Austin American-Statesman

Why lawmakers in Texas are trying to 'Save Chick-fil-A' and gay-rights advocates are fighting it

Why lawmakers in Texas are trying to 'Save Chick-fil-A' and gay-rights advocates are fighting it

A month and a half ago, my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin first delved into the brouhaha over San Antonio’s refusal to allow a Chick-fil-A at its airport.

Guess what?

The controversy hasn’t gone away. In fact, a “Save Chick-fil-A” bill sparked by the Alamo City’s decision gained final approval by the Texas Senate just today.

The Dallas Morning News reports:

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate has approved a bill that would prohibit the government from penalizing individuals and businesses for their charitable giving to or membership in religious groups.

Senate Bill 1978, which supporters call the "Save Chick-fil-A" bill, was passed by a vote of 19-12 on Thursday afternoon after about four hours of debate over two days. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, broke with his party to vote in favor, while Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo split with fellow Republicans to vote against the bill.

The legislation now heads to the Texas House for further debate, just 10 days before lawmakers are scheduled to go home.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about most news coverage of this bill: There’s a lot of coded language. I’m talking about phrases such as “the fast-food chain owners’ record on LGBT issues,” as a brief Associated Press news report characterized it.

Granted, the AP item is just a brief, but it never actually explains what that “record on LGBT issues” might be.

What exactly did Chick-fil-A do that might get it in hot water with gay-rights advocates?

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Friday Five: Paige Patterson furor, Jehovah's Witnesses abuse, Austin bomber's life, NRA prayer and more

Friday Five: Paige Patterson furor, Jehovah's Witnesses abuse, Austin bomber's life, NRA prayer and more

This is going to be a briefer-than-normal intro to Friday Five.

That's because I've been on vacation most of the week (read: hanging out at the ballpark watching my beloved Texas Rangers take two out of three from the Detroit Tigers).

Suffice it to say that I haven't kept up with religion headlines as much as I usually do. My thanks to boss man Terry Mattingly for some help with this week's five.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey's trip to Texas to report on Paige Patterson's controversial comments concerning domestic violence and divorce is the obvious pick this week.

I'll link to the former GetReligion contributor's front-page report, but for more details and other vital coverage, check out Bailey's Twitter feed.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: This time around, Julia Duin has the No. 1 post. That was a commentary entitled "Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out."

A close second: Another tmatt post, this time on "How to cover Jordan Peterson, while avoiding truth-shaped holes in his 'secular' gospel."

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Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

For residents of Austin, Texas, weeks of terror ended Wednesday when Mark Conditt — identified as the serial bomber responsible for killing two people and badly wounding four others — blew himself up.

As reporters began delving into the 23-year-old Conditt's background, religious details — some more concrete than others — quickly emerged.

My thanks to GetReligion reader Deann Alford, a Texas-based journalist and author, who alerted us to crucial facts in an Austin American-Statesman story. The key: The religious questions linked to this story are valid hooks to investigate — right now. But authorities say they see no clues, so far, to motives in these acts.

The Austin newspaper interviewed Jeremiah Jensen, 24, who was homeschooled in the same community as Conditt:

The two were close in 2012 and 2013, said Jensen, who would often go to the Conditts’ home for lunch after Sunday church service and attended Bible study and other activities with him. Jensen said Conditt came from a good family, was athletic, enjoyed rock climbing and parkour and was a “deep thinker.”
“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” Jensen said. “He was a very assertive person and would … end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation. A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it. He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.”
Jensen said Conditt attended regular church services at the Austin Stone Community Church on St. John’s Avenue.
“I know faith was a serious thing for him,” he said. “I don’t know if he held onto his faith or not. … The kind of anger that he expressed and the kind of hate that he succumbed to — that’s not what he believed in in high school. I don’t know what happened along the way. This wasn’t him.”

A little later in the story, there's this:

The Austin Stone said in a statement it had no records of Conditt or his family’s active involvement in the church or interactions with staff members.
“We love and grieve with our city and we continue to pray for the victims and their families who were affected by these recent tragedies. We are cooperating with law enforcement with any pertinent information we can find that may be of help as they continue their investigation,” the church said in a statement.

