NYTimes Metro desk probes some of the church-state ties that bind

I continue to field questions about the meaning of the term "Kellerism," which is well on its way to entering the GetReligionista dictionary. To catch up on that debate, surf this collection of links or, in particular, read this earlier post.

The bottom line: "Kellerism," a direct reference to you know who saying you know what, is deliberate advocacy journalism in coverage of hot-button stories linked to religious, moral and cultural issues. The key is that The Times, as an institution, has never formally stated that its commitment to accurate, balanced coverage has been edited in this manner. This is a selective bias.

However, some recent trends at The Times may require a slight tweaking of my definition. It appears that "Kellerism" primarily kicks into play in stories addressing issues linked to the world's most powerful newspapers's defense of sacred doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution. Long-suffering religious believers who continue to follow the newspaper day after day may have noticed that its Metro desk is producing some very interesting and fair-minded coverage of religion.

Consider the recent news feature that ran under the headline, "De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide."

The report opens with all kinds of valid questions: Why are some crosses acceptable and others are not? Where is the line between Jewish culture and Judaism the faith? How much holy ground are religious leaders willing to surrender in order to qualify for those $10,000-per-student tuition checks? Here is a key sample of the story:

The concerns crystallized in a one-page document the city issued in May to religious schools weighing whether to host full-day prekindergarten classes. Rather than state simply, as other municipalities have, that all religious instruction is prohibited, the city’s guidelines say that religious texts may be taught if they are “presented objectively as part of a secular program of instruction.” Learning about one’s culture is permitted, city officials say, but religious instruction is not.

This provision has set off debates in the offices of many schools, particularly Orthodox yeshivas, about just what is permissible. Many students in these schools are from deeply religious homes where the line between the cultural and religious is not only blurred, but absent.

“Can you conduct a mock Passover Seder?” said Jeff Leb, of the Orthodox Union, a national Jewish organization. “Can you discuss the symbolism of the menorah for Hanukkah? Can you have a sukkah at the back of the school? Are these things cultural or religious?”

The story is full of telling details, such as this church-state entanglement nightmare:

Religious symbols are not permitted in areas used by city-funded prekindergarten students. A mezuza on a doorway would generally be allowed, but if it had a Jewish star on the outside, it would have to be evaluated in context: If it was small, it would probably be fine, said Maya Wiley, the counsel to the mayor who helped develop the guidelines.

And this quote, from a totally logical source on the legal left:

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that she has already warned city officials that they have created a system “ripe for overstepping.”
Telling religious schools that religious texts may be used for cultural purposes in preschool “is disingenuous,” and is also likely to be illegal, she said. “You plan to tell a 4-year-old that Jesus, Moses or Muhammad is only in their books as a folk hero, and not as a religious leader? That’s kind of a ‘give me a break,’ ” she said.

Again let me repeat that this story is quite solid and quotes many -- but, yes, not all -- of the logical voices needed in this story.

For example, in addition to Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, I would have appreciated hearing what is happening in this city's many vital ethnic religious institutions that do this kind of work. African-Americans? Latinos? Koreans? White Evangelicals?

Journalists! Remember this: When in doubt, dig into the riches in the "A Journey Through NYC Religions" website.

Also, it's crucial for readers to know that the issues in this story are quite different than those in much-covered legal battles (click here for background) over whether religion is a uniquely dangerous form of First Amendment expression, thus allowing the city to refuse to rent its properties to religious nonprofit groups, while continuing to rent to similar, but secular, nonprofit organizations. It would have been good to hear a conservative First Amendment expert -- linked to those NYC "equal access" battles -- explain the degree to which these cases do, and do not, overlap.

But this was a very interesting story on a timely topic. Some good things are happening at that Metro desk, when it comes to non-sexy religion. Stay tuned.

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