Did The Atlantic solve the Notre Dame contraception puzzle? Not really

Did The Atlantic solve the Notre Dame contraception puzzle? Not really

Notre Dame University is seen by some as a beacon of progressive Catholic thought and by others as second only to Georgetown University as being Catholic in name only. This week the university's leaders did something that confounded simply everyone: Decide to provide contraceptive coverage in their health plan despite only a week before stating they would not do so.

In early November, Notre Dame announced it’d take advance of the Trump administration’s recent rollback of contraceptive coverage. Previously, the Affordable Care Act had required employers to pick up the tab. The Trump administration weakened that provision by allowing nearly any employer claiming it had religious or moral objections to birth control to refuse to provide it.

On Nov. 7, the university announced it would dump that same religious exemption –- with no explanation. An Atlantic article on “Why Notre Dame Changed Course on Contraception” doesn’t make things clearer.

Notre Dame announced on Tuesday that faculty, students, and staff will be able to obtain coverage for contraceptives through their university-sponsored insurance plans. The surprise decision is a reversal of the school’s announcement last week that it would discontinue birth-control coverage in light of new religious-freedom protections put in place by the Trump administration. ...
 Although the administration claims it reversed course out of respect for the diversity of its community, it’s not clear why it wouldn’t have taken faculty and student objections into account years ago. Meanwhile, religious-freedom advocates see the university’s move as a setback for their cause, because it potentially casts doubt on the sincerity and depth of moral objections to birth control.

As I scanned other news pieces on Notre Dame’s sudden course change, it’s clear other journalists hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the story either.

Still, I’m puzzled as to why the Atlantic claims to have found the reason.

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Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

The "faith-based FEMA" play a crucial role in disaster recovery.

As a journalist, I've witnessed this firsthand in places such as New Orleans, Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.

Most recently, I traveled to Texas to report on people of faith mobilizing emergency shelters and distributing food and supplies after Hurricane Harvey. One of my favorite Houston stories — and yes, there was a religion angle — involved a fast-talking entrepreneur named "Mattress Mack." I also enjoyed writing about a large Oklahoma church group's journey to help Harvey victims.

In a twist to houses of worship helping after disasters, three Texas churches filed a federal lawsuit in September seeking help themselves — from FEMA. It's a fascinating case, one made even more interesting by President Trump's decision to weigh in on it.

I've wanted to dig into the case myself and try to understand it better. However, breaking news and other projects have kept me from doing so (excuses, excuses).

So I was pleased to see The Associated Press offer a primer before a court hearing earlier this week.

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Holy ground: Yes, the walls of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs will be coming down

Holy ground: Yes, the walls of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs will be coming down

During the Communist revolution, Bolsheviks would go out of their way -- when executing a Russian Orthodox priest -- to place him on the altar of his parish and THEN shoot and/or stab him to death.

This accomplished several goals at one time, including desecrating the altar so that it could not be used again in worship without a future visit by a bishop to perform the elaborate rites to reconsecrate a church for celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. This was hard to do, since the Bolsheviks were killing all the bishops, as well (other than a very small number who cooperated with the revolution).

I bring this up because of an interesting Religion News Service feature that has just been released with this headline: "Texas church to be demolished, like other mass killing sites before it."

We are talking, of course, about the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where gunman Devin Patrick Kelley -- apparently in a futile attempt to kill his mother-in-law -- went ahead and shot every person in the Sunday morning service, killing 26 and wounding others. Here's a key passage near the top of this story:

In what is becoming a grim American ritual, mass shooting sites from Sandy Hook to Columbine have been demolished and then rebuilt. But some churches that experienced horrific killings have sought to reclaim existing sacred spaces.
That’s not the case with First Baptist. Frank Page, president and CEO of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Steve Gaines, the SBC’s president, confirmed the decision to demolish the church after meeting in Sutherland Springs on Tuesday (Nov. 7) with Frank Pomeroy, its grieving pastor.
“They did say, ‘We can’t go back in there,’” said Page, referring to Pomeroy’s remaining church members. “It’s going to be a reminder of the horrific violence against innocent people.”

This is one of those stories that I am very thankful RNS took on, but I still want to raise a question or two about it.

To be blunt: It's true that religious sanctuaries are, as a rule, considered "sacred spaces." I get that. However, there are religious traditions in which some spaces -- parts of those facilities -- have literally been consecrated, in elaborate rites, as holy.