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Masturbation bill: This isn't fake news, it's parody news — and it doesn't help newspapers' credibility

Masturbation bill: This isn't fake news, it's parody news — and it doesn't help newspapers' credibility

Dub this Viagra Bill 2.0.

Although — to be more accurate — this marks at least the fourth time a state lawmaker somewhere in the U.S. has generated a wave of news media coverage with legislation poking fun at anti-abortion forces.

Last time I wrote about this, I pointed out: 

It's a valid story, of course. The issue is whether journalists are willing to do more than lead cheers for her cause.

Fast-forward 13 months, and the lawmaker and the state have changed, but the pesky journalistic issue remains the same.

The latest, mostly one-sided reports emerged over the weekend in Texas: Lone Star State journalists — mimicking their peers in other states — dutifully turned parody legislation into serious headlines. But again, the news organizations largely failed to give the other side a chance to respond. (Please honk if you don't need to be reminded about pro-abortion bias seeping into the news.)

Some of the Texas headlines:

Texas lawmaker files bill that takes aim at men’s health care (Austin American-Statesman)
Texas men would face fine for masturbating, need rectal exam for Viagra under proposed law (Dallas Morning News)
New bill takes aim at men's masturbation habits (Houston Chronicle)

Other news organizations reporting on the bill include the San Antonio Express-News, the Washington Post, BBC News, the Huffington Post and the International Business Times.

The lede from the Houston Chronicle:

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Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

As you may recall, I was not impressed with initial media reporting on a transgender-related bathroom bill in Texas.

Perhaps the title of my January post --  "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" -- gives some clue as to my overall analysis of the news coverage.

Fast-forward to recent stories on religious leaders in the Lone Star State entering the fray, and I'm feeling a little more generous in my appraisal.

The Austin American-Statesman, in particular, deserves a high passing grade for its fair, evenhanded treatment of the Godbeat angle.

I should stress that I'm grading on a curve because the American-Statesman — like other news organizations — faced the difficulty of reporting on both sides when one side closed its proceedings to the press. 

The lede from the Austin newspaper:

The fight over legislation to block transgender-friendly bathroom policies ventured into the religious realm Thursday as faith leaders gathered in Austin to promote competing views.
The day began with a closed-door briefing for Christian pastors by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials who see religious support as crucial to the passage of Senate Bill 6, which would limit the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.
The event by the U.S. Pastor Council was billed as “show up time” for those who would lead the fight in support of the bill.
That was followed by an afternoon gathering of more than 40 religious leaders — many holding signs reading “My faith does not discriminate” — who oppose SB 6 as immoral.
“Our lawmakers are considering anti-transgender bathroom bills and bills that come disguised as religious freedom — dangerous pieces of legislation that place a religious mask over what amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst of First United Methodist Church, where the event was held.

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And in the end, the #hatecake hoax failed to go viral (So what about the pastor's church?)

And in the end, the #hatecake hoax failed to go viral (So what about the pastor's church?)

So, for those of you who keep sending me links: Yes, I heard that the Rev. Jordan Brown of Austin recently announced that his #hatecake lawsuit against Whole Foods was a hoax.

Well, that wasn't exactly what he said. Hold that thought.

Now, I will admit that I didn't see that hoax story when it went viral on social media -- because it didn't go viral on social media (like the earlier story in which Brown made his accusations). This lack of social-media activity is one of two angles in the story that still interest me.

Wait, maybe this story didn't trend on Facebook the second time around because. ... Oh well, nevermind.

Looking at the small amount of coverage this story received, the Austin American-Statesman report was rather interesting because of what it didn't come right out and say. Take that headline for example: "Pastor to drop lawsuit against Whole Foods over anti-gay slur on cake."

So why is he dropping his lawsuit?

The man who accused Whole Foods Market of writing a homophobic slur on a cake will drop a lawsuit against the grocery chain.

