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NPR sort of dives into a case involving immigration, religious freedom and a vague faith

NPR sort of dives into a case involving immigration, religious freedom and a vague faith

Really, it’s a fascinating story — sort of.

I’m talking about an NPR piece out today with the compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

Forgive my wishy-washiness, but the report has elements — such as its explanation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and how it works — that deserve praise. But at the same time, NPR fails to answer obvious, basic religion questions.

NPR’s opening sets the scene:

In January, Border Patrol agents walked up to a ramshackle old building on the outskirts of a small town in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. They found three men.

Two were Central Americans who had crossed the border illegally. The third was an American — a university lecturer and humanitarian activist named Scott Warren.

Warren was arrested and ultimately charged with two federal criminal counts of harboring illegal migrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport them. Warren has pleaded not guilty.

Warren's arrest briefly flickered across the national news amid the partisan tug-of-war over the administration's immigration policy before fading into the background.

But his legal team's decision to stake out part of his defense on religious liberty grounds has made the case a clash between two of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' top priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration and defending religious liberty.

Keep reading, and NPR outlines cases that have cited RFRA — such as Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court win in 2014 — and notes Attorney General Jeff Session’s stated support for religious liberty.

Then NPR quotes progressive legal sources, including a Columbia Law School professor and an American Civil Liberties Union official, who accuse the Trump administration of a bias toward conservative religious liberty causes.

That’s all perfectly reasonable material to include, although it would be interesting to ask conservative legal voices — such as the Alliance Defending Freedom — to weigh in. It would be interesting to see if they would side with Warren or the Trump administration in this specific case.

But my bigger question for NRP: What about the specific facts of the Arizona case in question? That’s where this report keeps things really vague.

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The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

If you are a journalist of a certain age, as well as an old-guard First Amendment liberal, then you remember what it was like trying to get people to understand why you backed ACLU efforts in 1978 to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie.

Clearly this march was going to cause pain and emotional suffering, since that Chicago suburb included many Holocaust survivors. But First Amendment liberals stood firm.

If you grew up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt, it was also hard to explain why you thought Hustler magazine had the right to publish a filthy, sophomoric satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, including a fake claim that he had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a New York Times report at the time noted, this Hustler piece was clearly satire and the First Amendment wasn't supposed to protect people from feeling offended or even abused by voices in the public square.

The central legal issue is whether, in the absence of the kinds of false statements purporting to be fact on which libel suits are based, a public figure like Mr. Falwell should be able to win damages from a publication that intentionally causes emotional distress through ridicule, tasteless or otherwise.

Several Justices suggested they were grappling with a conflict between the freedom of the press to carry on a long tradition of biting satire, and what Justice Antonin Scalia called the concern that ''good people should be able to enter public life'' without being exposed to wanton abuse in print.

I remember, back then, liberals saying they would be quick to defend the First Amendment rights of conservatives who spoke out on tough, tricky and even offensive issues.

This brings me to one of the most Twitter-friendly stories of this past weekend, a Times report that ran with this rather blunt headline: "Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel." It's amazing how little religious content is in this report, in light of waves of religious-liberty fights in recent years.

If you are looking for the thesis statement or statements in this article -- which I think was meant to be "news," not analysis -- here it is: 

... Liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.


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Reporters and the Supreme Court cake bake-off: Was religious freedom the guiding issue?

Reporters and the Supreme Court cake bake-off: Was religious freedom the guiding issue?

Although the opening arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (transcript .pdf here) included a plea for religious freedom, that point got lost in articles about Tuesday’s historic hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s true that the plaintiff’s attorney, Kristen Waggoner, barely got out one paragraph of her intro before justices began interrupting her with questions about cakes and compelled speech.

It’s also true that covering a Supreme Court hearing (I’ve done it two or three times) is like covering a knife fight between 10 participants (nine justices and the hapless attorney before them). It takes discipline for media scribes to remember the main thing is the main thing; in this case, whether a believer can be forced by the state to give a message that contradicts his or her religious convictions.

GLAAD, the gay-rights organization that monitors coverage of homosexuals by the media, saw that “main thing” as such a threat, it sent a note to major media outlets, urging them to dump terms like “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” for “religious exemptions.” Read about their directive on Poynter.org and see one New York Times opinion piece that obeyed this instruction to the letter.  

(Tell me: What if a conservative group had sent out a similar missive to mainstream journalists? The Poynter piece, by the way, didn’t include any quotes from media experts who find it problematic that an activist group feels it can tell journalists what to write.)

Fortunately, reporters generally ignored GLAAD's directive. We will start with the Denver Post, the hometown newspaper for both parties in this suit which had a headline that reflected how Kennedy asked “sharp questions” from both sides. It began with a very static lede: 

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a Colorado case about a same sex-wedding cake that ultimately could determine where the legal system draws the line between discrimination and religious freedom.

