Supreme Court

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

At first glance, it might seem like a simple solution.

The state of Texas had a quick response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Buddhist death row inmate who asked for his spiritual adviser to be in the execution room with him.

In case you missed it earlier, the high court granted a rare stay of execution to Patrick Murphy last week. This came, as we noted, after a different high court ruling in an Arkansas case concerning Muslim inmate Domineque Ray.

The Lone Star fix? Ban all religious chaplains from the death chamber.

OK, problem solved. Or not.

The better news reports I’m seeing — both in Texas papers and the national press — reflect the crucial legal arguments in Patrick Murphy’s case and not just the simplified sound bites.

Among the incomplete coverage, CNN reports the Texas change as if it’s the end of the discussion:

(CNN) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will bar chaplains, ministers and spiritual advisers from execution chambers in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that halted the execution of an inmate who sought to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The move is the latest step in a controversy that pit the religious liberty concerns of death row inmates against security concerns of prisons.

The justices agreed to stay Patrick Henry Murphy's execution, but weeks earlier, had denied a similar request from an inmate in Alabama.

Murphy's initial request had been denied by Texas because officials said for security reasons only prison employees were allowed into the chamber, and the prison only employed Christian and Muslim advisers.

Lawyers for Murphy challenged the policy arguing that it violated Murphy's religious liberty rights. The Supreme Court stepped in and put the execution on hold.

In a statement released Wednesday, the state now says that, "effective Immediately," the protocol now only allows security personnel in the execution chamber.

To its credit, CNN notes:

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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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What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

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Friday Five: Matt from Walmart, pope vote, icky details, execution reprieve, butts and bagels

Friday Five: Matt from Walmart, pope vote, icky details, execution reprieve, butts and bagels

Hey Godbeat friends, can we please get a faith angle on Matt from Walmart — and pronto?

I kid. I kid. Well, mostly.

I heard about “How a dude named Matt at an Omaha Walmart went viral” via a tweet by Mary (Rezac) Farrow, a writer for Catholic News Agency. She described the Omaha World-Herald story as her “favorite piece of journalism” she’s read in a while.

After clicking the link, here’s my response: Amen!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

. Religion story of the week: We are blessed here at GetReligion to have religion writing legends such as Richard Ostling on our team of contributors.

Ostling’s post this week “Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news” is a typical example of his exceptional insight.

The news peg for the post is Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell’s recent scoop in America magazine on the precise number of votes for all 22 candidates on the first ballot when the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis in 2013. Ostling offers praise, too, for Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein’s coverage of the story.

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Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Political reporters, pundits, and party strategists trying to understand U.S. evangelicals sometimes seem like David Livingstone or Margaret Mead scrutinizing an exotic jungle tribe they’ve stumbled upon. Analysts especially scratch heads on how those nice churchgoing Protestant folks could ever vote for a dissolute guy like Donald Trump. 

(Standard terminology note: In American political-speak, “Evangelicals” almost always means white evangelicals, because African-American Protestants, though often similar in faith, are so distinct culturally and politically.) 

That Trump conundrum is taken up yet again by a self-described “friendly observer/participant” with evangelicalism, Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte. His school’s CEO, Pat Robertson, proclaimed candidate Trump “God’s man for the job.” Yet Nolte posted his point of view on Charlie Sykes’s thebulwark.com. This young site brands Trump “a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.” Don’t hold back, #NeverTrump folks.

Nolte, a Catholic University Ph.D. who belongs on your source list, did not vote for the president and remains “deeply Trump-skeptical.” He considers evangelicals’ bond with Trump  “unwise” in the long term and “almost certain to do more harm than good.” He thinks believers’ Trump support “is shallower and more conditional than it appears” and even muses about a serious primary challenge. The Religion Guy disputes that, but agrees with Nolte that evangelical women under 45 are the most likely to spurn the president next year. 

Nolte offers a nicely nuanced version of outsiders’ scenario that “existential fear” on religious-liberty issues drove Trump support in 2016 and still does.

Is this irrational?

Nolte says evangelicals have “a valid concern that religion and religious arguments will be pushed out of the public square altogether.”

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Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Axios, always atop breaking news trends, posted a bold headline Feb. 24 that announced “New Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’ on Abortion Attitudes.”

The February poll showed Americans are evenly split between those identifying as “pro-choice” and as “pro-life,” tied at 47 percent, while only a month before the same pollster reported pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers, 55 percent to 38 percent.  