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Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

The New York Times's approach to religion reporting is often a paradox: When covering controversial moral issues, its national reporters will often drink from the well of "Kellerism." That's the GetReligion term created in honor of the paper's former executive editor, Bill Keller, who decreed there are subjects on which there's only one side of the argument worth covering, such abortion and gay rights.

On the other hand, the paper's metro reporters will just as often surprise, as in its sensitive discussion of the KKK-linked founder of an evangelical congregation in New Jersey. There, we learned the Pillar of Fire church of 2017 bore little imprint from the founder who praised the Ku Klux Klan, presented in a way that made the church look good.

Now we come to the Orthodox Jewish faith of Malkah and David Spitalny, who in 2012 resided in a second-floor apartment in the Sea Gate neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, their apartment was flooded, their parrot drowned and the couple had to remain there for years afterward due to economic issues.

The paper is gracious in its treatment of the couple, because it turns out The Times has an ulterior motive, albeit a noble one. The headline is sympathetic: "Faith Moors 2 Victims of Hurricane Sandy in Life’s Storms," as is the story:

The violent wind. The relentless rain. The raging sea.
For Malkah Spitalny, the passage of time has done little to dull her vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast five years ago this weekend. She and her husband rode out the storm less than 500 feet from the ocean.
“It will never pass, this experience of physically going through it,” Mrs. Spitalny, 65, said this month. “The force was unimaginable. The thunders, the fires -- it was beyond comprehension.”

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Seattle Times and Associated Press focus on West Coast homeless, but with little faith factor

Seattle Times and Associated Press focus on West Coast homeless, but with little faith factor

Twice in recent months I’ve had neighbors over to dinner in my small rented condo in a Seattle suburb. And the topic that we all talked about non-stop? The impossible cost of housing in this area (a typical home costs $735K; condos average $378K) and the armies of growing homeless people around the Pacific Northwest.

I was in Oregon about two weeks ago and noticed the large amounts of people camping out on the streets overnight, as Portland’s homeless problem is as invasive as Seattle’s. Cities up and down the entire West Coast are in agony over this, as the sheer numbers of people on the street are outstripping local governments' ability to deal with them. The spending in King County (which embraces Seattle) alone is $195 million in dealing with a problem that’s not getting any better and which is documented in this city site.

In a series of Seattle Times stories that are part of the paper's Project Homeless, a two-year concentration on the problem that kicked off earlier this month, I’m finding an odd split personality. You see, the photos show religious content (that is, church groups helping the homeless), but the reporting in the main news stories does not. What's up with that?

Photos by Alan Berner show a man praying at the Catholic-run St. Martin de Porres shelter in south Seattle: a memorial to homeless in St. Martin’s chapel and bunkmates at the Union Gospel Mission’s shelter near Pioneer Square. But I couldn't find mention of what these places do other than be available.

The Associated Press has jumped onto the issue, stating that the entire West Coast is overwhelmed.

That struggle is not Seattle’s alone. A homeless crisis of unprecedented proportions is rocking the West Coast, and its victims are being left behind by the very things that mark the region’s success: soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy that waits for no one. All along the coast, elected officials are scrambling for solutions.
“I’ve got economically zero unemployment in my city, and I’ve got thousands of homeless people that actually are working and just can’t afford housing,” said Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien. “There’s nowhere for these folks to move to. Every time we open up a new place, it fills up.”

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Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Day after day, I get waves of promotional emails from groups that I have covered during my 30 years as a religion-beat columnist.

Some of them I merely glance at. Others I fill away for future use.

One email this morning stood out, for obvious reasons. It was from the team of church-security advisors with an organization that calls itself the Sheepdog Seminars (as in workers who fight the wolves that prey on "sheep" in a church flock). One member of the team, Jimmy Meeks, is a Hurst, Texas, police officer who is also a Southern Baptist preacher. I've been corresponding with him for years (click here for a column from five years ago).

The email was from Sutherland Springs, Texas. Here's what it said:

This newsletter is short. Quite frankly, I don't know what to tell you this time. I do know this: we have now set a new "record" for the number of people killed on church and faith-based property this year: 92 so far.

The old "record" was 77 lives in 2015. This violence is not going to stop. You had better prepare your church. 

As our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted at midweek, journalists have been all over the church-security angle of this latest tragedy -- with good cause. The fact that there are multiple companies and networks dedicated to this kind of work is evidence of the validity of this story.

The common theme is not that church pews need to be packed with people who have concealed weapons. The bottom line is that religious institutions need some kind of plan for security and, tragically, this now means preparing to stop or slow down a gunman, with worshipers briefed on evacuation plans, etc.

