Law & Order

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

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Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Another bizarre twist in the Jerry Falwell Jr. story came Tuesday when the Liberty University president accused former board members and employees of an “attempted coup.”

That claim came a day after a long, negative Politico piece on Falwell quoted two dozen anonymous sources characterized as “current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell.”

How bad are things for Falwell and Liberty?

Well, both of their official Twitter accounts tweeted my GetReligion post from Monday in which I declared, “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.”

If you missed that post, you really should read it before finishing this one. What I am about to say will make much more sense with that background in mind. Also, that post has generated a lot of good discussion along with a few typical troll comments from people who obviously didn’t take time to read what I wrote.

Of course, a few folks on Twitter (here and here, for example) asked if Falwell and Liberty actually read what I wrote.

After all, my post was no fan letter to Falwell.

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Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

It’s hard to live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., without learning a thing or two about civil disobedience, especially demonstrations linked to nuclear weapons. No matter what goes on inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — in terms of energy, medicine, the digital future, etc. — this top-secret research facility will always be known for its role in America’s history of atomic bombs and beyond.

This leads to protests. Some of them cross the line into civil disobedience, which raises interesting historical, legal and even theological questions. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

There is a very similar story unfolding elsewhere in the Bible Belt, as seen in a recent report — “Judge denies nuclear protesters’ religious freedom defense” — from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

(RNS) — A federal judge has denied a request by a group of Catholic peace activists to dismiss charges against them for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, last year to protest nuclear weapons.

The seven activists, individually and through their lawyers, used a novel defense, citing the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.

But Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, denied that defense and scheduled a jury trial for Oct. 21.

The activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison each for trespassing on the U.S. Navy base, which houses six Trident submarines designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads apiece. The seven, mostly middle-aged or elderly, will each stand trial on three felonies and one misdemeanor: destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, trespass and conspiracy.

Now, there are all kinds of questions I’d like to ask at this point.

First of all, I assume we are talking about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as opposed to the “Religion” Freedom Restoration Act that is mentioned here. RNS needs to make a correction.

But it would appear that the basic idea is that the protestors had a right to violate the law as an act of religious conscience. It would be interesting to know more the specifics of their claims.

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A Mother Jones piece on custody rights for rapists misses the hidden God angle

A Mother Jones piece on custody rights for rapists misses the hidden God angle

A recent story from Mother Jones about women who were raped, impregnated and then forced to share custody of their child with the rapist, grabbed my attention like a knife.

Buried in this tale was another story that got slight mention in the original article. But the reporter didn’t follow it, either for lack of time, space or interest. Yes, it’s a story with a strong religion hook.

We’ll get to that later in this post. But first there are the horrible details of what one woman lived through.

Note that where the story takes place is not the Deep South but eastern Michigan.

Before her son began school last year, Tiffany Gordon showed his father’s mugshot to school administrators. “If you see this guy, you have to call the police,” she told them.

Ten years earlier, when Tiffany was 12, a young man she knew invited her, her sister, and a friend on a late-night car ride. “I thought we would be going to McDonald’s,” Tiffany recalls. Instead, 18-year-old Christopher Mirasolo raped Tiffany and took the girls to an abandoned house in eastern Michigan.

When the hiding place was discovered, it marked the end of one nightmare — and the beginning of another. A month later, Tiffany realized she was pregnant. A prosecutor filed charges against Mirasolo, who might have faced a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for impregnating a minor if he had not pleaded guilty to attempted rape, which resulted in a prison sentence of just two years. A judge let him out less than a year later. Not long after, Mirasolo raped another young girl and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years behind bars.

Think of it: This child was 12.

Most girls would have faced pressure to abort. In this case she had crucial support at home.

Tiffany’s parents supported her decision to keep the baby. Other family members urged her to consider an abortion. But she was adamant: “My son was innocent,” Tiffany, now 23, remembers telling her family.

