Same-sex Marriage

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

It’s back to school time. For much of the country, Labor Day officially signaled the end of those lazy summer beach days. Students of all ages across the country are again worried about grades and homework. For many, school began a few weeks ago.

In the Northeast, where most of the major news organizations are located, schools opens this week. That means readers are seeing lots of back-to-school stories.

These features typically range from the mundane (which notebooks are in style this year) to scary (involving enhanced security following a summer of mass shootings). There are also plenty of stories regarding the cost of books and supplies — something that seem to rise in cost each year.

In New York City, where I live, there are roughly 1.1 million students who attend public school when counting kindergarten through high school. Students who attend private schools and Charter ones make up about a quarter of the total number of the 1.24 million children who call one of the city’s five borough’s home.

That’s a significant part of the larger story. Yet Catholic schools — religious schools in general — are usually lost in the back-to-school news frenzy.

The bottom line: The Catholic church has done a lot for education in New York and indeed across the country and around the world. Catholic schools don’t get much coverage — in New York or elsewhere — unless the news involves clergy sex abuse.  

That’s unfortunate because Catholic education continues to be an important resource and major factor in the lives of so many families. As we approach the start of school, here are a few story ideas editors and education beat reporters should ponder:

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'Faith' vs. 'religion'? A religion-beat pro reacts to that stunning New York Times hit piece

'Faith' vs. 'religion'? A religion-beat pro reacts to that stunning New York Times hit piece

I have been writing about the mainstream news media’s struggles with religion news since 1981 and my first academic exposure to this journalism issue was in 1974.

There are times when you think that you’ve seen it all. There are times when you think that you cannot be shocked or angered — again.

Then a media powerhouse runs a news piece or an op-ed like the one the New York Times ran the other day by a regular contributor, Timothy Egan, with this headline: “Why People Hate Religion.” I saw this piece after following a series of dead-serious tweets by religion-beat pro Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post (she is a former member of the GetReligion team). I affirm everything she had to say in that mini-storm.

This New York Times blast is another one of those pieces in which there are good people of faith and really, really bad people who cling to “religion.” In other words, it’s about mindless evangelicals (What other kind is there?) and the current occupant of the White House.

Oh wait, the target is bigger than that, it’s about the evils of the “overtly religious,” as in:

… The phonies, the charlatans who wave Bibles, the theatrically pious. … Vice President Mike Pence wears his faith like a fluorescent orange vest. But when he visited the border this summer and saw human beings crammed like cordwood in the Texas heat, that faith was invisible. …

Pence is the chief bootlicker to a president who now sees himself in messianic terms, a president who tweets a description of himself as“the second coming of God.” As hard as it is to see God Part II boasting about grabbing a woman’s genitals, paying hush money to a porn actress, or calling neo-Nazis “very fine people,” millions of overtly religious Americans believe in some version of Jesus Trump, Superstar.

There’s more to this acidic, simplistic sermon than shots at evangelical Trump-sters, of course.

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Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Over the past week or so, I have received a steady stream of email asking me to comment on a recent essay in The Washington Post that focused on an always touchy subject — efforts to do journalism education on private college campuses.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the essay is about if you merely scanned the headline — which offers your typical Donald-Trump-era news hook. The article is better than this headline.

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’

How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics.

Yes, Trump plays a role in this piece and I am sure that Falwell’s over-the-top loyalty to the president is causing lots of tension at Liberty. However, that isn’t the main source of conflict in this article.

The main problem? Like many private schools (and even a few state schools), Liberty — on academic paper — says that it has a “journalism” program. The problem is what top administrators actually want is a public relations program that prepares students to work in Christian nonprofit groups, think tanks and advocacy publications.

This is a problem that is much bigger than Liberty. I have encountered this syndrome on campuses that are left of center as well as those on the right, during a quarter-century of so of teaching students at (or from) Christian colleges. More than a few college leaders — like Falwell — don’t want parents, donors and trustees reading student-written news material about real life on their campuses.

Real life? Here is the issue that I always use as my line in the sand, when studying conflicts about college journalism programs: Will school officials allow news reports about issues that produce public documents, like police reports.

Sure enough, that’s where former Liberty University journalist Will Young begins his Post essay. This is long, but essential:

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RNS: Fuller seminary is 'homophobic' after it kicks out a married lesbian student

RNS: Fuller seminary is 'homophobic' after it kicks out a married lesbian student

Here at GetReligion, we’ve critiqued endless stories where a gay student (or faculty member) didn’t get the memo about the sexual standards of an evangelical Protestant or Catholic institution that they have chosen to attend — even when they actually signed the documents.

Whether they’re called covenants, creeds or behavior codes, such standards are moral, doctrinal and increasingly legal agreements between students and these private voluntary associations. Sometimes students are made to sign some sort of statement attesting that they’ve been informed of what these standards are.

Typically, the standards demand, among other things, that students not engage in extramarital sex. And “marital” is defined as marriage between a man and a woman.

Alas, a recent Religion News Service story forgot to ask those basic questions in its story about a lesbian seminary student married to a woman. Instead we hear of the “homophobic” seminary and the guileless student.

