Franciscans

Atheists sue after New Jersey shelter's 'blessing of animals' by generic religious order

Atheists sue after New Jersey shelter's 'blessing of animals' by generic religious order

On the face of it, the group American Atheists would appear to have a clear case: A cleric came to a county-funded animal shelter in northern New Jersey not once, but at least two years in a row, to "bless" animals in the shelter's care.

That's not the "blessing of the animals" we see in churches across the country, as exemplified by the video above.

But is this the kind of separation of church and state issue that rises to the level of the 1963 Supreme Court Abington School District v. Schempp Bible-readings-in-school decision, from which the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the group? Who, exactly, is the religious group behind the blessings? Does it matter from a #journalism perspective? And why are there some important religion facts missing from this report?

I'll get to that first question in a moment. Let's first see what NJ.com, the Newhouse newspaper chain's Garden State website, has to say about how the "Atheists sue to stop blessing of shelter animals" began: 

A New Jersey atheist group best known for its national billboard campaign against Christmas now has its hackles up over an event that it calls unconstitutional -- the annual blessing of the animals at the Bergen County Animal Shelter.
The group, American Atheists Inc. of Cranford, claims in a federal lawsuit that the Teterboro shelter's event, in which animals are blessed by a Franciscan reverend, violates the First and 14th amendments.
It seeks an injunction against the county's participation, as well as legal fees. Bergen County, the shelter and its director, Deborah Yankow, are named in the suit.
Photographs of the events on the shelter's Facebook page show Reverend Kenneth Reihl of the Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy in North Arlington blessing small animals, from "Bugsy the Bunny" to "Pittie puppy Petunia."

Now, the question of prayer and blessings in public spaces is a long-debated one, to be sure. But there's no law of which I'm aware that prevents me (or you) from walking into a public building, even a government-funded animal shelter, and offering a prayer for those homeless animals needing care.

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Washington Post on airplane sleep: These days, most folks (like me) don't have a prayer

Washington Post on airplane sleep: These days, most folks (like me) don't have a prayer

I have been looking at this Washington Post feature for several weeks now, trying to decide whether to write a post mentioning its tiny little religion angle.

The headline got my attention right from the get-go and then it stuck. Anyone else? I am talking about: "Can’t sleep on airplanes? These products and techniques can help."

Yes, dear readers, I have even stared at this piece on my iPad while on an airplane, during a two-stage, coast-to-coast flight during which I nodded and nodded, but did not sleep a wink. You might say that I am the target audience for this travel piece. I once failed to get a minute of sleep during an entire 15-hour flight from Delhi to Chicago that left the ground at 1 a.m. Believe me, I tried. I took enough Melatonin to stun a horse.

Now, the religion angle in this piece is hidden right there in the headline, in the word "techniques."

Hold that thought. First, here is the evocative overture:

The rumble of a jet engine is a comforting sound to some air travelers, making it easy to sleep on virtually any flight. For others, just the thought of being trapped in a pressurized aluminum tube is enough to send massive doses of adrenaline into their bloodstreams, ensuring alertness for days.
Pamela Wagner falls somewhere in the middle. Though not a white-knuckled flier, she says the noise makes rest impossible.
“I’m used to super silence when I’m sleeping,” she says. “Not exactly what you get on a flight.”
True. The interior of an aircraft is anything but silent, with noises ranging from chatty passengers to screaming children and, of course, the constant whine -- of the engines. It’s also uncomfortable, even if you’re in one of those lie-flat business-class seats, which don’t always lie all the way down. Try falling asleep in a sitting position, even when you’re not on an aircraft, and you’ll know why sleeping on a plane can be a pipe dream.

The bottom line, saith the writer: "Having a snooze on a plane is not getting any easier."

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No surprise here: Godbeat all-star produces stellar journalism on a sickening subject

No surprise here: Godbeat all-star produces stellar journalism on a sickening subject

The details are sickening.

Even reading the lede on Wednesday's story by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith makes one want to vomit.

Yet the felony charges revealed in Pennsylvania this week against a Catholic religious order's superiors demand strong news coverage.

And that's exactly what Godbeat all-star Smith provides:

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — One of his Franciscan superiors knew Brother Stephen Baker had sexually abused a minor and ordered a psychological evaluation in the early 1990s. The evaluation came back with a caution — to keep Baker away from one-on-one contact with children, and no overnight trips with them.
Even so, the Very Rev. Giles A. Schinelli admitted under oath to a grand jury that he assigned Baker to work at Bishop McCort Catholic High School here in 1992, and Baker had plenty of one-on-one contact with students.
Baker became an athletic trainer there despite lacking any professional qualifications, and under the guise of offering massages or other treatment, Baker handled boys’ bare genitals with his hands and digitally penetrated their anuses, among other offenses.
A statewide grand jury, saying that he enabled a nearly two-decade rampage of abuse that claimed at least 100 victims, recommended that Father Schinelli and the two who succeeded him as head of a Hollidaysburg-based Franciscan province face almost unprecedented felony charges.
Each is charged with one count of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy, which are third-degree felonies.
The charges represent one of the broadest-ever drives to hold Roman Catholic higher-ups to account in any American criminal court for the sexual abuse of minors by those under their supervision. And they’re the first religious-order superiors to face such charges.

Producing quality journalism on a story such as this requires both factual reporting — with details attributed to named sources — and fair treatment of the various parties cited in court documents.

Smith's 1,200-word breaking news report illustrates his commitment to each of those essentials.

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One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

Trust me, I know that I just dealt with this issue in a pre-Christmas post about an error in a Bethlehem dateline story in The Washington Post.

It appears that there is still confusion, out there in major newsrooms, about which church is which on Manger Square in Bethlehem. That earlier Post advance report -- which has not been corrected -- stated:

There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.

Alas, the Associated Press story covering Christmas events in Bethlehem -- the story that will be read in the vast majority of American newspapers -- has repeated the same error that was in the Post report. Read carefully and see if you spot the overlap:

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through a military checkpoint and past Israel's concrete separation barrier, which surrounds much of the town. ...
Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and "victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere," according to a transcript issued by his office. He wished "all inhabitants of the Holy Land" a happy and healthy new year.

Yes, the Post reference was more specific -- making the error more obvious.

Now, let's follow the logic here.

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Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage?

Back in my Rocky Mountain News days, I covered an ecumenical gathering in Boulder, Colo., focusing on contemplative prayer and meditation. One of the main speakers was a leader at the Nada Carmelite monastic community — part of the Spiritual Life Institute — located in Crestone, Colo., at on the western face of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

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The Sun mourns death of a liberal priest

It’s a question that journalists debate from time to time in major newsrooms: To what degree are obituaries news stories?

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