Don't ask, don't tell ... don't report? (Updated)

Religion News Service has a story about Southern Baptist chaplains opposing reversal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. An edited version ran in the Washington Post on Saturday. They aren't terribly different but I'll be working from the Post version for this post. Here's how it begins:

In many religious circles, the repeal of a military ban on openly gay members is considered practically a done deal. But Southern Baptists, who have many more active-duty military chaplains than any other denomination, are not letting this go through without a fight.

The Southern Baptist Convention is battling the expected repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" on a number of fronts: Its agencies are contacting members of Congress and the Pentagon; retired chaplains are sending letters to President Obama; and a resolution adopted at the denomination's annual meeting in Orlando this week condemns allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

First off, I'm so glad to see a story about "don't ask, don't tell" that moves beyond political horse race coverage. Back in May, TMatt noted that some folks were very concerned about the religious liberty conflicts that may arise under such a policy revision. And that the coverage of same was very difficult to find.

But what a mushy way to begin a story, eh? Not only is the claim completely unsubstantiated, it immediately marginalizes Southern Baptists. They are the largest Protestant denomination in the country and have the largest number of chaplains in the military, we learn. And much later we find out -- in about as subtle a way as possible -- that, oh yeah, the Roman Catholics are opposed, too. Put those two groups together and you have nearly a quarter of the chaplain corps. Something tells me that other non-mainline Protestant denominations might be opposed, too.

Anyway, the story is fine. It does a good job of getting perspective from liberal mainline Protestants who support repeal of DADT. My big beef, though, is that the story is still kind of focused on the political angles rather than the religious liberty angles. The whole point of the story, oddly, seems to be about whether Southern Baptists are overrepresented in the chaplain corps. We're told that Southern Baptists are concerned about religious liberty issues and the story ends with a chaplain coordinator giving one example of a potential conflict. But I didn't feel like I in any way understood what the exact nature of the Southern Baptist concern was.

So I had to go and research on my own. Now, the chaplaincy is a tangled mess of religious liberty conflicts. It always has been. I get that it's complicated. Still, I think we could have seen a bit better discussion of how a DADT repeal changes the delicate balance of protecting chaplains and members religious liberty with upholding military policies.

You can get a better idea of some of the Southern Baptist concerns by reading this blog post at the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. There's the actual resolution passed by the Southern Baptists last week.

Some 40 retired chaplains from various denominations, backgrounds and services signed a letter detailing very specific concerns they had with changes to the policy. They talked about particular programs -- such as marriage programs -- that chaplains run. They looked at a number of different ways that they could be accused of discrimination doing their day-to-day jobs and handling their responsibilities -- responsibilities that have both a religious and military component. This is really juicy stuff. I'd love an open airing of their concerns, a response from people who think they're all wet and a discussion from people who are experts at crafting policy to keep all sides appeased.

And yet when reporters cover these issues, the stories come out a bit impotent. The Daily Caller had a story about an incredibly strong statement against changing the policy from the Catholic Archbishop for military chaplains. It wasn't covered by the mainstream media. Do you ever wonder if they're uninterested in readers? Gay sex and religion are guaranteed page hits. Come on! In Archbishop Timothy Broglio's statement, he raises concerns about living conditions, the rights of individuals who oppose homosexual behavior, the overall impact of authorizing homosexual behavior, etc. Here's the top of the Daily Caller story:

The archbishop for the U.S. military spoke out for the first time against the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," setting up a possible conflict between Pentagon brass and the 285 Roman Catholic priests who serve on active-duty in the military.

"Those with a homosexual orientation can expect respect and treatment worthy of their human dignity," said Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Catholic overseer for military chaplains, in a statement released late last week. "However, unions between individuals of the same gender resembling marriage will not be accepted or blessed by Catholic chaplains."

Broglio was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI two and a half years ago, though it is unclear if the archbishop speaks for the Vatican, which has so far been mum on the issue.

I had to smile at the last line. We're always asking for reporters to explain that, for instance, Roman Catholic WomenPriests aren't actually Roman Catholic. But here in the third graph we get a disclaimer about whether the archbishop for military chaplains is authorized to talk about DADT. Anyway, I'll just echo what TMatt said last time he looked at the coverage: there is a story in there. Let's see some good, balanced coverage.

UPDATE: I had said, above, that I found it difficult to understand exactly what were the Southern Baptist objections to the policy revision. This February 2010 RNS story, while it doesn't specifically mention Southern Baptists, gives some helpful information.

Paul Vicalvi, a retired Army chaplain who directs the Chaplains Commission for the National Association of Evangelicals, ... said the proposed change is prompting a range of questions, from whether heterosexual chaplains will be mandated to serve in the same pulpit as gay ministers to whether chaplains would be required to permit a gay couple to attend a marriage retreat.

It shows you don't need too many additional words to show what the precise religious liberty questions in play are and I hope similar information can be included in future stories. That story is also a good example of the type of coverage needed as Congress and military leaders decide what to do about the policy. It's written with an economy of words but long enough to get differing perspectives fully incorporated into the story.

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