Alabama Media Group

How to cover religious liberty: Quote both sides — and skip the scare quotes

How to cover religious liberty: Quote both sides — and skip the scare quotes

Pssssst.

Hey you, guess what? I'm going to do a positive post. Another one.

Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Yesterday, I highlighted Emma Green's magnificent Atlantic piece on the Islamic radicalization of two Mississippi college students.

Our friends at The Media Project shared that post on Twitter and described it as "rare and high praise from GetReligion."

That prompted our editor, Terry Mattingly, to note that "we praise quite a bit of stuff."

The dirty little secret is that our positive posts typically generate far fewer clicks than the negative ones in which we point out problems with mainstream media coverage of religion. Still, we are committed both to identifying holy ghosts and offering kudos when news organizations get it right in terms of fair, balanced journalism.

To that end, I wanted to draw your attention to a story by the Alabama Media Group, which includes the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile. The story concerns a bill protecting the religious liberty of faith-based adoption agencies:

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'God and cannabis': Newspaper offers serious take on church that believes in smoking marijuana

'God and cannabis': Newspaper offers serious take on church that believes in smoking marijuana

Ever heard of a pot-smoking church?

If you pay attention to the news, such churches seem difficult to miss lately.

When Indiana passed its religious freedom law in 2015, questions — and controversy — arose as to whether the measure would open the legal door to the First Church Of Cannabis.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times gave national coverage to the Stoner Jesus Bible Study in Centennial, Colo.

And most recently, longtime religion writer Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News and Alabama Media Group profiled a pro-marijuana church (as part of a series on marijuana in that Bible Belt state):

With a stained-glass window behind them, a lineup of speakers stepped to the front of the church and talked about the potential health benefits of legalizing plants that are currently outlawed in Alabama.
"I smoke cannabis on a daily basis for my pain," said Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama. "If I did not, I'd be on pain pills."
Her husband, Christopher Rushing, chief executive officer of Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light, says he also uses marijuana routinely.
The Rushings founded the Oklevueha Church in 2015 and claim that it has a legal exemption for its members to smoke marijuana and ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote cactus.
At a January forum with an audience of about 30 gathered at Unity Church in Birmingham, which allowed the use of its facilities, speakers discussed the potential benefits of marijuana and other substances for medicinal purposes.
"I had an ungodly facial rash," said Sherrie Saunders, a former U.S. Army medic who is now a member of Oklevueha Native American Church in Alabama.
"We made a cream that completely got rid of that rash," Mrs. Rushing said.
Someone in the audience discussed a heart problem and sleep apnea.
"That could be something that cannabis could help," Saunders said.

Kudos to Garrison for a solid piece of reporting on — believe it or not — "God and cannabis."

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Generic Christian woman told to remove her 'headscarf' for driver license photo

Generic Christian woman told to remove her 'headscarf' for driver license photo

A Christian woman in a headscarf! And the state forced her to take it off!

The American Civil Liberties Union sure knew the media-sexy spin for its lawsuit against Alabama, which wouldn't let Yvonne Allen wear her headgear for a driver license photo. Especially when a court clerk said only Muslims would be allowed to do so.

And mainstream media joined in the spin -- so avidly that none of them even talked to Allen. It's a "religious ghost" that screams for attention: What type of Christian is she? And what church does she attend that tells her to cover her head?

That's just one of several ways nearly everyone has mishandled this story.

Allen, of Tuskegee, Ala., went for a driver license renewal, but a clerk ordered her to bare her head before being photographed. She protested on grounds that her Christian beliefs forbid a woman from showing her hair. 

The clerks forced her to do so anyway, saying that only Muslim women are allowed headscarves for photos. This despite the fact that Alabama law allows headscarves in photos -- without naming any particular religion -- as long as they don’t hide the face. 

Allen says it was "humiliating and demeaning," and she's suing to have her license photo reshot. The suit also demands unspecified damages.

It's a crazy story, rife with ironies and prejudice, not to mention several constitutional issues. But most reports thus far have done little more than copy and paste the allegations in the ACLU filing.

And, as I say, they’ve also gone along with the spin. Yvonne Allen's headware is more like a turban, as you can see in a picture on the ACLU website. But by using the loaded term "headscarf," the lawsuit echoes the many incidents -- like the two Muslim women recently thrown out of a French restaurant -- of hijab harassment.

Let's start with the much-cited Associated Press:

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Bible Belt jackpot: Might Alabama lose its religion and approve a state lottery?

Bible Belt jackpot: Might Alabama lose its religion and approve a state lottery?

