Our periodic reminder for journalists: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda

It’s almost humorous.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation — whose name succinctly characterizes the organization’s agenda — complains about the conservative Republican governor of one of the nation’s most religious states speaking at a church.

A leading newspaper in that state rushes to report the claim that the governor is doing something unconstitutional, as if it’s breaking news.

Except that it’s really the same old, same old — and regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.

I came across the story that sparked this post via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion headlines today. Believe it or not, it was the second headline on Pew’s rundown of top religion news nationally. Ironically, the story came from my home state of Oklahoma, even though I hadn’t heard about it.

Here is the lede from the Tulsa World:

OKLAHOMA CITY — A group advocating for the separation of church and state on Tuesday accused Gov. Kevin Stitt of using his office to promote religion.

Stitt in his official capacity as governor is speaking at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Guts Church in Tulsa, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The event uses his title to seek attendees.

In a Monday letter to Stitt, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, said if Stitt wanted to discuss religion, he should do it as a private citizen and not as governor.

“Using the Office of the Governor to promote a specific religious mission is unconstitutional and sends a direct message to the 30 percent non-Christian adults who you serve that they have the wrong religion and that only your personal god can solve Oklahoma’s problems,” the letter said.

“We are telling Gov. Stitt, as we tell all pious politicians: ‘Get off your knees and get to work,’ ” said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s not OK in Oklahoma or any other state for public officials to misuse their office to promote religion.”

At that point, the World is not done quoting the Freedom From Religion Foundation. There are three more paragraphs — including a quote from a staff attorney for the organization — before the newspaper gives the governor’s office a chance to respond.

Frustratingly, the response doesn’t really address the claim that the governor speaking at a church is unconstitutional:

“This has been a remarkably productive administration, and it is because we have a governor who works tirelessly, casts vision and values people no matter their background or place of worship,” said Baylee Lakey, a Stitt spokeswoman. “One of the first events he hosted at the Governor’s Mansion was a lunch for members of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, which represents individuals across 75 faith traditions.

“The governor welcomes all opportunities to speak and listen to Oklahomans, in their communities, no matter their background or religious affiliation.”

In case I haven’t been clear, here’s my major issue with this story (and others like it that pop up frequently): The newspaper makes no attempt to investigate the claim that the governor is doing something unconstitutional by speaking at the church.

Since it’s obvious that the group making the charge has an agenda, why not seek out other sources, such as constitutional law experts, to weigh in? Why not ask for comment from a group on the other side, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends the right of public officials to live out their faith in the public arena? Why not note that the governor campaigned on a platform that touted his faith? (I know he did because the targeted ads appeared in my Facebook feed.)

I mean, anybody paying attention knows that Stitt is an evangelical who has been open about the role of religion in his life:

I’m not convinced that the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter about Stitt is really news.

But if a major newspaper is going to report on it, I’d love to see the story go beyond stenography and venture into the realm of actual journalism.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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