the "modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions, and religious liberty in general." While affirming the rest of her piece, I stressed that I remain convinced that the majority of elite American journalists believe that there are good religious groups and bad religious groups and that the goods tend to be led by clergy and intellectuals "whose moral theology fits naturally with Woodstock and the editorial pages of The New York Times."

As William Proctor -- a Harvard Law graduate and former legal affairs reporter for The New York Daily News -- put it in his book "The Gospel According to The New York Times," the world's most influential newsroom doesn't reject all forms of religion, but does reject what he called the "sin of religious certainty." They reject claims by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., who claim that their faiths affirm eternal, transcendent, revealed truth.

Now, is this a debate that has something to do with core journalism discussions of accuracy, objectivity, truth telling, etc.?

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