This is not a new story, of course. Thus, I appreciated that The Fort Worth Star-Tribune team dug into its own local angle on this latest massacre in a church. I am talking about the attack nearly two decades ago at that city's Wedgwood Baptist Church, which was the tragedy that -- for security experts -- started the clock ticking on a bloody new era.

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Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

What now, Saudi Arabia? Any more surprises ahead for the media elite?

Barely a week ago, international media outlets were playing up what they interpreted as the beginning of genuine religious reform in Riyadh and the uprooting of corrupt privilege.

But that was then. This week the narrative has shifted dramatically.

That Western applause over Saudi Arabia's signaling that women will finally be allowed to drive in the desert kingdom, unabashedly received as a sign of religious reform, or at the least, a sign of moderation?

Now it's just as likely that it was mere religious window dressing meant as international cover for the wholesale purging of key political rivals by the royal household -- which is to say by Saudi Arabia’s young and ambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, acting with the apparent approval of his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Click here for a refresher on current events in the oil-rich desert kingdom -- though keep in mind that by the time you read this events may quite possibly have moved on.

Not to be minimized is that all this comes at a time of escalating tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran that are capable of destroying whatever semblance of peace remains in the Middle East.

Care to read an Arab take on what's happening?

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In New York Times, a bizarre story about a fake wedding (yes, there are holy ghosts)

In New York Times, a bizarre story about a fake wedding (yes, there are holy ghosts)

Two things to know about the New York Times article I'm about to critique:

1. It concerns a fake wedding.

2. I'm not sure the story is meant to be taken as real news.

My suspicion is that Times editors envisioned this feature as a light piece with some fun art — even if the article itself appeared in the A section of the print edition.

In other words, I feel a little awkward offering a serious analysis of a bizarre story on a phony ritual. The piece reads and feels more like journalistic cotton candy than real steak. So the lack of hard-hitting trend analysis in the piece probably shouldn't surprise me.

Nonetheless, I'll raise a question or two related to the holy ghosts that haunt this Times feature.

Before I do that, though, let's set the scene with the colorful opening:

BUENOS AIRES — On a Saturday night in Buenos Aires, hundreds of guests turned out for what might have been the wedding of the season. The bride and groom were all decked out. So were the witnesses, family and friends.
But the altar was actually a stage. The priest’s questions to the couple were not quite what one would hear in a church. The wedding rings were inflatable, the cake plastic and the Bible oversize. It was all a bit burlesque.
This was no ordinary wedding. In fact, it was no wedding at all, but a “falsa boda” in Spanish, or “fake wedding,” and a really good excuse for a party.
In case there was any doubt, as the couple (hired actors) left the stage, colored lights flashed, the disc jockey started the music pumping, and the announcement was made to the paying guests: “The wedding is fake, but the party is real.”
“The purpose of the ‘falsa boda’ is to convey joy and fun and live the happy moments related to love, without having to fall into the traditional ritual of what a marriage is,” explained Nacho Bottinelli, 30, one of the organizers.

What's causing this trend?

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Veering to the dark side: What role did religion play in Devin Patrick Kelley's fatal family feud?

Veering to the dark side: What role did religion play in Devin Patrick Kelley's fatal family feud?

Yes, this is another GetReligion post about the contents of the original Facebook page that belonged to Devin Patrick Kelley, as opposed to some of the doctored material being circulated by "fake news" conspiracy theory websites.

After my original post on the massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas -- "Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page? -- I received several messages pointing me toward an important quote from a Texas official involved in the investigation.

Here's the quote, as it was included in a report at The Washington Post:

“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news briefing. “There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”

Journalists are, of course, still struggling to put the "Why?" component in the old-school news formula known as "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How."

It is certainly crucial information that Kelley had been sending threatening messages to his mother-in-law and that she, along with Kelley's estranged wife, had been attending worship services at the Sutherland Springs church from time to time. This kind of family feud, linked to a history of domestic violence, is a powerful and logical hook for "Why?" reporting.

However, I have been pondering several questions over the past 24 hours as new evidence emerged: First, are law officials absolutely sure that there was no religious component to the family split at the heart of Kelley's actions? He was, after all, an ex-Baptist who -- according to his Facebook page and the testimonies of friends -- had evolved into an angry and argumentative atheist.

My second question: If the goal was to seek revenge on his mother-in-law, and she was not in the service, why did he try to kill the rest of the congregation?

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