For now, Alabama remains one of six states without a lottery, according to an ABC News report.

But could that soon change?

As early as the Nov. 8 general election, voters in that Bible Belt state may be asked to approve a lottery to help fund state government and education.

Is there a potential religion angle here? 

You think?

Fortunately for news consumers, veteran Godbeat pro Greg Garrison, who writes for the Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group, already is on top of the story.

Garrison wrote last week:

A Jefferson County ministry group representing dozens of area clergy has issued a statement opposing a state lottery in Alabama.
The Gatekeepers Association of Alabama, a group of about 25 pastors that has met monthly for the past year and has included as many as 41 clergy, said a lottery runs counter to biblical principles.
 "We serve one another; we don't rob another," said the Rev. Jim Lowe, senior pastor of Guiding Light Church in Birmingham. "It's blatantly obvious that countless Alabama families would have a stumbling block placed before them if a lottery passes."
The group quoted Romans 14:13-19, in which the Apostle Paul urges Christians to "make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister."

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Alabama Muslims: Feature on converts doesn't ask many (or any) follow-up questions

Alabama Muslims: Feature on converts doesn't ask many (or any) follow-up questions

Confession time: I used to write stories almost as wide-eyed as yesterday's feature on Muslim converts in Alabama.

I wrote up Muslim criticisms of Christianity. I retold their feelings about baleful attitudes from other Americans. I did, however, try to look critically at their claims of up to seven million believers in the U.S.

But see, it's two decades later, and mainstream media should have moved on. And I suggest that the Alabama Media Group, with seven regional editions, carries a heavy responsibility for perceptive reporting, not just writing up notes.

This particular article starts as a sensitive, detail-rich feature of the Alabaman Muslims: how they live, how they view presidential candidates, how they think other Americans view them. Al.com even finds a counter-intuitive lede:

Allie Larbi sounds like a Donald Trump supporter.
The Mobile resident supports building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and scrapping birthright citizenship. Syrian refugees, in her own words, should either be blocked from entering the United States or let in only to be housed in isolated refugee camps.
"I have what I like to turn around and call American views," said Larbi. "This is a great country and it needs to stay that way."

Larbi naturally takes offense at some of Trump's other statements, like "mandatory registration for Muslims, a ban on Muslim travel to the United States, or shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood."  We'll get back to her in a moment.

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Livin' on a prayer: The good, the bad and the ugly in the world of religion writers, circa 2015

Livin' on a prayer: The good, the bad and the ugly in the world of religion writers, circa 2015

I won't bury the lede. The ugly is me.

I ate too many sausage biscuits and cheeseburgers this year as I feverishly cranked out four GetReligion posts a week. (Note to self: Must exercise more and eat less in 2016.)

But oh, I do love this part-time gig and count it a blessing to work with the likes of Terry Mattingly, Jim Davis, Julia Duin, Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin.

While we at GetReligion mostly critique media coverage of religion news, we like to keep readers updated on happenings on the Godbeat itself.

Here are seven developments — some good, others bad — from 2015:

1. Jennifer Berry Hawes rocked — totally rocked — coverage of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

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Media org wants to cover Bible Belt 'culture' better, so it lays off religion writer — huh!?

Media org wants to cover Bible Belt 'culture' better, so it lays off religion writer — huh!?

Face it: When corporate bean counters lay off journalists under the guise of improving journalism, the justifications are always going to sound idiotically silly.

Enter the Alabama Media Group.

Poynter.org reports:

Several employees at Alabama Media Group have been laid off, the Advance-owned regional media company announced Tuesday.
In a memo to staffers announcing the cuts, Alabama Media Group executive Michelle Holmes said between five and nine positions will be eliminated in each of the company’s main sites across the state.
“We know many of you will say goodbye to trusted colleagues and friends,” Holmes wrote. “We wish the best for those who leave our organization today and thank them for their dedication and good work.”
In a release, Alabama Media Group said the cuts will be accompanied by an increased focus on core areas of coverage including breaking news, high school and college sports and Alabama culture. 

So the Alabama Media Group wants to put an increased focus on covering "Alabama culture?"

Alabama, where 46 percent of residents attend religious services every week (ranking that Deep South state third out of 50).

Alabama, where 57 percent of residents describe themselves as "very religious" (again, No. 3 among the 50 states).

Obviously, the best way to bolster coverage of "Alabama culture" is to, you know, lay off a talented, seasoned, hard-working religion writer. 

Right?

Wait — huh!!!???:

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