NPR offers listeners shallow mishmash about Christian universities and same-sex marriage

It’s been more than three weeks since the historic Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide and it appears that  NPR has finally gotten around to asking how Christian colleges are going to react to this.

Other media were asking this question even before the June 26 ruling, so it’s well-trodden ground. It's a rich mother lode of article possibilities, as religious colleges are the low-hanging fruit in the Supreme Court decision. They are not churches, so they don't come under certain protections that houses of worship would have.

So with plenty of time to prepare a decent story, NPR could have come out with a well-thought-out look at the issue, much like this recent story in the Atlantic Monthly. Instead, the show produced four and one-half minutes that didn’t even manage to stay on topic. Here’s how their broadcast started:

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Some of the uproar over the Supreme Court's marriage ruling is misplaced. Ministers will not be forced to marry same-sex couples, and churches will not be forced to accommodate same-sex weddings. But what about schools? Union University in Tennessee prohibits sexual activities that fall outside a marriage covenant between a man and a woman. That applies to staff as well as students, and Samuel Oliver, Union's president says it dictates, for example, which employees qualify for marriage benefits.
SAMUEL OLIVER: We don't offer benefits to same-sex partners because having that same-sex partner would be a violation of our behavioral code.
GJELTEN: Hope College in Holland, Mich., early this month announced that it would begin extending spousal benefits to employees who are in a same-sex marriage. The president said it was because those marriages are now legally recognized. So could Union University get in trouble with the federal government because its policies still discriminate against same-sex couples?

Am wondering why the reporter didn't identify Union University (pictured atop this piece) as a Southern Baptist institution, especially since the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its opposition to same-sex marriage 10 days before the Court released its opinion.  (Personal: I taught there from 2012-2013). Ditto for Hope College, which is part of the Christian Reformed tradition that like the Southern Baptists, believes homosexual acts are a sin.

But the story didn’t explore the denomination's reaction to the Hope College decision. Here's a key question: Who owns the college, literally? The denomination?

Instead, NPR quoted an official with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Then the story changed course to concentrate on conservatives who don’t think the U.S. Constitution will protect them, inserting several sentences from friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher, about his "Benedict Option" belief that Christians need to turn inwardly for strength against a hostile culture. Up until the Dreher quotes, everything NPR had so far were one-liners from two officials on what sounded like interviews conducted over the phone.

The shift toward Dreher’s “Benedict Option” at this point is mystifying because many evangelical institutions haven’t thrown in the towel by a long shot (and neither has Dreher, of course). The state of Christian educational institutions will be crucial to the likes of Dreher.

Also, to say that Dreher “writes on religion issues” for the American Conservative is simplistic. Of course Dreher touches on religion -- a lot -- but he also writes a host of eclectic topics ranging from schlepping his family around Paris for a month to photos of peoples’ dining tables sent him from around the world.

Think news, people! Why didn’t the reporter seek out someone from Gordon College in Boston, which has already been through the fire on this exact issue? There are legions of legal experts involved in that case on both sides. Or the NPR team could have interviewed someone like Michael Farris, chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., whose picture appears in this piece and who is pessimistic about schools’ rights over the long term. His college made the decision early on to accept no federal money.

The story ends with quotes from Mark Oppenheimer, who puts together the Beliefs column for the New  York Times. Like Dreher, Oppenheimer is familiar with the topic but both men are journalists, not educators. Oppenheimer, of course, is hot right now because he wrote a Time essay with this grabber headline: "Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions."

It’s clear that NPR either didn’t know what it was doing, relied on an outdated list of sources, simply punted by getting a badly done story on air just so it could say the job was done -- or all of the above. To deal with such a fascinating and sensitive topic by giving way more air time to two journalists while confining the educators to one sentence each was selling the subject short.

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