Death & dying

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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USA Today gets one right: Story on African-Americans found in unmarked graves notes religion

USA Today gets one right: Story on African-Americans found in unmarked graves notes religion

Reader Chris Blevins urged us to check out a USA Today story on the discovery of unmarked graves in Texas.

Blevins praised the piece as a rare case of a news outlet “allowing the religious angles to speak for themselves.”

“I know you guys at Get Religion emphasize praise for reporters when they get it right as well as justifiable criticism when they get it wrong,” Blevins noted.

He is right on both counts.

In a tweet, USA Today editor in chief Nicole Carroll linked to the “powerful story” by national reporter Monica Rhor, which opens with this compelling scene:

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Reginald Moore sank deep into silent prayer, an electric candle casting a glow on the countenance of Martin Luther King Jr. embossed on his black T-shirt.

Beside him, on the steps of Sugar Land City Hall, 50 others paused in quiet reflection. Eyes closed. Heads bent. Flames flickering in their hands.

Moore shifted from side to side, as if communicating with a spirit. He silently mouthed an invocation. He lifted his hands to heaven.

His mind returned to the moment, a few months back, when he first saw the skeletal remains of 95 African-Americans discovered at a school construction site in Fort Bend County, about 20 miles southwest of Houston.

He thought of those souls in the unmarked graves, laying forgotten for decades in the soil where a convict lease camp once stood. He thought of the free men, women and children ensnared by a system often called “slavery by another name.” How they toiled and sweated and bore the brunt of the lash, until they dropped in their tracks and were buried where they fell.

That is brilliant writing. And it certainly displays the journalist’s willingness to reflect the strong religion angle.

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Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Thank you, GetReligion readers, for pointing out something I missed!

I wrote Monday about the viral USA Today story on a priest’s jarring homily after a teen died by suicide.

My main journalistic point was that the Catholic Church’s actual beliefs concerning suicide should have been an important part of the story. However, I was so focused on that point that I failed to notice something else that is equally crucial.

That is, USA Today relied on the teen’s parents and other sources to characterize what the priest said. Granted, those critics included the Archdiocese of Detroit.

But still, didn’t the paper’s audience deserve to hear directly from the priest’s homily?

Thomas Szyszkiewicz, a veteran of Catholic media, and others made that point in comments on my original post.

From Szyszkiewicz:

Here's a link to Father LaCuesta's homily: http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2018/images/12/16/father.lacuesta.homily.maison.hullibarger.funeral.pdf

That the parents took it as saying their son was a sinner is a sign that they have not heard the basic Gospel message in church for a long time -- because we are all sinners. But if you read this homily directly, then you see that he told the truth about what suicide is and then told them that they can entrust themselves and their son to God's mercy. In fact, I believe he seriously misinterpreted that famous passage from Romans 8 ("What can separate us from the love of Christ?") but he did so favoring the mercy of God for their son. That the parents thought they could tell the priest what he could preach on is really presumptuous and that USA Today didn't challenge the parents on why they thought they could tell the priest what to preach on is ridiculous.

The great canon lawyer Ed Peters writes about this here: https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/god-bless-fr-lacuesta/

This is not a situation that any priest wants to be in, but telling the family all fluff and puff isn't doing them any great service and Father LaCuesta seems to have told the truth on many levels. Too bad USA Today didn't see it that way.

Certainly, Szyszkiewicz’s opinions on the content of the priest’s homily and the parents’ response to it are just that — his opinions.

But it’s also true that what the priest actually said is highly relevant to news coverage.

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A priest's jarring homily after teen dies by suicide: The missing link in USA Today's viral story

A priest's jarring homily after teen dies by suicide: The missing link in USA Today's viral story

USA Today has an email newsletter to share its “Most Social” story.

Typically, it’s a viral headline such as “Jennifer Aniston responds to Dolly Parton’s outrageous threesome joke” or “Twitter users mercilessly mock Mike Pence for ‘Elf on the Shelf’ performance in the Oval Office.”

Congrats on our interest in real news, America!

Seriously, though, an actual piece of hard news occasionally crosses my screen via that newsletter: That happened this past weekend with the story of a Catholic priest’s jarring homily at the funeral of a teen who died by suicide:

DETROIT – They lost a teenage son to suicide, then sought compassion from their priest.

