The Nashville Tennessean

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th, everybody. This is certainly a day to celebrate the various forms of freedom that Americans cherish — including some that are pretty confusing, when push comes to shove.

I am thinking, in particular, about the First Amendment and the edgy legal battle that is unfolding here in Tennessee about the state’s ability to enforce a law setting some standards about who is an ordained minister and who is not. If you want to catch up on press coverage of this battle, click here for my first post and then here for the podcast discussing this topic: “This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

It’s time for an update, since the status of click-that-mouse ministers with the Universal Life Church ended up in front of a federal judge yesterday. The Nashville Tennessean team produced a story for Gannett newspapers — which now dominate the volunteer state — that ran with this headline: “Judge questions 'rational basis' of state law blocking ministers ordained online from performing marriages.

The bottom line: Gannett is covering this case as a battle about LGBTQ rights, since many same-sex couples choose nontraditional ministers to perform their marriage rites. There is little or no evidence that pros at The Tennessean realize that this case will pivot on the U.S. government’s attempts — think Internal Revenue Service — to establish some guidelines to help officials determine when religious institutions exist primarily for the purpose of profit or fraud. Here’s the overture:

A federal judge on Wednesday repeatedly pressed state lawyers to explain a "rational basis" for a new Tennessee law that bans ministers ordained online from performing marriages — and he didn't seem to get an answer that satisfied him.

Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said a lawsuit challenging the law raised "serious constitutional issues" that should be considered at trial by the end of the year. Until then, Crenshaw said, ministers ordained online could continue to perform legal marriages.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, a ministry that ordains ministers online, sued Tennessee over the law last month, saying it violated religious protections of the First Amendment among other things.

Yes, there certainly are “serious constitutional issues” at stake here. I think any serious church-state activist — left or right — would agree with that statement and with the judge’s decision that fights over this Tennessee law deserve a serious day in court.

So what are Tennessee lawmaker’s worried about? We will get to that.

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Latest Amy Grant controversy: This tale has a new chapter that some have missed

Latest Amy Grant controversy: This tale has a new chapter that some have missed

Baby, baby, how long have I been writing about controversies involving Amy Grant and fights about what is and what is not Christian music?

Well, so long that I cannot link to the "On Religion" column I wrote about the topic a quarter of a century ago. You see, the World Wide Web didn't really exist at the time for normal people -- so that column isn't stored anywhere online, at least not where I can get to it.

But back in 1991, people started worrying about whether Grant's "Heart in Motion" album (containing "Baby, Baby," which led to that controversial music video) was "too secular" and part of the "crossover" trend that would undercut Grant's public witness, etc., etc.

Well, now Grant is back in the news and, alas, it appears that some people have not noticed that lots of water has gone under the bridge and there are new issues in play. This brings us to the top of the story in the singer's local paper, The Tennessean:

LifeWay Christian Resources will not be selling Amy Grant's new Christmas album this year, and the manager for the Nashville-based singer says it's because it's not Christian enough for the Southern Baptist retailer.
Manager Jennifer Cooke said in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that LifeWay's decision not to carry "Tennessee Christmas" reignites a debate about how Christian a product needs to be in order for Christian retailers to sell it.
"'Is it Christian enough for Christian retail to support?' LifeWay Christian Resources, the large Southern Baptist retailer, decided it was not. It’s their choice, and it’s okay," said Cooke, in the column posted Tuesday.
LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, confirmed its retail stores are not carrying the album, but would not comment on the reasons for the decision.

Of course, the Southern Baptist Vatican, as the locals call it, is in Nashville, so this is a local story on every possible level.

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So what cause brought the Rev. Larry Russell Dawson (with a gun) to the U.S. Capitol?

So what cause brought the Rev. Larry Russell Dawson (with a gun) to the U.S. Capitol?

So here are the basics about that tense drama that unfolded yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, in which a protestor pulled a gun and was shot by police.

The protestor was an African-American pastor who leads a small congregation in Nashville that is highly involved in a specific political cause -- to the degree that it's website includes a video appeal for funds to help him travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for this cause.

So here is the question you need to ask as you look at the mainstream coverage of this story: What was the cause that, according to this pastor, brought him to the U.S. Capitol? Why wasn't this information included in most of the coverage?

You can look, without success, for that information in The New York Times, in a story that does not even identify the Rev. Larry Russell Dawson as the elder of his church. Ditto for The Los Angeles Times, which did include a brief reference to an incident last fall in which Dawson (no reference to him leading a church) disrupted work in the U.S. House of Representatives by shouting that he was a "prophet of God"? But what else was he shouting about?

The Associated Press "Big Story" report that will appear in most American newspapers included a few additional details, but, once again, omitted the man's church ties and information about the cause that kept bringing him to Washington, D.C.

According to court documents, Dawson was arrested at the U.S. Capitol in October after he stood up and shouted Bible verses in the gallery of the House chamber. An online court record says he was charged with disorderly and disruptive conduct on the grounds of the Capitol and assaulting, resisting or interfering with a police officer. He was also ordered to stay away from the building and grounds.
Dawson did not return for a scheduled hearing in November. In a letter filed with his case, he says he will "not comply with the court order, nor will I surrender myself unto your office."

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