Montana

Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

I have a lot of sympathy for folks who work on small newspapers in out-of-the-way states.

Back, when I spent a year in northwestern New Mexico back in 1994-1995, I was the only full-time journalist in the state trying to cover the beat. I was also the city editor of my newspaper, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. Yet, I pulled in a Cassells award the following year for the little I was able to do in a market of that size.

Montana, at half the population of New Mexico, has some similarities: Large, open spaces, beautiful vistas, large populations of Native Americans and small newspapers. The Billings Gazette, at 45,000 circ., is the state’s second largest newspaper after the Missoulian to the west.

One thing the Gazette has that no other newspaper in the state does is a religion reporter.

I’ve never met Susan Olp, but she’s covered religion for more than 20 years for the Gazette in the state’s largest city. She’s committed enough to the beat that she visited Israel in 2011 courtesy of a Lilly scholarship. And she must know -- as I learned in my isolated post in New Mexico -- that religion stories don’t always come knocking at your door. You have to go looking for them.

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Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

There’s a lot of religion out in America’s rural precincts, far from the big news zip codes that really matter, but sometimes it's hard to get decent coverage.

Here’s a piece about public school children in northeast Montana who’ve had an annual field trip for several years to a museum that espouses a creationist perspective. Then someone anonymously complains -- apparently not to the school itself but to an out-of-state group that has the legal chops to make things unpleasant if it so wants to -- and said group threatens the local school district. Judging from the tone of this piece, the local reporter is not familiar with Americans United for Separation of Church and State but those of us who’ve covered religion out of Washington DC know them quite well. They have a nice suite of offices on Capitol Hill and they can be intimidating.

Here’s what happened:

Glendive third-graders will no longer visit their town's creationist museum amid concerns that the annual school trip to learn about dinosaurs violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
School district administrators had authorized this year's field trip to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum but reversed course last week after receiving a letter from a Washington, D.C., advocacy group calling the school-sponsored event illegal. Their decision dashed the hopes of many of the children, some parents said.

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