Jeff Sessions

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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Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Talk about a slam dunk!

The Religion News Association announced its 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this week.

What a fine choice the RNA made:

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades.  

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

Read the rest of the release.

Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

So what has been going on, for the past couple of years, with the Sisters of the Poor and the federal health-care mandate requiring them, and many other religious institutions, to offer their employees health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives?

Journalists: Does anyone believe that these regulations require elderly nuns to go to a nearby drug counter, whip out the religious order's charge card, and purchase "morning-after pills"?

Is that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant when, in a recent speech on the rising tide of disputes about religious liberty, he said the following (which is typical of the language he has been using)?

"We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma -- a clear reference to their religious beliefs -- even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office."

What does he mean when he says the nuns have been ordered to "pay for" contraceptives, and lots of other things that violate the doctrines at the heart of their ministry?

So many questions! Was he talking about nuns using a charge card at the pharmacy? Or was Sessions discussing a requirement that they use ministry funds to offer a health-care plan that includes these benefits, requiring them to cooperate with acts that they believe are evil?

It's the latter, of course.

So what are readers to make of the language in the overture of this recent Religion News Service story (it does not carry an analysis or column label)?

(RNS) -- Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.)

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Seven can't-miss takes on use of Romans 13 to defend policy on separating immigrant families

Seven can't-miss takes on use of Romans 13 to defend policy on separating immigrant families

Move over, Two Corinthians.

There's a new Bible reference making lots of headlines: Romans 13.

Who knew that Donald Trump and his administration would bring such attention to Scriptures?

In case you somehow missed this controversy, here are the basic details via The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in his defense of his border policy that is resulting in hundreds of immigrant children being separated from their parents after they enter the U.S. illegally.

Sessions, speaking in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on immigration, pushed back against criticism he had received over the policy. On Wednesday, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church said that separating mothers from their babies was “immoral.”

Sessions said many of the recent criticisms were not “fair or logical and some are contrary to law.”

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful."

Sessions' remarks — coupled with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' declaration that "it is very biblical to enforce the law" — have sparked a wave of press attention exploring the meaning and history of Romans 13.

For those interested in insightful, enlightening coverage, here are seven can't-miss links:

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With apologies for a tired old pun: Should church leaders talk about going to pot?

With apologies for a tired old pun: Should church leaders talk about going to pot?

As California this year becomes the eighth state to legalize “recreational” marijuana (as opposed to “medical” uses), what do American religious groups have to say about this cultural lurch?

Not much, says an accurate complaint in The Christian Century’s Jan. 3 cover story “Talking About Marijuana -- in Church.” Author Adam Hearlson laments that churches are hesitant to openly discuss such a pertinent issue, and implies they should consider support for liberalization. 

It's past time for the news media to consult religious thinkers about this.

Church wariness is reflected in the fact that the “mainline” Protestant magazine itself identified Hearlson only vaguely as “a minister, writer, scholar.” In fact he teaches preaching and worship and directs the chapel at the nation’s oldest seminary, Andover Newton (which after years of decline is about to shut down and be absorbed by Yale Divinity School).

One obvious story peg is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned Obama Administration policy, giving federal prosecutors discretion to enforce anti-pot laws, even in states where it’s legal. Both parties in the U.S. Congress have kept such laws on the books, and Department of Justice concern did not originate with the Trump Administration (.pdf document here).

Leaving aside libertarians who insist government should simply leave us alone, proponents offer three key arguments for an open “recreational” market:

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Hate group or hateful reporting? This is why alleged 'news organization' ABC News is under fire

Hate group or hateful reporting? This is why alleged 'news organization' ABC News is under fire

ABC News is under fire for a story in which it characterizes the Alliance Defending Freedom as "an alleged hate group."

In some ways, it's the same ole, same ole.

Click the above links, and you can read my GetReligion colleague Mark Kellner's excellent recent commentary on the Southern Poverty Law Center labeling certain conservative organizations as "hate groups." 

Kellner rightly asked: "Here's a proactive journalistic question: Does expressing one's faith and beliefs always and without exception equal hate?"

Apparently, ABC didn't get the memo. 

So we end up with this headline today:

Jeff Sessions addresses 'anti-LGBT hate group,' but DOJ won't release his remarks

And the lede:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech to an alleged hate group at an event closed to reporters on Tuesday night, but the Department of Justice is refusing to reveal what he said.
Sessions addressed members of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was designated an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, at the Summit on Religious Liberty at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, in Dana Point, California.

Let's be real clear: The fact that the attorney general gave a closed-door speech is certainly a valid news topic to investigate. But at this point, can anybody really consider the SPLC a nonpartisan source when it comes to identifying hate groups?

(To be fair, NBC News had an equally horrid report.)

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This news isn't fake, but it's flawed: Three problems with NPR's report on religious freedom bills

This news isn't fake, but it's flawed: Three problems with NPR's report on religious freedom bills

Well, that didn't last long.

A week after Donald Trump's stunning election as president, I wrote a GetReligion post with this title:

Based on Trump's win, it looks like religious liberty really is a thing — with no scare quotes

In that post, I gave a brief history of biased and lackluster media coverage of religious freedom bills tied to conscience claims by people of faith. (If any of this is new to you, I'd encourage you to take a moment and read that post before proceeding with this one.)

In a nutshell, here's the issue I explored back in November:

Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election, which was won by a candidate — Donald Trump — who pledged in a letter to Catholics last month to "defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."
It seems that — to many voters — religious freedom was an important issue in the Nov. 8 election. An issue to which many news organizations were tone-deaf, based on their previously mentioned coverage.
So will coverage of this subject improve based on a new president in the White House?
Perhaps.

I then cited a newsy, balanced Associated Press story that raised my hopes for better journalism.

I'm not feeling as optimistic, though, after a reader called my attention to a weekend NPR report on religious freedom bills. On the positive side, the NPR piece offers a nice case study in how a news organization that claims "impartiality" ought not to cover the issue.

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Donald Trump's cabinet: Are his choices merely a list of evangelical deplorables?

Donald Trump's cabinet: Are his choices merely a list of evangelical deplorables?

OK. I get that for lots of people, Donald Trump’s cabinet picks seem like a freak show line-up.

But can we at least try to maintain a little bit of journalistic objectivity when we describe these folks? Yes, this is a debate that's raging all over the place right now. Just ask New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. And remember the Fixer-Upper couple bouhaha that BuzzFeed tried to ignite two weeks ago (which I wrote about) that blamed the two home remodelers for the views of their pastor? 

Lots of folks condemned that sort of damned-by-association style of journalism. In this latest wrap-up of Trump’s cabinet, I see it again in this RNS story.

(RNS) An education secretary who supports school vouchers to get more children into private religious schools. A White House strategist whose ex-wife accused him of anti-Semitism. A national security adviser who called Islam “a political ideology hiding behind a religion.”
After a campaign in which President-elect Donald Trump was accused of trafficking in bigotry and hatred, and of changing his views to win the conservative religious vote, he is choosing Cabinet members who have made controversial statements on religious and ethical issues.

I get the second half of the sentence, but was the first part (on “bigotry and hatred”) necessary? Yes, it is a statement of fact about attacks by Trump critics on the left and right, but still. The article then goes on to list several cabinet nominees:

Pruitt is a member of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., where he has served as a deacon. First Baptist is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has opposed marriage equality, reproductive rights for women and LGBTQ rights, including bathroom access for transgender people.

My goodness, are these people villains or what? The Southern Baptists also took a strong stand against racism, for refugees and repudiated the Confederate flag at their June meeting. I guess that wasn’t good enough.

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