Death Penalty

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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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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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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This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

It's almost incomprehensible: Associated Press journalist Michael Graczyk has served as a media witness for more than 400 executions.

When I worked in AP's Dallas bureau from 2003 to 2005, Graczyk was a Houston-based colleague of mine — and a great guy.

Graczyk, 68, is making headlines this week because of his retirement after 46 years with the news service. 

The Dallas Morning News featured the veteran newsman on today's front page. The Washington Post had a story on him Tuesday. And AP got the scoop on Graczyk's plans. No surprise there, right?

All of the interviews, of course, are fascinating. And all paint a portrait of an accurate, fair-minded journalist: In hundreds of cases, Graczyk has made it a point to interview condemned inmates who were willing. But not only that, he also has given victims' relatives an opportunity to speak, if they so desired.

Here's a journalist who epitomizes the best of his profession.

But right about now, you may be thinking, "OK, but what's the religion angle?" I'm glad you asked.

Each of the stories makes reference to Graczyk's own faith, although the Post fails to mention his Catholic background specifically.

Let's start with AP's religious note:

Graczyk has been asked many times whether he believes the death penalty should be legal. He said he’s a practicing Catholic and respects the church’s teachings against capital punishment, but that he has not made up his own mind.

“I’m not dodging the question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

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News story or editorial? Slanted Associated Press report on death penalty stacked with opponents

News story or editorial? Slanted Associated Press report on death penalty stacked with opponents

Apparently, most people in Arkansas support capital punishment.

Amazingly, The Associated Press couldn't find — or didn't want to find — any of them to quote.

AP's own news values and principles maintain that the global news agency abhors "inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions." Yet — based on a story on the wire today — it's impossible not to question whether bias exists in the coverage of the death penalty in the Natural State.

Here's the top of the AP story:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — While outrage on social media is growing over Arkansas' unprecedented plan to put seven inmates to death before the end of the month, the protests have been more muted within the conservative Southern state where capital punishment is still favored by a strong majority of residents.
A few dozen people regularly have kept vigil outside Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's mansion for weeks, holding signs that say "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "End the Death Penalty." And the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty hopes to draw hundreds of participants to a Good Friday rally at the state Capitol to protest the executions that start Monday — three nights of double executions, followed by a single one. A judge last week halted a planned eighth execution.
"Arkansas is known across the world for the Little Rock Nine and all of that atrocity," said the coalition's execution director, Furonda Brasfield, referring to the 1957 desegregation battle in Little Rock involving nine black students. "And now it's the Little Rock eight in 10, and it paints our state in such a horrible light."
The group is using the hashtag #8in10 to highlight the executions, although one man has received a stay and the seven lethal injections are scheduled to take place over 11 days, the first on April 17 and the last on April 27. Hutchinson set the unprecedented schedule because a key lethal injection drug expires April 30.

I'm certainly familiar with the historical significance of the Little Rock Nine. In 1997, while reporting on desegregation battlegrounds for The Oklahoman, I wrote a front-page Sunday feature on Little Rock Central High School.

But after 60 years, are the Little Rock Nine really what Arkansas is still known for? Might a different source — perhaps one of the "strong majority of residents" who favor the death penalty — offer a different perspective on the state and whether the executions will paint it in a horrible light? The wire service doesn't bother to ask.

In fact, AP quotes six people by name in this report — five of them death penalty opponents.

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

'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. So 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're right. 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, one side seems to enjoy favored status. 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?

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Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

As a life-long opponent of the death penalty, I have attended my share of prayer gatherings and rallies on this issue and other issues linked to it. That final clause -- "and other issues linked to it" -- is crucial.

What I have learned is that, in contemporary American life, there are basically two groups of people who are opposed to the death penalty.

The first group is made up of political progressives who oppose the death penalty and that's that. The second group (which would include me) consists of pro-life religious believers -- left and right -- who oppose the death penalty as well as legalized abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. The goal in this camp is to consistently apply a standard that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death.

In my experience, it's relatively rare to see mainstream press coverage of this second group, especially coverage that discusses the role that faith and doctrine plays in this stance. So I did a double-take the other day when I saw that Washington Post headline that proclaimed, "Meet the red-state conservatives fighting to abolish the death penalty."

Yes, this piece by New York magazine writer Marin Cogan is labeled "opinion." However, it's about as newsy as 80 percent of what runs as hard news in major newspapers today.

Let me confess that this is, in effect, a "Kellerism" piece that just happens to support a cause that floats my own boat. If you are looking for fair, accurate arguments in favor of the death penalty then this is not the piece for you. However, I wanted GetReligion readers to know about it because it does a pretty good job of handling faith-based material, while dealing with a group of believers that rarely gets much news coverage. So why an "opinion" piece?

Here is the overture:

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All Catholics oppose death penalty and all Baptists favor it?

In the wake of the nation’s first executions since Oklahoma’s botched lethal injection, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an interesting story on a young Republican concerned about the death penalty: Late Tuesday, as the clock approached midnight, Marcus Wellons rode to oblivion on a state-inserted needle, his punishment for the rape and murder of a young Cobb County neighbor 24 years ago.

That same day, Marc Hyden, a 30-year-old confirmed conservative Republican from Marietta, hopped a plane for Washington D.C. Today, he will open a booth at the fifth annual gathering of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Hyden is a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a two-year-old, GOP-based group that carries tea party suspicion of government into a new but highly logical arena:

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