The Axios article recycled a press release from the polls’ sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, that proclaimed "in just one month Americans have made a sudden and dramatic shift away from the prochoice position and toward a pro-life stance.” See January release here and February release here.

Abortion attitudes remain as politically and religiously potent today as they’ve been the past 46 years, so reporters are ever alert to trends. But should the media be reporting that thinking across the fruited plain lurched from a big gap to a tie between Jan. 8-10 and Feb. 12-17, the survey dates? 

What are the odds? Democrats’ recent advocacy for unpopular late-term abortions alongside intimations of infanticide might be driving a modest pro-life uptick, but 17 points? 

With polls, journalists always need to be careful and assess the full context. The Religion Guy’s hunch here is that the fat abortion-rights majority in January was an outlier, and the February tie is pretty much representative of American thinking.  Why? See below. 

Preliminaries: The Knights, who paid for both the January and February polls, are ardently pro-life Catholics. However, they hired the well-regarded Marist Poll to run the survey and crunch the numbers. Despite its Catholic name and origin, sponsoring Marist College is officially non-sectarian. Technical note: the Knights did not reveal the polls’ response rates, an all-important factor. 

The Religion Guy maintains that February’s 47-47 tie is interesting but not the big news as trumpeted.

Enter the Gallup Poll, journalists’ invaluable gold standard for asking consistent religious and moral questions across many years. 

Gallup’s comprehensive compilation on abortion attitudes shows this version of the Marist question, asked 32 times since 1995: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

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Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

It’s another day and we have yet another chapter closing in the First Amendment drama of Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Is this the last chapter?

That’s hard to tell. It’s especially hard to tell in the bland Associated Press report that is being published by many mainstream newsrooms. While the story does mention that Phillips has won another partial victory, it misses several crucial details that point to the anger and animus that has been driving this case all along and could keep it going.

Animus” against Phillips and his traditional Christian faith was, of course, at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court’s sort-of decision on this matter, but, well, never mind. Why cover that part of the story?

So here is the latest from AP:

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds — a stance partially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — and state officials said Tuesday that they would end a separate legal fight over his refusal to bake a cake celebrating a gender transition.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and attorneys representing Jack Phillips said they mutually agreed to end two legal actions, including a federal lawsuit Phillips filed accusing the state of waging a “crusade to crush” him by pursuing a civil rights complaint over the gender transition cake.

Phillips’ attorneys dubbed the agreement a victory for the baker. Weiser, a Democrat, said both sides “agreed it was not in anyone’s best interest to move forward with these cases.”

So what about the future? Here is what readers are told:

The agreement resolves every ongoing legal dispute between the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver and the state. Weiser’s statement said it has no effect on the ability of the Denver attorney who filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to pursue her own legal action.

The attorney, Autumn Scardina, told the commission that Phillips refused last year to make a cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside for a celebration of her transition from male to female. She asked for the cake on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would consider Phillips’ appeal of a previous commission ruling against him.

The lede for this story, as is the mainstream news norm, fails to note the key facts that were at the heart of the original case.

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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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Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

The Atlantic ran a headline the other day that really made me stop and look twice.

(Wait for it.)

I realize that The Atlantic Monthly is a journal of news and opinion. Every now and then, that means running essays by thinkers who challenge the doctrines held by the magazine’s many left-of-center readers in blue zip codes.

This was especially true during the glory years when the Atlantic was edited by the late, great Michael Kelly — an old-school Democrat who frequently made true believers in both parties nervous. Click here for a great Atlantic tribute to Kelly, who was killed while reporting in Iraq in 2003.

It really helps for journalists to read material that challenges old lines in American politics. In my own life, there have been very few articles that influenced my own political (as opposed to theological) thinking more than the classic Atlantic Monthly piece that ran in 1995 with this headline:

On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice

This brings me to that Atlantic headline the other day that made my head spin. In this case, my shock was rooted in the fact that the headline actually affirmed my beliefs — which doesn’t happen very often these days when I’m reading elite media. Here is that headline, atop an essay by Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review:

Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion

In New York and Virginia, state governments are working to loosen restrictions on late-term abortion—and giving the anti-abortion movement an opportunity.

Here are two key chunks of this piece, which includes all kinds of angles worthy of additional research. Journalists would have zero problems finding voices on left and right to debate this thesis. And there’s more to this piece than, well, Donald Trump.

So part one:

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