It’s one of the mantras I recite every now and then when describing journalism trends in this troubled age: Opinion is cheap, while information is expensive.
Week after week, readers send us the URLs to opinion pieces and op-ed essays about subjects that, in a previous age, might have received serious news coverage that explored the views of people on both sides of these arguments and standoffs.
This does not mean that these pieces are not important or that they don’t contain valid information about important news stories.
That’s certainly the case with this “opinion column” that was published recently by the Alabama Media Group — AL.com — with this headline: “Why does God need public records? In Alabama, that’s a real question.” The author is political columnist Kyle Whitmire.
The overture is somewhat confusing, but that’s sort of the point. What we have here is a case that involves press freedom, religious freedom, the death penalty and who knows what all. It’s a bit of a mystery.
Why in the name of God would anyone need a public record?
After all, doesn’t the Almighty already know what those documents show?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For Tabitha Isner, they were real, asked of her by a lawyer for the Alabama prison system. And she had to answer under oath.
Swear to God.
Or, if you care about transparency and accountability in government, just swear.
Like the Holy Bible, maybe we should start in the beginning.
When Isner asked for Alabama’s death row execution protocols, she had to give a reason on the Department of Corrections’ public information request form.
It helps to know that Tabitha Isner is actually the Rev. Tabitha Isner and an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is a denomination that is usually listed on the religious left, but, down in Bible Belt land, some of its very independent congregations are harder to label. Isner also ran for Congress once, and lost.
But what matters in this case is that she has been doing research into Alabama’s procedures surrounding the use of the death penalty. It’s safe to assume that her motivations are both theological and political — a combination that is perfectly fine under the First Amendment.
Ask the U.S. Catholic Bishops about that. Ask the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Ask lots of religious folks on the left and the right.
Let’s keep reading:
When she filled out the form she said what a lot of politicians and preachers say when confronted with a prickly question: She wanted to pray on it. Next to “Proposed Use of Records” she wrote: “As a member of the clergy, I feel a spiritual obligation to pray over executions. To do this most effectively, I need to have a detailed understanding of how executions are carried out.”
Her complete answer would have been more complex, she says now, but the blank on the form was about six inches long.
“When you fill out one of these forms, you don’t expect to be under investigation,” she told me.
But that’s what happened.
Her two-year fight to get those records has taken her to court. As part of that, she had to sit for a two-hour deposition, under oath, where a lawyer for the state asked her, among many other things, why God would need the information she sought.
Really. That happened.
Wait. There’s more.
This mext passage is long, but you have to read it to believe it:
When the DOC deposed her, Isner had to answer deeply personal questions about her faith, her social media habits, her adopted children, her political beliefs, her charitable donations, her work history and just about everything you might imagine apart from the only question that mattered — whether the DOC documents are public records.
“It was very uncomfortable, and I think that was the point,” she said.
It was during that deposition the state’s lawyer questioned why God would need a public records request since He already knows everything there is to know.
Q: But certainly the God described in those scriptures is an omniscient God?
Isner: God is often described in scripture as omniscient.
Q: Which means knows all things, if I got my Latin right?
Q: And so if God hears our prayers, all prayers, and God knows all things, God would -- God would know the details of these protocols that you want to find out about under that theory. You agree with that?
State officials also asked her about her donations to Planned Parenthood and her stance on some crucial questions about abortion.
Now, I am a “Culture of Life” guy, myself, and my beliefs about the death penalty (totally opposed) spring from the same theological roots as my beliefs about abortion. I think there are some important questions to be discussed, when these kinds of issues collide.
But what in the world does this have to do with a citizen requesting to see and/or copy public documents linked to important and controversial state policies?
There’s an important story here. Read it all.