'Down-ballot issues': Religion News Service offers a look, but not balance

A quick quiz: How many horses does it take to make a race?

"That's easy," you say; "at least two."

That's right. And you'd want to know about them both.

So it is with the Religion News Service' guide to ballot issues that religious people are watching for the upcoming ballot.

"The nation’s attention may be on the presidential election, but there are a number of down-ballot issues of interest to religious and nonreligious voters," RNS says, and they prove their case. Their list -- marijuana, gun control, minimum wage, the death penalty, assisted suicide, "public money for religious purposes" --  suggests the range of religious thought in the public sphere.

But in some of the issues, this article seems to privilege one side. In some, only one side gets to talk. And in some, only one side is even acknowledged.

Take the death penalty, which is up for review in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma. RNS grants that there are two sides: "In California, almost 30 different religious groups support a death penalty repeal, while in Nebraska, celebrity Christian author Shane Claiborne has spoken in support of retaining a repeal of the death penalty at anti-death penalty events."

But who gets the direct quote?

"The death penalty is state-sponsored murder and it’s disgusting, and we’re telling the rest of the world that not only are we OK with it, but we’re making it a fundamental value and putting it in our constitution," said the Rev. Adam Leathers, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "This (measure) will truly make us look ignorant, brutish and all manner of negative attributes."

No word from the ignorant brutes who want to retain the penalty.

On assisted suicide, the proportion is reversed. RNS gives the main quote to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver denouncing Proposition 106, which would allow dying patients to give themselves lethal drugs. "God has taught us not to kill and that includes killing ourselves," he says.

RNS agrees that it's a "big issue for some religious Americans who oppose it vehemently."  But it says the issue looms large in Colorado because that state is "home to a large number of conservative Christians." Well, not really. The Pew Forum found that the state is only 26 percent evangelical, just a touch more than their 25.4 percent share nationwide.

What's more, "supporters of the proposition have out-raised opponents by 2-to-1," the article says. Yet we don't hear from them.

Then there's gun control, a ballot item in California, Maine, Nevada and Washington. RNS reports the array of opponents, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Rabbis Against Gun Violence. And it mentions the Southern California-based group Jews Can Shoot, which "frames its opposition in terms of preventing another Holocaust."

That paraphrase from the Jewish group is the only argument for or against gun control here. This despite the mountains of material online, such as this view from Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in favor of armed self-defense.

And there's a rather odd addition to the RNS piece, on "Public money for religious purposes." Odd, because it cites only Oklahoma:

Question 790 would repeal a section of the Oklahoma Constitution that prohibits religious organizations from using state money. In a statement supporting that repeal, Catholic Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City said approval of the measure would remove the "Blaine Amendment," which aimed to exclude Catholics from public life in general and religious education in particular.
"If State Question 790 passes, Oklahomans would remove a current major threat to religious organizations — including Catholic social service agencies — who serve the poor, refugees, the disabled, the homeless, the hungry and many other needy people in our state," said Coakley, who joins the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in seeking passage.

The ballot may affect only that state, but it could echo well beyond. The Blaine Amendment, an 1875 federal bill, proposed to keep government funds out of the hands of religious organizations.  The bill failed, but various states, from California to Florida, have passed their own versions. Now some Oklahomans want to repeal theirs.

The RNS article does add a religious criticism of the repeal attempt: "Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, criticized the measure as a 'move toward blending the institutions of church and state.' " Shorter, but more to the point.

In sum, a thumb-up for RNS' enterprise in showing the range of races on which religious people are betting. But it would have helped to know more about each horse.

UPDATE: A Faithful Reader takes issue with one of the items in the RNS report: "It says Oklahoma repealed its death penalty. That's not true. There's a temporary moratorium. Big difference."

Turns out the reader is right, according to the linked file from Ballotpedia:

In Oklahoma, although the death penalty is legal, all executions were put on hold in October of 2015 after several executions were conducted incorrectly. A review of the methods and protocols used during execution is ongoing. State Question 776 was designed, in part, to ensure that executions resume after the questions about protocol are settled.

My blog post didn’t deal with the details of the Oklahoma ballot, but I may as well give you the facts, ma'am.


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