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Masterpiece Cakeshop day: Did justices ask what this wedding cake was supposed to look like?

Masterpiece Cakeshop day: Did justices ask what this wedding cake was supposed to look like?

It's a wedding day, sort of, at the U.S. Supreme Court, with legions of activists and journalists (and folks who are both) lining up to hear oral arguments in the much-discussed case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

One of the main challenges facing journalists is this: How should they frame the issues in this First Amendment case? In other words, is this a religious liberty (no "scare quotes," please) case about a religious minority, an artistic expression case or, as the title implies, a case that is essentially about civil rights?

Based on what I have been reading, the legal team for bakery owner Jack Phillips is planning -- preaching to Justice Anthony Kennedy, of course -- to focus on issues of artistic expression, as much or more than on religious liberty.

With that in mind, readers will want to pay attention to two specific issues in mainstream news coverage of the oral arguments at the high court.

First, does the coverage mention that Colorado officials have, on three occasions, declined to force pro-gay bakers to provide Christian or conservative customers with cakes containing creative content that would violate liberal political and religious beliefs on sex and marriage. In other words, Colorado recognized the First Amendment rights of those cake artists.

Second, will the justices strive to find out precisely what kind of cake Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins were seeking when they sought the services of a baker famous for his custom-designed and intricate cake creations.

Why ask that second question? Consider this crucial passage in the National Public Radio advance story about this case, which ran online under this headline: "A Supreme Court Clash Between Artistry And The Rights Of Gay Couples." The key voice here is that of Kristen Waggoner, of Alliance Defending Freedom:

"The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans to decide what they will express and when they will remain silent," she continues. "It's fundamentally different than saying to someone, 'I will not serve you just because of who you are.'" This case, she maintains, "is about the message."

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Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they make lawyers flock gladly.

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they drive the news clicks madly ...

Can somebody help me out here?

We really need some kind of Saturday Night Live worthy cold-open anthem that celebrates/mourns the role that First Amendment fights -- as opposed to waves of shopping-mall news -- now play during the weeks that lead up to the Holy Day once known as the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (see "Christmas").

Most of these annual stories are sad jokes, but some have substance. The latest Washington Post report on the mass-transit advertising wars falls into the second category, raising real issues about public discourse (and the First Amendment) in our tense times.

The headline: "Is Metro waging war on Christmas? Archdiocese sues to post biblical-themed bus ads." Here's the low-key, serious overture:

The Archdiocese of Washington is suing Metro after the transit agency rejected an ad for the organization’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” charitable campaign, which features a biblical Christmas scene.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, attorneys for the archdiocese argue that Metro’s ban on subway and bus ads that “promote . . . any religion, religious practice or belief” has infringed on the organization’s First Amendment rights. ...
The banner ads, designed to be placed on Metrobus exteriors, are relatively minimalist in their design. The display highlights the phrases “Find the Perfect Gift” and “#PerfectGift,” and includes a link to the campaign’s website, which encourages people to attend Mass or donate to a Catholic charitable groups. The words of the ad are overlaid on a tableau of a starry sky; in the corner are three figures bearing shepherd’s rods, along with two sheep.

As a 10-year (or more) regular on DC mass transit, I totally get why this is such a hot-button issue.

We're talking about messages displayed before some of the most tense, picky and politicized eyeballs on Planet Earth.

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Mirror image time: Zero news about Catholic nominee for federal court being grilled on her faith?

Mirror image time: Zero news about Catholic nominee for federal court being grilled on her faith?

So, did you read all the stories about the liberal Episcopalian who was nominated to a federal appeals court seat, only to be grilled about her religious beliefs -- with subtle references to her same-sex marriage -- by evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Catholics in a U.S. Senate hearing?

I mean, one senator called her a Communist because of her decision to speak at a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union. One conservative Anglican on the committee questioned whether her vocal support for her church's doctrine should block her appointment to a federal court. Another conservative Anglican asked her point blank: "Are you a liberal Episcopalian?”

Wait, you didn't see coverage of that story by journalists at major newspapers and cable networks?

Right, I made that up. But can you imagine the mainstream press failing to spotlight a story in which fundamentalist yahoos did something like that to a liberal religious believer?

Me either. So did I miss something when we had that story in reverse? I searched all over for mainstream coverage of this real story, including at the newspaper of record. Scan this simple Google News search and tell me if I blinked and missed something important.

Now let's turn to alternative, "conservative" media outlets and look at this real story -- only reversed in a journalistic mirror. In the real world, we have a pro-Catechism Catholic nominee, a Notre Dame University law professor and mother of seven, facing a liberal Catholic senator. The consistently #NeverTrump National Review reported:

... [D]uring a confirmation hearing for 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein attacked the nominee for her Roman Catholic faith.
Barrett is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about the role of religion in public life and delivered academic lectures to Christian legal groups. ...
“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said.

