There is something unfortunate when a church creates limits on whether or not journalists can attend its religious services. How are journalists supposed to understand religion if they are limited or prohibited from attending what is generally considered the most important and frequent public event in that religious tradition's week? Fortunately, the recent media excitement hasn't resulted in an all-out-media-ban at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's Trinity United Church of Christ. Instead of some sort of draconian ban, the church has created some rules and requires reporters to register a few days in advance.
Here is The Chicago Tribune's Manya Brachear in a first person account of what the new rules mean and how she feels about them:
Recent media scrutiny of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has worshiped for more than 20 years, has raised new questions about 1st Amendment rights, in some ways pitting freedom of the press against the freedom to practice religion.
Should reporters, like the rest of the public, have full and unfettered access to houses of worship? Or is there a time when churches should guard their gates to protect their flocks?
At a news conference Thursday, Trinity's leaders laid down the law for reporters who want to cover the church in the future. Permission must be granted on Thursday for reporters to attend Sunday worship services. All media must check in, wear a badge at all times and refrain from interviewing members on church property.
Though journalists may carry a notepad, they may not send text on their BlackBerries nor use recording devices or cameras anywhere on the church campus. Audio and video recordings of the sermons are available for purchase immediately after the services at the church bookstores.
Brachear goes on to say that the new policies force her to send e-mails and make phone calls from the restroom in an effort not to "disrespect members during the worship experience" and make deadline.
Is this really a first amendment versus the journalists issue? If the church wanted to keep journalists from covering their worship services, would anything in the law stop them? The bigger question is whether these types of rules are intended to lower the church's profile.
It would be interesting to compare these policies with other church's policies on journalists. I am sure there are more than a few stories regarding media coverage of the Episcopal Church battles. Were there policies at Ted Haggard's former church? How do they all compare and how did it effect the news coverage?