Law & Order

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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In case of Catholic politician recovering from shooting, Washington Post ponders forgiveness

In case of Catholic politician recovering from shooting, Washington Post ponders forgiveness

What does it mean to forgive?

The Washington Post delves into that question — but maybe not as deeply as I’d like — in a story on a Republican leader who nearly died in the 2017 congressional baseball shooting.

The Post story has ties to an earlier case of forgiveness — involving a Louisiana congregation that was the victim of arson — that we recently highlighted here at GetReligion.

The lede on the latest piece is definitely compelling:

For nearly two years, Steve Scalise has tried to forgive.

For the bullet that tore through his pelvis. For all the surgeries. The months of missed work and the many grueling days of physical therapy. Scalise, the Republican House minority whip, has been trying to forgive the gunman who nearly killed him and injured several others in June 2017.

But he hasn’t been ready.

On Friday, though, Scalise said he was working on it.

The Louisiana lawmaker found a guide more than 1,000 miles southwest of the fractious U.S. Capitol on a recent trip to his home state.

Scalise and Vice President Pence traveled to Opelousas, La., a week ago to visit the pastors of three predominantly black churches that were burned down a month ago in a string of hate-fuelled arsons.

With the charred remains of his Mount Pleasant Baptist Church as a backdrop, Pastor Gerald Toussaint spoke of forgiveness. He forgave the suspect, a 21-year-old son of a local sheriff’s deputy, and members of his congregation did, too.

Keep reading, and the Post characterizes Scalise as “a devout Catholic” — whatever is meant by that terminology. Generally, we at GetReligion advocate that news reports offer specific details to illustrate that someone is “devout,” as opposed to using that label. Nonetheless, the obvious connotation is that Scalise is a committed person of faith for whom forgiveness would seem to be a part of expected religious practice.

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Catholic student gunned down in Colorado; few reporters ask crucial questions about shooters

Catholic student gunned down in Colorado; few reporters ask crucial questions about shooters

Another week, another school shooting, although this latest one in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch has quickly turned into a religion story.

Well, it’s a religion story if reporters note crucial details and ask basic questions.

As I scanned various stories, I learned there was very little news about the shooters, especially some of their more controversial aspects. One was LGBTQ; the other had Satanic symbols on his car, yet that didn’t make it into many media accounts. (As for Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old who died at the scene, he was an only child. I cannot imagine his parents’ sorrow.)

The Denver Post tells us this much at the arraignment:

One of the shooting suspects, Devon Erickson, sat hunched in his chair throughout his hearing where he was advised of the charges he is being held on. As the proceeding continued, the skinny 18-year-old with shaggy black and pink hair curled farther into himself — his bangs nearly touching the defense table by the end.

Alec McKinney — who is charged under the legal name of Maya Elizabeth McKinney but uses male pronouns and the name Alec — sat up straight in his chair. …

Also, there is this: According to folks who checked out his Facebook account, there was an anti-Christian screed there.

Another student, Aiden Beatty, said that Erickson worked as a vocal instructor and acted in school musicals. Beatty and Erickson formed multiple rock bands together. Beatty said he couldn’t imagine his band mate committing such horror. Nothing on Erickson’s public social media pointed toward violence.

“In my mind he’s pretty much dead,” Beatty said. “He’s effectively killed himself, too, in a terrible and unimaginable way.”

McKinney was transgender and had struggled with personal problems, freshman Ben Lemos said. The two shared a study hall, a lunch group and mutual friends, Lemos said.

“He just had a negative experience with school,” he said.

But the Daily Mail had a lot more interesting details, including how Erickson had “666” and a pentagram spray-painted on the hood of his car.

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Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

We used to joke that the religion beat is sometimes known as the sex beat because of all the peccadilloes and crimes that some religious personalities find themselves in.

But yesterday’s story by Reuters about the theft of some boudoir photos supposedly commissioned by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. raises that designation to a new level.

Personally, I will never understand anyone who allows sexually intimate photos of any kind to be taken of them — in this case, apparently photos of a husband and/or wife. These things have ways of getting into the hands of people who don’t wish you well. Ask Jeff Bezos to explain this to you if you don’t already know.

I should add that Falwell has denied the Reuters report in an interview with Fox News commentator Todd Starnes. But why didn’t he tell Reuters the same thing?

Read on for my nominee of Weird Religion Story of the Week.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.’s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters.

Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.

According to a source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the person who possessed the photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells’ behalf.

Other parts of this taped conversation made the news a week ago (see above video). Why it took this long for reporters to pick up on the Falwell connection puzzles me. The mind goes in odd places trying to imagine just what is in these photos, if this story is true.

Here’s some other questions journalists might want to ask, in addition to valid questions about Jerry Jr. and a Trump lawyer: Who leaked the photos and/or stole them? Is blackmail still a crime? Is there any possibility that some kind of crime has been committed, a crime in which the Falwell family has been wronged?