She dropped out of school and stayed afloat working odd jobs. For almost nine years, she didn’t speak about the assault and tried to suppress the memories — until 2017, when she applied for state assistance. Without looking into the circumstances of how she became pregnant, county probate judge Gregory S. Ross granted Mirasolo joint custody and ordered Tiffany to live within 100 miles of him. Making matters worse, Ross disclosed Tiffany’s address to Mirasolo and ordered that his name be added to her son’s birth certificate, according to her lawyer, Rebecca Kiessling.

Tiffany’s experience battling her rapist for parental rights is not unique.

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Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

What a country we live in, these days. If you have been following the controversy surrounding the now-delayed movie “The Hunt,” you know that this is — according to mainstream media reports — yet another controversy about politics, anger, guns, violence and America’s Tweeter In Chief.

Oh, and there is no way to avoid the dangerous word “elites” when talking about this Hollywood vs. flyover country saga. However, if you probe this media storm you will find hints that religion ghosts are hiding in the fine print — due to the movie’s alleged references to “deplorables” and “anti-choice” Americans.

But let’s start with a minimalist report at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: “Universal cancels satirical thriller about ‘elites’ hunting ‘deplorables’ in wake of shootings.” Here’s the overture:

Universal Pictures has canceled its plan to release “The Hunt,” a satirical thriller about “elites” hunting self-described “normal people,” amid a series of mass shootings and criticism that the film could increase tensions.

“We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal said in a statement.

The studio already had paused its marketing campaign for the R-rated movie, which was slated for release on Sept. 27. … “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah”) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, follows 12 strangers who are brought to a remote house to be killed for sport. 

Everything in this media-drama hinges on how this movie is alleged to have described the beliefs and behaviors of these “normal” Americans — who are stalked by rich, progressive folks defined by high-class culture and political anger issues. The elites are led by a character played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

If you are looking for facts in this oh so Donald Trump-era mess, journalists at The Hollywood Reporter claim to have details deeper than the innuendoes glimpsed in the hyper-violent trailers for the movie (trailers that appear to be vanishing online). Here is a chunk of that story, which is referenced — aggregation style — in “news” reports all over the place.

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Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

This is a news story about religion, mental illness, the U.S. government, deportation and Iraq.

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the heartbreaking story of Jimmy Aldaoud, the diabetic Chaldean Iraqi man who was deported to a homeland he never knew, only to die there a short time later because he couldn’t get enough insulin.

The story publicizes the plight of Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism that’s been in Iraq almost since the beginning of Christianity. They used to number 1 million, but 80 to 90 percent have emigrated over the years, especially after the death of Saddam Hussein, who for years protected the Chaldeans.

America’s Chaldean refugee community, many of whose members have long been threatened with deportation, have been warning that to send any of them to Iraq would be a death sentence. They, plus several members of Congress, are especially angry over Aldaoud’s death. If things don’t change soon, his fate will be their own.

The Intercept has the most complete story on Aldaoud,

BEFORE HE WAS deported, Jimmy Aldaoud had never stepped foot in Iraq. Born in Greece to Iraqi refugee parents, he immigrated to the United States with his family via a refugee resettlement program 40 years ago, when he was just 15 months old. He considered himself American and knew hardly anything of Iraqi society. Still, on the afternoon of June 4, he found himself wandering the arrivals terminal of Al Najaf International Airport, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, with around $50, some insulin for his diabetes, and the clothes on his back.

Najaf, by the way, is a Shi’ite stronghold and not the safest place for Christians of any stripe.

Aldaoud was used to getting by with little. For most of his adult life, he had experienced homelessness, working odd jobs, and stealing loose change from cars as he grappled with mental illness. But that was in the relative comfort of his hometown — for decades, he rarely strayed more than a few miles from his parents’ house in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had no idea how to survive in Iraq, and he was unprepared to make a run at it; he hadn’t known his deportation would come so soon, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t let him call his family before they sent him off.

Aldaoud spoke no Arabic, had no known family in Iraq, and nobody knew he was there. Disembarking in Najaf, he was “scared,” “confused,” and acting panicked, according to an Iraqi immigration officer he encountered.

And 63 days later — this past Tuesday — he was dead.

