First Amendment

Supreme Court hears major LGBT case; USA Today listens to one side of debate -- period

Supreme Court hears major LGBT case; USA Today listens to one side of debate -- period

While the impeachment circus roars on, the U.S. Supreme Court drew another throng of demonstrators the other day as it heard arguments on another crucial LGBT-rights case.

The big news here, in case you had not heard, is that Justice Anthony Kennedy is now a retired justice. Do the math.

If you read the New York Times report on the oral arguments before the court, it was pretty obvious that this was yet another case in which religious liberty issues appear to be clashing with the Sexual Revolution. Check that out here, if you want to hear quite a bit of information from lawyers on both sides of the debate.

Then again, if only want to hear the LGBT side of the arguments, you can read USA Today. Here is the top of the story that ran there (and in many Gannett newspapers across the nation):

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared deeply divided Tuesday on a major civil rights question: whether gay and transgender people are covered by a federal law barring employment discrimination on the basis of sex.

The court's rulings in three cases, which are not expected until next year, seemed to hinge on President Donald Trump's two nominees. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch called the dispute over transgender rights "close" but more likely an issue for Congress to address. Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh directed his only question to a lawyer for two employers that fired gay workers, leaving his position in doubt.

The court's four liberal justices forcefully denounced the firings of two gay men and a transgender woman from Georgia, New York and Michigan and made clear they believe all three should be protected by the statutory ban on sex discrimination.

"We can't deny that homosexuals are being fired merely for being who they are and not because of religious reasons, not because they are performing their jobs poorly," Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, calling it "invidious behavior."

Ah, “religious reasons.” Might that be a reference to “religious liberty”?

It’s hard to know, since the USA Today report never addresses that side of the equation in any way whatsoever — until the final paragraph of the story.

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

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.”

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Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Here’s an old journalism saying that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (please click here to tune that in). All together now: “It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.”

That does this have to do with this past week’s GetReligion post about a much-discussed Washington Post piece about Jerry Falwell, Jr., Donald Trump and the student press? Click here for more background on that essay by former Liberty editor Will Young: “Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges.”

Publications operated by the military are, literally, providing news about the actions of their bosses. They are trying to cover their own publishers. The same thing is true at private colleges and universities. Student journalists (and, yes, their journalism professors) work for news organizations that ultimately answer to administration officials that they inevitably have to cover.

Things can get tense. But to understand the realities here, readers need to know a few facts. Here is a chunk of a Liberty University report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that frequently clashes with schools on the cultural left and right. Many critics call TheFIRE.org a conservative organization because of its defense of old-school First Amendment liberalism.

Note the first sentence here.

As a private university, Liberty is not legally bound by the First Amendment, and may decline to protect students’ free speech in favor of other institutional values. But for years, Falwell has publicly held out the university’s commitment to free expression as far superior to that which other institutions make — indeed, as among the very best in the nation and among the cornerstones of his institution.

Liberty’s policies, hidden from public view behind a password-protected web portal, are devoid of any written commitment that would effectuate its leadership’s proclamations. FIRE has acquired a copy, however, and determined that the policies provide Falwell and Liberty administrators with sweeping control over all manner of campus expression.

Here is another crucial passage:

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Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great story about religious freedom and freedom of conscience?

Want to read a great story about this topic — religious liberty, not “religious liberty” — in The New York Times?

Well, that’s what this post is about. Here’s the headline: “She Wears a Head Scarf. Is Quebec Derailing Her Career?

How did this story happen?

Well, for starters, it’s about a religious liberty linked to the life and beliefs of a Muslim woman. It’s not a story about white evangelical Protestant cake bakers in USA flyover country or traditional Catholics wrestling with liberal Catholics on some issue of marriage and sexuality.

In other words, this is a religious liberty case that — in terms of readers — pulls together the old left-right First Amendment coalition that existed several decades ago, when you could pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate and only three people would oppose it. It’s the kind of case that brings American religious conservatives together with liberal activists, attempting to — oh — protect the rights of Muslims in U.S. prisons.

It also helps that this drama is set in Canada and the bad guys are “right-leaning.” In other words, zero Donald Trump-era implications. Here is the overture:

MONTREAL — Maha Kassef, 35, an ambitious elementary schoolteacher, aspires to become a principal. But since she wears a Muslim head scarf, she may have to derail her dreams: A proposed bill in Quebec would bar public school principals, and other public employees, from wearing religious symbols.

“How am I supposed to teach about respect, tolerance and diversity to my students, many of whom are immigrant kids, when the government is asking me to give up who I am?” asked Ms. Kassef, the child of Kuwaiti immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to send her and her four siblings to college.

“What right does the Quebec government have to stop my career?” she added.

Religious minorities in Quebec are reeling after the right-leaning government of François Legault proposed the law last week. It would prohibit not just teachers, but other public sector workers in positions of authority, including lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while working.

What’s the point here? The Times explains that this proposed law is advocating the brand of radical secularism and church-state separation that has its roots in France.

In other words, we are not talking about a First Amendment debate.

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Turn, turn, turn: There's a very good reason you didn't hear from Ira Rifkin last week

Turn, turn, turn: There's a very good reason you didn't hear from Ira Rifkin last week

GetReligion readers who pay close attention to international news, period, and religion trends in international news, to be specific, will have noticed that we didn’t have a Global Wire memo last week from religion-beat veteran Ira Rifkin.

Trust me, this wasn’t because Rifkin didn’t try to hit his deadline. He has filed under some of the most amazingly stressful and even painful situations. We are talking really old-school, on that side of the journalism-skills equation.

Well, last week, Rifkin couldn’t file because he was having surgery. No need for too many details, but everyone thought things were on the up and up, afterwards.

You know that old saying that “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else? This is certainly one of those cases — times 10. There were complications. Thus, I received a follow-up note from Ira about the surgery that included the following material. I think we can all agree that the lede is a bit of an understatement, but that’s Ira.

Life's become even more complex for me. …

I started having seizures  -- a very strange out of body experience -- and my heart stopped several times. I'm back in the hospital. … Strokes and/or brain damage have been ruled out. In any event I needed a heart pacemaker installed. … Though because my heart stopped again while on the operating table, they had to install an emergency one before circling back to install the permanent one.

I'm much better today but extraordinarily weak, mostly in bed and sleeping.

Rifkin will update his status when the time is right, I am sure.

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What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

This week’s “Crossroads” feature post is brought to you by the letter “A,” as in “Atlantic ocean.”

In other words, I am writing this while looking out a window at the Atlantic Ocean. I think this week’s podcast introduction will be a bit shorter than normal.

Oh, the podcast is the normal length (click here to tune that in) and it focuses on reports about an investigation into the basic facts of the Covington Catholic High School media storm. Here’s my previous post on that topic: “Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists.”

The main subject that host Todd Wilken and I discussed was the lessons that two groups of people — journalists and church leaders — could learn from that encounter between a bunch of Catholic boys, a circle of black Hebrew Israelites and Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

I hope that everyone learned to be a bit more patient when considering “hot take” responses to short, edited YouTube videos prepared by activist groups. That includes Catholic bishops, if and when they face withering waves of telephone calls from reporters (and perhaps other church leaders).

We may have a new reality here: When news events take place and lots of people are present, journalists (and bishops) can assume that there will be more than one smartphone video to study.

The stakes for journalists (and perhaps a few Hollywood pros) could be high. Consider this passage from my earlier post, focusing on What. Comes. Next.

… There’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

So, are journalists pausing to think about what happened in this Twitter-fueled train wreck of a story?

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