At another point in this drama:

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Christian legal organizations get the editorial shaft from The Deseret News

Christian legal organizations get the editorial shaft from The Deseret News

When I saw the headline “Serving God by suing others: Inside the Christian conservative legal movement,” I knew the ensuing news article meant trouble.

Would the Deseret News (which produced the above piece) have referred to the Americans for Civil Liberties Union in such a demeaning fashion? Or the Freedom From Religion Foundation?

Both of those organizations spend much of their time suing other entities over religion.

So why all the love for the conservatives? We begin with this:

SALT LAKE CITY -- Roger Gannam cites the Bible to define his company's mission. That wouldn't be notable if he worked at a church or food kitchen, somewhere known for sharing the gospel with the world. But Gannam works at a law firm, suing others and representing those who have been sued.
His employer, Liberty Counsel, advocates for conservative Christian interests in cases related to the sanctity of life, family values and religious liberty, presenting the court system as a way to live out Jesus' "Great Commission."…
Liberty Counsel is part of the Christian legal movement, a collection of advocacy groups working in the legal, public policy and public relations arenas to advance and protect conservative Christian moral values. Together, these firms have turned the courts into key battlefields in the culture wars.

Actually, the courts have been culture wars battlefields for decades. See Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The power of this movement will be on display this fall, when Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is argued before the Supreme Court.

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A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

The addition of controversial attorney Jay Sekulow to President Donald Trump’s defense team is a wide-open invitation for journalistic personality stories. By all accounts, Sekulow, 61, is among America’s most zealous -- and effective -- religious litigators. He also hosts a daily radio show and has become an omnipresent Trump advocate on other media. 

Early coverage on his appointment left unexplored territory on the religion aspects of the sort noted by The Forward, the venerable liberal Jewish newspaper whose print and online editions reach a broad readership. Then The Washington Post published a June 27 jaw-dropper on Sekulowian finances.

More on money in a moment. If The Forward’s treatment seemed harsh, that’s certainly predictable. Sekulow has been in the middle of many social issues that are considered “conservative” while the paper has traditionally embraced socialists and liberal Democrats.

Moreover, Sekulow was raised in Reform Judaism, but became a “Messianic Jew” (that is, an evangelical Protestant of Jewish ethnicity) during college years at Mercer University, where he later earned his law degree. After work as a trial attorney for the IRS and a business lawyer in Atlanta, in 1990 he became chief counsel for the new American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.  

Like Trump’s top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, Sekulow is no expert in the Washington, D.C., quicksand the President finds himself in. But he’s battle-hardened, having argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in his religion specialization. Early on, Sekulow grasped that federal judges are less than ardent supporters of religious freedom claims and switched to a civil liberties strategy exploiting other Bill of Rights guarantees, winning for instance a 1987 Supreme Court OK for airport pamphlet distribution by Jews for Jesus.

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Big New Jersey religious-liberty case: Did you hear who backed efforts to build a new mosque?

Big New Jersey religious-liberty case: Did you hear who backed efforts to build a new mosque?

So, did you hear about that major victory for religious-liberty activists the other day?

In this case, the reference to "religious liberty" in that first statement is not framed in scare quotes for a simple reason. This particular case did not have anything to do with debates about the Sexual Revolution clashing with ancient religious doctrines and traditions.

This important case involved a win for Muslims in Somerset County, N.J., who have been fighting their suburban powers in defense of their right to build themselves a mosque.

This is where things get interesting. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge had the U.S. Department of Justice on its side, but also received help from a broad coalition of religious-liberty activists. This was a rare sighting of the old left-right coalition that used to stand together back in the heady days in the 1990s, when Democrats and Republicans all embraced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (click here for GetReligion links on that).

Kudos to The Atlantic for spotting this important angle of a major story:

An uncommonly wide range of religious groups came to the Society’s support -- from groups that lean left, like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Sikh Coalition, to more conservative groups, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Such unequal treatment of the mosque in this case represents a potential threat to the free exercise rights of each of the amici represented here,” the 18 supportive groups wrote, “and is an affront to our nation’s commitment to religious liberty for all.”

Alas, it was hard to find evidence in other mainstream news coverage showing that journalists knew that key religious conservatives, as well as liberals, were celebrating this victory for supporters of this New Jersey mosque and, thus, a victory for religious liberty. 

Consider The New York Times coverage, for example: "Settlements With New Jersey Suburb Clear Way for Proposed Mosque." Here is the overture, with many interesting details about the flexibility demonstrated by these Muslim believers:

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