Just what we need -- another story about homosexuality and softball. Actually, this recent story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, whether the newsroom knows it or not, raises some interesting questions about what happens when religious liberty -- specifically freedom of association -- clashes with claims of gay rights. But it's hard to tell. You see, there are just too many gaps and unanswered questions in this report.
The story focuses on a clash between a gay softball coach and the leaders of Bellevue Baptist Church, which happens to be one of America's most powerful Southern Baptist congregations. Before we look at the many questions raised by this story, including issues of balance and accuracy, here is how the conflict is framed right up top:
A local women's softball coach said her team was banned from a Bellevue Baptist Church league after she acknowledged she is gay.
Jana J. Jacobson said church officials told her the "deviant" lifestyle would prevent the team from competing in Bellevue's adult women's softball league. The coach said she was the only team member who attended meetings in preparation for the season that began June 8, and the only member questioned by Bellevue leadership. She wondered why her lifestyle mattered since they were playing softball.
"Finally, in my frustration, I said that I am going to be clear. I am gay, and I find all of this to be absurd and against the word of God as I know it," Jacobson said of a meeting with Bellevue officials.
Jim Barnwell, Bellevue's director of communications, said Tuesday afternoon the church has "no plans to comment on (Jacobson's story) at this time."
As GetReligion readers often note, mainstream reporters often write about issues affecting gays and lesbians without actually interviewing any members of the gay community. In this case, Jacobson's voice dominates the story and it is the actual leaders of the church whose voices are missing. It is likely that the church's leaders have decided -- after years in the media spotlight -- to let their communications pro speak and that's it. However, you have to wonder if there was some way for the newsroom to verify some crucial facts in this story, as opposed to accepting Jacobson's point of view (including a key second-hand quote) as definitive.
For example, consider the following passage:
In May, Jacobson's team, composed of straight and gay players, many of whom play one night a week in Bartlett, was looking for more games. They discovered Bellevue was allowing teams not associated with the Cordova church to join. She registered, paid the entry fee and attended the preseason organizational meeting. This included outlines of league rules: no alcohol, smoking or cursing and no offensive terms on uniforms. She does not recall there being any morality clause.
Obviously, "does not recall" is not a very high standard of accuracy. Is there a written set of policies for the league or not? It is clear there are some iron-clad rules. Is this a case in which the church was caught off guard when a new issue was raised? In other words, do the written rules for the church's league address this issue?
That's a factual question. Readers deserve a factual answer. Are we to believe that no coaches or members of other teams in the league have a printed copy of the rules? Did church leaders refuse a request by a reporter or editor to see a copy of the written rules?
While we are at it, we need to know more about the church policy that defines just how open the league is, in the first place. We are told -- again by Jacobson -- that teams do not have to be linked to Bellevue Baptist. However, is this a league for teams linked to churches? How about churches and non-profits?
Based on Jacobson's quote about her own views of scripture, it's possible that her team is linked to a more liberal Christian denomination. Thus, the team may have been admitted as a church-based team before the Bellevue leaders realized there might be a clash over this doctrinal issue. Clearly, there are churches on both sides of these debates about sexual morality in a big, complex city like Memphis. For example, many oldline Protestants in that city -- Episcopalians, United Methodists, various types of Presbyterians, etc. -- would differ with one another.
Did anyone ask this basic question about Jacobson's team?
By the way, does this league play its games in PUBLIC parks or in facilities at the church? That's a question that could come up in future coverage, if there is any.
The story does offer another Baptist point of view, while seeking information to explain the bizarre beliefs of this nationally known congregation -- Bellevue was a key player in the revolution on the Southern Baptist right in the late 1970s -- in its own backyard. Thus, we read:
According to Jacobson, Scotty Shows, the church's recreation minister ... told her that because she was gay the team could not play. She was told that the team's participation would send a message to Bellevue members that the church condoned her lifestyle.
Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, said terms such as "deviant lifestyle" are common for Baptists opposing homosexuality.
"The issue of homosexuality and how Southern Baptists handle that is a huge issue with them. I haven't heard of a situation in a softball league, but it doesn't surprise me," said Gourley, who, according to his biography, holds a degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is online editor of Baptists Today.
Again note that, perhaps because of the church's media policies, the story includes key information drawn from a second-hand quote. And what about the input of this expert on Baptist life?
It's fascinating that Gourley refers to Southern Baptists as "them," as opposed to "us." However, a closer look at his biography indicates that he graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in 1992. This is precisely the time that conservatives established control of the school -- infuriating the "moderate" Baptists who had dominated the campus for decades. Also, note that Gourley lives in Montana, making the decision to seek out his input on a Memphis story interesting, to say the least.
Then again, it also helps to know that Baptists Today is a publication linked to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship -- the "moderate" Baptist network organized in opposition to the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and, thus, Bellevue Baptist. Gourley has also served as an executive at the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University, a campus with increasingly strong ties to the more progressive American Baptists in the north and to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other Baptists who have severed many or most of their ties to Southern Baptist Convention life (take Jimmy Carter, for example).
In other words, asking a Baptists Today writer to offer insights on a Bellevue Baptist Church policy is something like asking someone at Southern Baptist headquarters to comment on the theology of Bill Clinton. It's kind of like asking a Focus on the Family leader to critique the politics of, oh, Barack Obama. It's like asking evangelical Jim Wallis to comment on the views of evangelical Sarah Palin.
In other words, this is another voice with a strong point of view -- a fact that was omitted from this news story. Seeing references to "Baptists Today" and the "Baptist History and Heritage Society," many readers would have concluded that they were reading information from a neutral or even conservative source. That is not the case.
You have to wonder, in other words, what kind of attempts were made to report this story in an accurate and balanced manner.