Orlando Sentinel on lesbian couple: Fair reporting, but is it fair enough?

We at GetReligion talk a lot about fairness and balance, for reporting the pros and cons in a controversy. Yes, that's vital; but as in a story on a lesbian couple in Orlando, you need equivalent pros and cons. You also need to furnish background where needed.

And with the Orlando Sentinel's story on Jaclyn Pfeiffer and Kelly Bardier versus Aloma United Methodist Church, it was needed.

Basically, they were forced out from the church's daycare center. The couple said they were fired because they're gay. The church said they left voluntarily, and that they broke its rule for employees -- gay or straight -- to be celibate outside marriage.

Bishop Ken Carter of the UMC Florida Conference sided with the couple, agreeing to pay $28,476 to them and their attorneys. Carter scolded the church and said he would remind the state's other Methodist pastors "reminding them of the church policy against violating a person's civil rights based on sexual orientation," the Sentinel says.

Some of the story is a "they said - they said" matter, and the Sentinel scrupulously logs the argument without trying to settle it:

Govatos also said the issue was not whether they were gay, but whether they were sexually intimate while unmarried — a violation of church employment policy that applied to straight as well as gay individuals.
"The [day-care] director asked them if they were involved in a sexual relationship. Each one on their own admitted that they were," Govatos said.
Meeks said they were never asked about whether they were sexually intimate — only whether they were in a relationship.
"My clients were never asked and never discussed that they were in a sexual relationship. They were never asked that question," Meeks said.

The newpsper quotes Pastor Jim Govatos of Aloma, as well as the couples' attorney. It also quotes a letter from the conference superintendent, the Rev. Annette Stiles Pendergrass. But I would have preferred a direct quote from Stiles or the bishop.

Also included is an accompanying video, which quotes only Govatos, who says church rules require "faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness." We also should have heard directly from Pfeiffer and Bardier. If they left public communication to their lawyer, the Sentinel should have said so.

Another issue: The article makes it sound like this is all about what Aloma UMC says and does:

Govatos said even if Bardier and Pfeiffer were legally married in Florida, they could still have faced termination because Aloma UMC has not updated its policy to deal with same-sex marriage. Govatos, who is leaving Aloma for a position in Tallahassee within two months, said he thought it best for his successor to make that decision.

If it's all up to the congregation, why did Bishop Carter get involved? The answer is that the United Methodist Church is a "connectional" denomination, with congregations acting as branch offices of a corporation. It's different from, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, where all the congregations are independent corporations.

And the Book of Discipline, the basic United Methodist rulebook, is pretty clear on matters related to homosexuality. It says that gays have the right to become church members and take part in activities, but it adds:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

That stance makes the seven million United Methodists the largest mainline Protestant bloc that doesn't approve same-sex marriage -- an uncomfortable situation both with fellow churches and with news media. With approval by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in March, the Religion News Service ran a breathlessly enthusiastic story that placed the UMC "outside the same-sex marriage fold." And just in case we readers didn't pick up the attitude, RNS' "Slingshot" roundup added a kicker head: "Looking at you, Methodists."

The Book of Discipline can be changed only during the church's quadrennial legislative session. The next one is scheduled for 2016, and pro-gay groups are hard at work for change.

Any or all of this background would have helped the Orlando Sentinel story. It would have also armed the reporter to ask Bishop Carter how national policy squares with his emphasis on individual civil rights.

Aloma UMC didn't get into this problem in a vacuum; nor will the overall issue be settled in one. Including the larger context -- and notice, BTW, that all of the above was available online -- would have helped readers grasp better the events at Aloma's dayschool.

Photo: Still from Orlando Sentinel video interview with Pastor Jim Govatos.


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