“The company did nothing wrong,” Jordan Brown, a pastor of a small Austin church, said in a statement. “I was wrong to pursue this matter and use the media to perpetuate this story.”

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Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

For those who are curious, The Austin American-Statesman did send a reporter to the anticipated Sunday Church of Open Doors service to see if the Rev. Jordan Brown or any members of his "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window" flock decided to attend.

Even though the news report that resulted was short, and rather grammatically challenged, it did yield some interesting information for journalists and news consumers attempting to follow up on the hate-cake incident.

As I said in an early post (and in this past week's "Crossroads" podcast) I am convinced journalists covering Brown's lawsuit, and the resulting counter-suit by the legal team at Whole Foods, need to know if this shepherd does, in fact, have a flock. If so, who are the lay leaders who oversee his ministry?

So here is the top of the report in The American-Statesman:

A traditional Sunday gathering led by an Austin man who targeted Whole Foods Market with controversial, viral allegations that backfired last week didn’t hold its usual services today.
Jordan Brown, who said he pastors a small group, the Church of Open Doors, didn’t have their usual meeting out of his East Austin apartment complex Sunday.

Now, take out the word "traditional" and then substitute "congregation" for "gathering" and that lede makes some sense. I really don't know what happened in the second sentence. It seems that something is missing.

The key fact here is that journalists still have had zero contact with anyone from the congregation.

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After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

Is there anything new to say, at this point, about the Rev. Jordan Brown, his Church of Open Doors and the mysterious case of the alleged Whole Foods hate cake?

The short answer is, "no." Of course, that tells us something about these viral, digital media storms that blow up on Twitter and then fade away. At some point, there is real reporting that needs to get done.

The key, is this point, is that there is little evidence that the same mainstream media that ran with the story early on -- The Austin America Statesman, for example -- are interested in exploring the next stage of the drama. In a post the other day, and in our "Crossroads" podcast this week, I suggested that it would be important to find out more about Brown's congregation -- such as whether it's alive and viable. (I just noticed that it's last schedule worship service was at noon on April 3 -- the week after Western Easter).

So what happens this Sunday?

Now, a GetReligion reader went online and dug out some basic, very helpful information that would have added some depth to the tsunami of early online items about this alleged hate crime:

I am not a journalist but I did do some checking on the Church of Open Doors. The "congregation" meets in the community room/area of an apartment complex. The official mailing address is a post office box at an establishment named "Drive Thru Postal". On the "church" website, there is no mention of governance or oversight.
According to Facebook link, the "church" utilizes MailChimp, I went to MailChimp and found the archive of emails for the "church" and the majority of them are pleas for money. This is the most recent:

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After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

Let's pause, for a moment, and set aside in-depth discussions of Whole Foods security-camera footage and the strategic location of UPC labels.

Ditto for the zoomed-in analysis of high-definition photos that may show clashing colors in cake icing and the width of the letters on top of what is currently America's most controversial "Love Wins" cake.

There is also the irony that this story is unfolding in the people's republic of Austin, which is both the official capital of the state of Texas and the proudly weird Mecca of folks who want to live in Texas, without really living in Texas.

What I want to do is meditate, for a moment, on the difficulty of covering totally independent, nondenominational churches. During the blitz of hate-cake coverage yesterday, very few journalists paused to ask any questions about the Austin pastor at the center of this controversy and his "church plant," the Church of Open Doors.

One of the convenient things about covering large religious institutions, and religious denominations in particular, is that they offer reporters a chance to verify key facts when a minister and/or a congregation hits the headlines, for positive or negative reasons.

This basic reporting work is harder to do with independent congregations (and there are thousands of them and that number is rising all the time). Right now, it's clear that hardly anyone knows much of anything about the Rev. Jordan Brown and his flock. And let me ask again: Why do so many journalists decline to use the normal Associated Press style -- "the Rev." -- when dealing with African-American pastors?

There is Facebook, of course, where one can learn, in addition to the fact that 27 people have visited, that the church's slogan is: "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window."

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