Yet, at the packed funeral on Dec. 8, the Rev. Don LaCuesta delivered words so hurtful that Catholic officials in Detroit apologized in a statement emailed to the Detroit Free Press.

Not good enough, the youth's parents said. They want their parish priest removed from his post in Monroe County, south of Detroit.

"Everybody seems to understand but the Catholic Church," said Jeff Hullibarger, father of 18-year-old Maison, a straight-A student and outstanding athlete who ended his own life on Dec. 4. The priest told mourners at the funeral that the youth might be blocked from heaven because of how he died, the couple said.

The extremely sad story was picked up from the Detroit Free Press, a part of the USA Today network of Gannett papers.

Read the whole thing, and it’s made even sadder by a “bully” high school football coach who apparently has been relieved of his duties.

But here’s the question raised that sparked this post at GetReligion: What does the Catholic Church believe concerning suicide?

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

The Bible doesn’t come up, all that often, here at GetReligion, unless we are talking about news stories that mangle a crucial piece of scripture. Remember this M.Z. Hemingway classic about the Ascension of Jesus? Or how about this M.Z. post, about The New York Times and Easter?

Anyway, to understand this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), I need you to pause and read the Gospel According to St. Luke, chapter 8: 26-36.

The key: Try to look at this through the eyes of a journalist who was going to mention this New Testament passage in a news report. We are doing part of a discussion of that interesting feature that ran the other day in The Atlantic, focusing on the sharp rise in requests for the ministry of exorcists in today’s Catholic church. So, here is our Bible story for today:

Then they arrived at the country of the Ger′asenes, [a] which is opposite Galilee. And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.)

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

Now, my goal here is not to ask readers — as skeptical journalists — whether they believe this story or not. I am not asking whether readers think this is a mere folk story, as opposed to being inspired scripture handed down by the early church. I am not asking for a scientific evaluation of this text.

I am simple noting that it is hard to read this passage and not grasp that the reality of evil and the demonic is part of the Christian tradition. What we also see her is an archetypal image of the work of the exorcist, especially that of a priest acting in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Haunted suicide sonnet: USA Today and Gannett launch huge effort to stem the tide

Haunted suicide sonnet: USA Today and Gannett launch huge effort to stem the tide

It’s pretty weird when a story at a major newspaper carries a trigger warning at the top of the article.

But this is a mega-story on suicide, written by a former editor at one of the top newspapers owned by the Gannett Co. It’s gripping reading until the very end.

Yet, there’s a religion “ghost” in this story; that is, a missing story hook connected with religion. It’s not hard to spot. It’s important, whenever there are references to religious faith, to look for specifics, for the basic facts. Where are they?

I stood and looked down into the canyon, at a spot where, millions of years ago, a river cut through. Everything about that view is impossible, a landscape that seems to defy both physics and description. It is a place that magnifies the questions in your mind and keeps the answers to itself.

Visitors always ask how the canyon was formed. Rangers often give the same unsatisfying answer: Wind. Water. Time.

It was April 26, 2016 – four years since my mother died. Four years to the day since she stood in this same spot and looked out at this same view. I still catch my breath here, and feel dizzy and need to remind myself to breathe in through my nose out through my mouth, slower, and again. I can say it out loud now: She killed herself. She jumped from the edge of the Grand Canyon. From the edge of the earth.

I went back to the spot because I wanted to know everything.

Written in first person by Laura Trujillo, a managing editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer when the suicide occurred, the article is almost a small book, with chapters, even.

Suicide is as common and as unknowable as the wind that shaped this rock. It’s unspeakable, bewildering, confounding and devastatingly sad. Don’t try to figure it out, I told myself, stop asking questions, assigning blame, looking.

Yet there I stood, searching.

Some of it is disturbing; how the mother tried to reach her daughter the morning she jumped but the busy editor merely texted her mom back instead of picking up the phone. And how she’d just sent her mother a disturbing email a few days before. It turns out that Trujillo insists that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather for years as a teen-ager and she’d finally gotten up the courage to tell her mom.

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