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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

For millions of Roman Catholics, the world began changing in the 1980s — with waves of headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases that eventually led to reporter Jason Berry’s cathartic 1992 book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.”

The National Catholic Reporter wrote article after article about the scandals. A crucial moment came in 1985, when The New York Times published a brutal article about the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who admitted that he abused dozens of children in parishes in rural, southwest Louisiana. HBO eventually made a movie — “Judgement” — about the Gauthe case.

Mainstream news reporters, including me, covered stories linked to the emerging scandal all through the 1980s, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss how to solve this hellish puzzle.

As a series of documentaries by Minnesota Public Radio stated, “It all began in Lafayette.”

I offered this brief flash back as context for an important, but stunningly faith-free, Washington Post “social issues” feature that ran under this headline: “What it’s like to be a young Catholic in a new era of clergy sex abuse scandals.” Here is the features crucial summary material:

In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.

This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.

At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.

Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute.

For starters, the Post does need to run a correction stating that the first national exposure of the clergy sexual abuse scandal did not come in 2002 in the Spotlight work published by The Boston Globe. The Globe work was stunning, and crucial, but it is simply inaccurate to ignore the nearly two decades of work that came before that.

However, the heart of this article consists of interviews with young Catholic women in Washington, D.C., along with experts who describe how their views illustrate the faith impact of the ongoing scandals. There are, apparently, no young Catholic men inside the Beltway.

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Look for a story here: Catholic parents may be worrying about 'religious formation' classes

Look for a story here: Catholic parents may be worrying about 'religious formation' classes

This is the time of year when Catholic children who go to public schools also have to attend classes on Sundays.

What most Christians call “Sunday school,” Catholics refer to as “religious formation.” It is required of all Catholics — baptized children and adults who have converted or returned to the faith — in order to prepare for the receiving of sacraments such as Holy Communion and Confirmation.

Many Catholic parents have been concerned, obviously, after the revelations of this past summer involving ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the hundreds of Pennsylvania priests accused of molesting children and teens dating back decades made public in a grand jury report. The abuse of minors and sexual harassment of adults in the church has triggered plenty of doubt among the faithful regarding the church’s hierarchy.

This can impact church life in many ways. Here is one Sunday-morning angle that reporters need to think about.

The conversations in the pews and outside churches in the past few weeks have revolved around their child’s safety, revealing a crisis of faith that is very real. Should their son or daughter attend religious formation this year? Can they trust a priest or church volunteer to be alone with their child? Have any safety procedures been put into place?

There are 17,156 local parishes in the United States with an estimated 70 million Catholics. A much smaller number, however, remains active in the church. For example, only 42 percent of families send their children to religious formation, according to research in 2015 (click here for .pdf) by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Indeed, the habits of American Catholics have vastly changed over the past few decades, and the events of this past summer will certainly impact the church (including attendance and donations) going forward. How much and to what extent remains to be seen. Two-thirds of Catholic millennials, for example, attend Mass only “a few times a year or less often.” That’s compared to 55 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, who go at least once a week, according to that same Georgetown University study.

Nonetheless, we are still talking about millions of people affected here.

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Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

For years -- decades even -- I have been active in the whole "media literacy" cause, trying to help Americans (especially in religious circles) understand more about the role that mass media play in our culture.

During these same decades, I've heard journalism educators -- on the cultural left and right -- argue that the same thing needs to be happening in elite newsrooms and even educational institutions, only in reverse.

Let's stick with the journalism angle: One of the main reasons that pros in our newsrooms often do such a lousy job of covering religion is that there are so few editors and managers who know any thing about religion. Let me stress that the issue is not whether these journalists are religious believers. The issue is whether they know crucial information about the lives, traditions and scriptures linked to the lives of millions and millions of believers who reside in this culture and often play roles in public life.

I've mentioned this before: I'll never forget the night when an anchor at ABC News -- faced with Democrat Jimmy Carter talking about his born-again Christian faith -- solemnly looked into the camera and told viewers that ABC News was investigating this phenomenon (born-again Christians) and would have a report in a future newscast.