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The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

Let’s start with the obvious: Poland is not the United States of America.

Whenever people try to tell me that America is a “Christian nation,” I argue that America is not a Christian nation — it is essentially a Protestant nation. It’s impossible to pin one religion label on the founders, whose perspectives ranged all over the place. (yes, including the views of Deists and the Thomas Jefferson enlightened Neo-Unitarian crowd).

No one perspective would rule. But the free exercise of religious beliefs and convictions would be protected — at the level of the First Amendment.

That said, the most religious corner of the American Bible Belt has nothing in its cultural DNA that resembles the history of Polish Catholicism, especially in the 20th century. Believers there know what a tyranny of iron looks like. They have fears and concerns that Americans cannot understand.

Obviously, this history includes hellish, horrible wrongs committed in the name of religion — like Polish individuals who cooperated with Nazis to crush Polish Jews (while others, like the future Pope St. John Paul II worked to protect Jews). The Catholic DNA in Polish life has also led to almost transcendent moments of constructive, positive action in public life. Think Solidarity.

So what is happening in Poland right now, with the clashes between Catholicism and the cultural armies of the European Union, “woke” multinational corporations and American popular culture?

It appears that editors at The New York Times are absolutely sure they know what is happening, as demonstrated in a recent story with this headline: “Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda.” Here is the overture:

BIALYSTOK, Poland — The marchers at the first gay pride parade here in the conservative Polish city of Bialystok expected that they would be met with resistance.

But last week when Katarzyna Sztop-Rutkowska saw the angry mob of thousands that awaited the marchers, who numbered only a few hundred, she was shocked.

“The most aggressive were the football hooligans, but they were joined by normal people — people with families, people with small children, elderly people,” she said.

They blocked her way, first hurling invective, then bricks and stones and fireworks, she said. From the balconies, people threw eggs and rotten vegetables. Even before the march started, there were violent confrontations, and by the time the tear gas cleared and the crowd dispersed, dozens were injured and Poland was left reeling.

First things first. It’s obvious that horrible violence took place, while different groups inside Poland may argue about the details. Second, it’s easy to find “poisonous propaganda” in Poland on LGBTQ issues.

But here is the big question raised in this story: Can readers trust the college of cultural cardinals at the Times to draw an accurate line separating violent opposition to European-style gay rights and the actions of Catholics — Pope Francis, even — who fear that some LGBTQ “reforms” are a form of aggressive Western colonialism in new garb?

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Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

It’s the kind of dig-below-the-surface, front-page takeout for which the New York Times is famous.

It’s certainly a meaty subject matter: the arrest of an Alabama woman whose unborn baby died in a shooting.

But here’s what I noticed: A holy ghost (refresh yourself on that term if you’re new to GetReligion) most certainly haunts this in-depth but religion-free report from Monday’s Times.

I mean, this is a story that’s impossible to tell without acknowledging the huge role that religion plays in the South, right?

Somehow, though, the nation’s most elite newspaper attempts to do so.

Let’s start at the top:

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. — In the days since police officers arrested Marshae Jones, saying she had started a fight that resulted in her unborn baby getting fatally shot, the hate mail has poured in.

“I will encourage all U.S. business owners to boycott your town,” a woman from San Diego wrote on the Facebook page of the Pleasant Grove Police Department.

“Misogynist trash,” wrote another.

“Fire the chief and arresting officers,” wrote a third.

But Robert Knight, the police chief, said his officers had little choice in the matter.

“If the laws are there, we are sworn to enforce them,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Around the country, the case of Ms. Jones — who was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter — has served as a stark illustration of how pregnant women can be judged and punished when a fetus is treated as a person by the justice system.

A quick aside before I ask you to stay off my lawn: How sad is it that we live in an age in which unnamed Facebook critics are deemed worthy of the Times’ cover? Seriously, are there no opposition sources who could speak intelligently in that prime dead-tree real estate against the arrest and the Alabama law? But I digress.

Back to the main point of this post: Keep reading, and the Times boils down the debate this way:

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