(RNS) — Over her four years at Fuller Theological Seminary’s campus in Houston, Joanna Maxon had come out to most of her teachers and classmates, and many knew that she was married to a woman.

But after Maxon turned over a copy of her tax return, filed jointly with her wife, as part of her annual financial aid application earlier this year, a complaint about her marriage was brought to the dean. In October 2018, less than a year before she expected to graduate, she was suddenly dismissed.

Months went by before Maxon could stand to make the situation public.

“It took me a while to get to the point where I could talk about it,” Maxon said. “It feels like trauma.”

But once she was ready to share her story in June, Maxon’s wife and friend got into contact with Brave Commons.

Then the story turns into a press release.

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New York Times features free church weddings for cohabiting couples, with predictable criticism

New York Times features free church weddings for cohabiting couples, with predictable criticism

The story is about a Texas church offering free weddings for cohabiting couples who agree to undergo premarital counseling.

The publication is the New York Times.

So it’s no surprise that the feature eventually gets around to same-sex marriage and how the church involved won’t allow it.

But overall, it’s an interesting piece.

Let’s start at the top:

A few months before Kelvin Evans married his live-in girlfriend, Pa Shoua Pha, in 2016, uncertainty gripped him.

“I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to have any more children,” said Mr. Evans, 44, the father of two boys from a previous relationship. But his girlfriend, he said, wanted to start a family and “it became a huge sticking point.”

Fortunately, the couple had a support network through the Concord Church, a nondenominational Christian church, in Dallas. Alongside five other cohabiting couples, they signed up for a “step into marriage” challenge and worked out their issues. On Aug. 27, 2016, all six couples, plus 19 other couples who also took the challenge, married in a mass ceremony. Mr. and Ms. Evans now have a daughter, Ava Naomi, who was born this past March, and Mr. Evans couldn’t be happier. “If I was doing any better,” he said, “it would probably be illegal.”

“If I was doing any better, it would probably be illegal.” Love it! I appreciate it when the writer rewards the reader with a great quote up high.

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Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

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Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th, everybody. This is certainly a day to celebrate the various forms of freedom that Americans cherish — including some that are pretty confusing, when push comes to shove.

I am thinking, in particular, about the First Amendment and the edgy legal battle that is unfolding here in Tennessee about the state’s ability to enforce a law setting some standards about who is an ordained minister and who is not. If you want to catch up on press coverage of this battle, click here for my first post and then here for the podcast discussing this topic: “This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

It’s time for an update, since the status of click-that-mouse ministers with the Universal Life Church ended up in front of a federal judge yesterday. The Nashville Tennessean team produced a story for Gannett newspapers — which now dominate the volunteer state — that ran with this headline: “Judge questions 'rational basis' of state law blocking ministers ordained online from performing marriages.

The bottom line: Gannett is covering this case as a battle about LGBTQ rights, since many same-sex couples choose nontraditional ministers to perform their marriage rites. There is little or no evidence that pros at The Tennessean realize that this case will pivot on the U.S. government’s attempts — think Internal Revenue Service — to establish some guidelines to help officials determine when religious institutions exist primarily for the purpose of profit or fraud. Here’s the overture:

A federal judge on Wednesday repeatedly pressed state lawyers to explain a "rational basis" for a new Tennessee law that bans ministers ordained online from performing marriages — and he didn't seem to get an answer that satisfied him.

Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said a lawsuit challenging the law raised "serious constitutional issues" that should be considered at trial by the end of the year. Until then, Crenshaw said, ministers ordained online could continue to perform legal marriages.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, a ministry that ordains ministers online, sued Tennessee over the law last month, saying it violated religious protections of the First Amendment among other things.

Yes, there certainly are “serious constitutional issues” at stake here. I think any serious church-state activist — left or right — would agree with that statement and with the judge’s decision that fights over this Tennessee law deserve a serious day in court.

So what are Tennessee lawmaker’s worried about? We will get to that.

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Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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As always, it would be helpful if news orgs were precise in gay rights vs. religious freedom stories

As always, it would be helpful if news orgs were precise in gay rights vs. religious freedom stories

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. And if you read GetReligion with any frequency, you no doubt have.

I’m talking about news organizations’ tendency to make broad, sweeping statements when reporting on cases involving gay rights vs. religious freedom.

It’s almost as if there’s only one side of the issue that journalists believe needs to be reflected. Given the century in which we live, you probably can guess which side that is.

My comments in this post are prompted by a Reuters story on major companies calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of LGBT workers.

The wire service’s summary up high:

(Reuters) - More than 200 U.S. companies, including Amazon (AMZN.O), Alphabet Inc’s Google (GOOGL.O), and Bank of America (BAC.N), on Tuesday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender workers.

The companies filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that bias against LGBT people is a form of unlawful sex discrimination, and said a ruling otherwise would harm businesses and workers.

The Supreme Court in April agreed to take up two discrimination cases by gay men and one by a transgender woman who was fired from her job as a funeral director when she told her boss she planned to transition from male to female.

The justices will hear oral arguments in October and likely issue a ruling by the end of next June.

Somehow, the story moves from discriminating against gay workers to the case of a Colorado baker who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding:

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