More insight, less bias needed in media coverage of crosses on Texas police cars

Some Texas newspaper reports on Gov. Greg Abbott supporting the display of crosses on police cars have been pretty sketchy.

Sketchy as in half there.

Sketchy as in incomplete.

Sketchy as in, well, you know?

Take The Dallas Morning News, for example:

AUSTIN -- After saying ‘In God We Trust’ could be displayed on cop cars last year, Gov. Greg Abbott has now also come out in support of displaying the cross on patrol vehicles.
In a brief sent to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Abbott wrote that the crosses met the muster of separation of church and state.
“Even under the U.S. Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of the Establishment Clause’s limited and unambiguous text, the Court has never held that public officials are barred from acknowledging our religious heritage,” Abbott wrote in his brief. “To the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the demographic and historical reality that Americans ‘are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’”
The brief is in response to some controversy surrounding the Brewster County Sheriff’s office, which recently allowed its officers to put bumper stickers of the cross on the back of patrol vehicles. Abbott has already spoken in support of the Brewster County Sheriff.
“The Brewster County deputies’ crosses neither establish a religion nor threaten any person’s ability to worship God, or decline to worship God, in his own way,” Abbott wrote in his brief to Paxton.

From there, the Dallas newspaper provides scathing quotes from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, both condemning the governor's brief.

And that's it.

There are no quotes from conservative legal organizations -- such as the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Liberty Counsel -- that might take a more sympathetic view of the governor's position.

There are no quotes from religious liberty scholars who might assess the governor's brief -- and the constitutionality of it -- from a more independent, less predictable perspective.

Is this a case of bias on the part of the Morning News? Or a case of an overworked reporter simply plugging in quotes emailed to him? Or a case of lazy journalism?

It would be pure speculation for me to attempt to answer.

But I will say that Houston Chronicle readers benefited from deeper — albeit not entirely perfect — reporting.

The Chronicle pressed an Abbott spokesman for additional insight:

An Abbott spokesman acknowledged that the cross has a "special significance to Christianity," but he said it also has "historical significance."
"From the crosses at the American Cemetery in Normandy and Arlington National Cemetery, to the military medals and decorations this country bestows on its heroes, the cross is a symbol of service above self," spokesman John Wittman said.
Asked whether Abbott would fight for the right of law enforcement officers to display symbols with "special significance" to Islam or Judaism, Wittman said only, "Governor Abbott has never backed down from defending religious liberties, and he will always fight to protect the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution."

Moreover, the Houston newspaper contacted political and constitutional experts on the issue:

Legal experts in Texas and elsewhere said that the crosses on patrol cars likely would be found unconstitutional in court.
"The Supreme Court has never upheld a display a cross as a sort of generic display of heroism or respect for God. It just hasn't happened," said Ira "Chip" Lupu, a George Washington University law professor who studies the separation of church and state. "I mean, come on. You and I know that crosses are specific to Christianity."
Lupu said the comparison to crosses at cemeteries is misleading because those symbols are on individual gravestones, signaling they are individual expressions, whereas symbols on government vehicles indicate a government position.
The high court's decision to allow the 10 Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas Capitol also is different because it was in a large area with other monuments and had been there for decades, said Charles "Rocky" Rhodes of the South Texas College of Law.

The lesson: Readers benefit when reporters actually pick up the telephone and call people. Readers learn more when reporters actually call informed sources with a variety of viewpoints. It's called "journalism."

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