What percentage of the American population uses the term "born again" to describe their faith? Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent back then? I mean, Carter wasn't telling America that he was part of an obscure sect, even though many journalists were freaked out by this words -- due to simple ignorance (or perhaps bias).

This brings me to this weekend's think piece in The American Conservative, a magazine defined by cultural conservatism not conservative partisan politics (thus the presence of several big-league #NeverTrump scribes). The double decker headline on this piece asks:

Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

Here is Georgetown University graduate student Grayson Quay's overture, which ends with a stunning anecdote:

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Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

If you've been online during the final stages of March Madness you have probably seen people chatting about this question: Why are Catholic schools so good at basketball?

The question will linger after Villanova's smashing 79-62 win over Michigan in last night's title game. This is the second national title for Villanova (with its ties to the Augustinian Order) in three years. And, of course, Notre Dame won the women's final four, on a shot that was called -- with some reason -- a near miracle.

Yes, it's easy to joke about the prayers of hoops-loving nuns and saints.

However, there is an interesting story here, one linked to culture, theology and economics. Kudos to The New York Times for producing a serious feature-length piece that dug into the substance of this topic. The #DUH headline: "Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball." Here is a crucial transition passage:

Excelling in big-time college basketball sits easily at mission-oriented institutions. Sports are not only these universities’ front porch, but also the faith’s emissary.
Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, hosts an opening Mass for athletes every year, where he reminds them they are ambassadors for the university’s mission. “To have our charism move on,” he said, using a dogma-tinged Greek word for spirit, “the banner needs to be carried.”

Whoa. "Dogma-tinged"? I think it's enough to say that this is a theological term. Also, that definition is a bit off. The word "charism" has a much more specific meaning, one that would have done a better job of supporting this story's thesis. Dictionary.com says:

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Is Catholic doctrine allowed at a Catholic university? That's the pressing question at Georgetown

Is Catholic doctrine allowed at a Catholic university? That's the pressing question at Georgetown

Is the pope Catholic? We've had fun with that question a time or two.

But here's a more pressing question: Is Catholic doctrine allowed at a Catholic university?

In case you've missed this week's headlines, I'm talking specifically about Georgetown University.

I first became aware of this controversy when I saw a tweet from Fort Worth, Texas, Bishop Michael Olson, who asked:

Is there really no room for students who support and accept the Catholic teaching on marriage at this Catholic University?

The Washington Post has a pretty extensive story — fairly quoting sources on both sides — on what's happening:

A Catholic student group at Georgetown University that promotes the benefits of traditional marriage risks losing its funding and other university benefits after being accused of fostering hatred and intolerance.
Love Saxa advocates for marriage as “a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman,” the group states in its constitution.  That definition of marriage happens to be in line with that espoused by the Catholic Church, raising the question of how administrators at Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, will handle the controversy if it eventually comes before them.
“I suppose the question for Georgetown is whether they think Catholic kids can still be Catholic there,” said Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America.
About half of the student body identifies as Catholic, according to the university. Seventy-five percent of Catholics ages 18 to 29 favor same-sex marriage, compared with 22 percent who oppose it, according to the Pew Research Center.
Two students lodged a complaint against Love Saxa, arguing that the group’s definition of marriage violates university standards governing sanctioned student groups and demanding that it be defunded and removed as an officially sanctioned student group. The complaint stops short of calling for the group to be banned. Student organizations, per university rules, are ineligible for funding and other benefits if they “foster hatred or intolerance of others because of their race, nationality, gender, religion or sexual preference.”

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Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

If you have followed news about the many, many clashes between the emerging doctrines of sexual liberty and the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause, you know this isn't a tidy, simple story with two sides and that's that.

Coverage of Sam Brownback's nomination to a key global religious freedom post is the latest fight.

Yes, there are LGBTQ activists in these debates and there are cultural conservatives. But there are also economic and libertarian conservatives who embrace gay-rights arguments and old-style liberals (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind) who back gay rights and the defense of religious liberty, free speech and the freedom of association. There are Catholics on both sides. There are self-identified evangelicals on both sides.

