So close to a sane prayer wars story

So when it comes to Bible Belt religiosity, is the unique glass that is the city of Asheville, N.C., half empty or half full? The answer, of course, is, "Yes."

Anyone who knows anything about the mountains of Western North Carolina (I have been a resident or regular visitor in the Southern Highlands region since the mid-1990s) know that it is (a) the home of the Rev. Billy Graham and lots of other born-again folks and (b) a thriving region for alternative religions, especially those linked to Wicca. It's the kind of place where you might meet an ordained Baptist woman who is also into Goddess theology and no one will blink twice.

So I was not surprised to see the following Los Angeles Times story, which ran under an epic double-decker headline that said this: "An atheism debate writ large, on billboards -- In North Carolina, a church group and an atheist group put up dueling signs quoting their respective versions of the Pledge of Allegiance. Each group accuses the other of rewriting U.S. history."

Yes, that's the headline! Here's how the story starts:

In the Internet age, the nation's culture wars are often waged through online blogs and e-mails. But across North Carolina, a heated church-state debate is playing out on an old-fashioned canvas: highway billboards.

An atheist group has erected six billboards with the phrase "One Nation Indivisible," leaving the words "Under God," from the Pledge of Allegiance. Outraged, a church group has responded by putting up a dozen billboards featuring the phrase "One Nation Under God."

The dueling billboards have stirred up a long-simmering debate in this Bible Belt state over just what the Founding Fathers intended when they prohibited the establishment of government-endorsed religion. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution reads, in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Where is the defaced billboard in the art atop this post? It's on the Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte, of course.

Two things about this story surprised me right up front. First, I was stunned that the Times team didn't realize that Western North Carolina is hardly normal Bible Belt territory. Good grief, didn't anyone at least gaze at the find-your-local-coven bulletin boards in the natural food stores? On the positive side, I was glad that the story featured some relatively sane voices from both sides of the argument. Alas, the reporter failed to talk to actual legal scholars on both sides in order to move past the shouting to another, deeper, layer of facts.

Still, things were rolling along pretty well, for this kind of firestorm report, until we hit the following, centering on comments from atheist Jennifer Lovejoy, a retired Army noncommissioned officer. This concerns her motive for taking part in the billboard campaign:

Lovejoy said she was also motivated by a Baptist minister who held Bible studies and prayer sessions for a high school football team that included her sons, who do not consider themselves Christians.

Then there is this from the Rev. Ralph Sexton Jr., pastor of Asheville's Trinity Baptist Church:

Sexton said his We Still Pray group was formed in 2000 to protest a court ruling that prohibited student-led prayer in public schools. The group held a prayer rally at an Asheville high school.

OK, this simply will not do. Both of these paragraphs, as published, are meaningless.

Those Bible studies for the athletes? We have no idea if they were at the school or if they were off campus. We have no idea if it was an official team activity (forbidden) or something that was truly optional and was only attended by, oh, half the athletes. Was this a meeting of an actual school club, perhaps the Fellowship of Christian Athletes? By the way, I assume this was a public high school?

And what about that prayer rally? Under equal access laws, voluntary prayer groups are allowed if they are following the same rules as other voluntary student activities. A school could ban ALL such groups, religious and non-religious, in order to avoid viewpoint discrimination, but it could not silence student religious groups, alone. So what was going on here? Was the rally a "See You at the Pole" activity, the kind that takes place year after year from coast to coast?

Facts, please. We need some basic facts.

I honestly thought this story was going to stay accurate and on-point there for a while. Alas, things fell apart. Now, I don't know if the story can be trusted at all.

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