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Los Angeles, San Diego newspaper staffs combine forces to cover Poway synagogue shooting

Los Angeles, San Diego newspaper staffs combine forces to cover Poway synagogue shooting

Another weekend, another religious worship shooting. Last week, it was suicide bombers killing 290 people celebrating Easter at church or eating breakfast at swank hotels in Sri Lanka; this weekend, it was one dead and three wounded at a San Diego-area synagogue that was observing the last day of Passover.

This latest attack in Poway, Calif., was obviously the major religion story this weekend. Houses of worship have become quite the fashion as killing fields these days and no group: Jews, Christians or Muslims, are immune.

The San Diego Union-Tribune had 13 stories about the shooting, including this haunting piece about the one fatality; a 60-year-old woman who stepped in front of the rabbi and literally took the bullet for him. What was she thinking when she did that? Unfortunately, a paywall would only let me read one piece.

The Los Angeles Times has covered mass shootings before and one of the reporters who covered the 2016 San Bernardino shootings covered this one, too. What both newspapers have in common is they lack a staff religion reporter, which would be of great help here, especially in noting important details like how this group of Jews does not believe in using electronics, such as smart phones, during the Sabbath.

That is why no one caught video of the shootings and why members of the synagogue would not have been spreading details by phone until Sabbath ended that evening.

But the Times made the wise decision to nab Jaweed Kaleem, formerly the senior religion reporter at the Huffington Post who now covers race issues for the Times, to lend his expertise. First, though, was the initial report out Saturday afternoon.

A gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked into a suburban San Diego County synagogue and opened fire on the congregation Saturday, killing one person and injuring three in an attack that authorities believe was motivated by hate.

The gunman entered Chabad of Poway in the 16000 block of Chabad Way about 11:20 a.m. and started firing, authorities said. The 19-year-old suspect, identified as John T. Earnest, of Rancho Penasquitos, was arrested a short time later.

Earnest appears to have written a letter posted on the internet filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. The letter talks about planning for the attack.

“Four weeks ago, I decided I was doing this. Four weeks later, I did it.”

A more complete version, with nine reporters contributing from both the Times and the Union-Tribune, ran Sunday.

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Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

THE QUESTION:

This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice.

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Texas papers deliver more hard-hitting, must-read reporting on Southern Baptists' 'Abuse of Faith'

Texas papers deliver more hard-hitting, must-read reporting on Southern Baptists' 'Abuse of Faith'

Back in February, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published the results of a six-month investigation into sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The “Abuse of Faith” series, which can be read online, was mammoth in size and devastating in its findings. Here at GetReligion, I characterized the project as “exceptionally important, powerhouse journalism.”

Immediately, the stories sent tremors through the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and prompted SBC President J.D. Greear to propose reforms. However, our own tmatt noted that the SBC’s legal structure would affect the fight against abuse.

Fast-forward almost two months, and it’s obvious that the papers that invested so much reporting muscle and newsprint ink into the investigation remain on the case.

The Chronicle (and I’m assuming the Express-News) published important follow-up reports over the weekend. Since I subscribe to the Houston paper, I know that one piece ran at the top of Saturday’s front page and the other at the top of Sunday’s front page.

The Saturday story concerned a Houston church dropping out of the local Baptist association and the national SBC as a result of the Texas papers reporting on its pastor’s sex abuse history.

The lede:

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When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

I’ve been complaining about the Southern Poverty Law Center for a long time and how it makes all the wrong moves in eviscerating conservative and often mainstream evangelical targets in the name of ferreting out hate. Only when it turned its focus on a British Muslim and got his story horribly wrong — resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by the aggrieved Brit — was it obvious to lots of media people that the SPLC was seriously off base.

With the recent dismissal of its co-founder Morris Dees, followed by the resignation of its president, Richard Cohen, various media, almost all of them on the left side of politics, have been piling onto the SPLC with cartloads of venom.

You’d think it was them who’d been tarred with the hate brush. But it wasn’t.

As religious liberty specialist David French, a Harvard Law man, reminds us at National Review:

For those who cared about truth, the SPLC’s transformation from a valuable anti-Klan watchdog into a glorified version of Media Matters for America was plain and obvious. It steadily expanded its definition of “hate groups” to include mainstream Christian organizations such as my former employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and it labeled as “extremists” men such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.

These decisions had serious real-world consequences. Corporations and employers cut off relationships with groups and individuals targeted by the SPLC, and violent people used SPLC designations to justify attempted murder and assault. Remember the man who tried to commit mass murder at the Family Research Council? He found his target through the SPLC’s list of alleged “anti-gay groups.” Remember when an angry mob attacked Murray at Middlebury College and injured a professor? Because of the SPLC, those protesters thought they were attacking a “white nationalist.”

Recent articles that go after the SPLC include this lengthy read in the New Yorker. The critique majors on the organizations less-than-diverse racial make-up, its finesse as a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” and its place as a “highly profitable scam.”

Although there’s very little about this mess that is directly about religion, there is an emphasis on morality or at least morality that got lost along the way. Part of the problem was the incessant appeals to blue-state America to contribute money so the SPLC could kill off the bogeyman of the Religious Right, along with racism.

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What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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