In the mainstream press, this conflict has put extra pressure on journalists, with some striving to accurately and fairly cover voices on all sides, while others have thrown in the editorial towel and embraced open advocacy in their coverage. BuzzFeed remains the most candid newsroom on this front, with its "News Standards and Ethics Guide" that states:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.

Leaders at the New York Times have not been that candid, at least while in power. There was, of course, that 2011 talk by former editor Bill Keller (days after he retired) in which he said America's most powerful newsroom never slants its news coverage "aside from" issues -- such as gay rights -- that were part of the "liberal values, sort of social values thing" that went with the Times being a "tolerant, urban" institution.

Is this "Kellerism" ethic, or doctrine, still being used? Let's take a look at a key chunk of a recent Times news story that ran with this headline: "In One Day, Trump Administration Lands 3 Punches Against Gay Rights." The overture paints the big picture:

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration abruptly waded into the culture wars over gay rights this week, signaling in three separate actions that it will use the powers of the federal government to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people.

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Jailhouse religion and the case of the elite national newspaper that chose to ignore it

Jailhouse religion and the case of the elite national newspaper that chose to ignore it

Today's post falls under the general heading of "jailhouse religion."

Speaking of which, a story I wrote on a Texas woman who might have gotten away with murder — but became a Christian and turned herself in — was published this week.

GetReligion's own Mark Kellner described it "as an incredible true crime, confession, redemption story superbly told." I didn't even pay him to say that. So feel free to check it out.

End of shameless plug.

Back to our regularly scheduled analysis of religion — and holy ghosts — in the mainstream press: Today's focus is a Washington Post profile of a redeemed bank robber.

Catholic media professional Thomas Szyszkiewicz tipped us to this haunted story:

There's talk of "redemption" (it's even in the title of his book). His parents were pastors who founded some (unnamed, generic) church. He's teaching at a Catholic university (OK, we won't get into the discussion about how Catholic it is or isn't). There were moments of "grace," etc. What's missing? 

Um, could it be religion?

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Washington Post on airplane sleep: These days, most folks (like me) don't have a prayer

Washington Post on airplane sleep: These days, most folks (like me) don't have a prayer

I have been looking at this Washington Post feature for several weeks now, trying to decide whether to write a post mentioning its tiny little religion angle.

The headline got my attention right from the get-go and then it stuck. Anyone else? I am talking about: "Can’t sleep on airplanes? These products and techniques can help."

Yes, dear readers, I have even stared at this piece on my iPad while on an airplane, during a two-stage, coast-to-coast flight during which I nodded and nodded, but did not sleep a wink. You might say that I am the target audience for this travel piece. I once failed to get a minute of sleep during an entire 15-hour flight from Delhi to Chicago that left the ground at 1 a.m. Believe me, I tried. I took enough Melatonin to stun a horse.

Now, the religion angle in this piece is hidden right there in the headline, in the word "techniques."

Hold that thought. First, here is the evocative overture:

The rumble of a jet engine is a comforting sound to some air travelers, making it easy to sleep on virtually any flight. For others, just the thought of being trapped in a pressurized aluminum tube is enough to send massive doses of adrenaline into their bloodstreams, ensuring alertness for days.
Pamela Wagner falls somewhere in the middle. Though not a white-knuckled flier, she says the noise makes rest impossible.
“I’m used to super silence when I’m sleeping,” she says. “Not exactly what you get on a flight.”
True. The interior of an aircraft is anything but silent, with noises ranging from chatty passengers to screaming children and, of course, the constant whine -- of the engines. It’s also uncomfortable, even if you’re in one of those lie-flat business-class seats, which don’t always lie all the way down. Try falling asleep in a sitting position, even when you’re not on an aircraft, and you’ll know why sleeping on a plane can be a pipe dream.

The bottom line, saith the writer: "Having a snooze on a plane is not getting any easier."

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