Ken Paxton

Three questions about AP's story on conservative Christian attorneys gaining influence under Trump

Three questions about AP's story on conservative Christian attorneys gaining influence under Trump

As happens with Associated Press stories, the wire service's report headlined "Conservative Christian attorneys gain influence under Trump" is getting prominent play nationally.

I first read the piece in the print edition of today's Houston Chronicle.

Moreover, it's on the New York Times website and in hundreds of papers across the nation.

The subject matter — the rise of a Texas-based law firm that pursues religious liberty cases —  definitely interests me.

But AP's implementation of that storyline makes for a frustrating read.

Just the first three paragraphs raise my hackles:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lawyers who espouse a conservative Christian agenda have found plenty of opportunities in Texas, suing on behalf of Bible-quoting cheerleaders and defending a third-grader who wanted to hand out Christmas cards that read in part “Jesus is the Christ!”

But for the First Liberty law firm, the last few years have been especially rewarding: Their attorneys have moved into powerful taxpayer-funded jobs at the Texas attorney general’s office and advised President Donald Trump, who nominated a current and a former First Liberty lawyer to lifetime appointments on federal courts. Another attorney went to the Department of Health and Human Services as a senior adviser on religious freedom.

It’s a remarkable rise for a modest-sized law firm near Dallas with 46 employees, and it mirrors the climb of similar firms that have quietly shifted from trying to influence government to becoming part of it. The ascent of the firms has helped propel a wave of anti-LGBT legislation and so-called religious-freedom laws in statehouses nationwide.

After reading this story, here are three journalistic questions:

1. What is the "conservative Christian agenda" espoused by the First Liberty Institute?

AP reports that agenda as a fact but never provides evidence to back it up.

The firm's website describes its mission as protecting religious liberty. In AP's view, is that characterization synonymous with "a conservative Christian agenda?" 

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Hey Dallas Morning News, feel free to connect the dots on pastor's links to Texas attorney general

Hey Dallas Morning News, feel free to connect the dots on pastor's links to Texas attorney general

My bad. I gave in to the clickbait.

I receive a regular email of top headlines from the Dallas Morning News.

On an email Sunday, the Dallas newspaper touted a story reporting that "Attorney General Ken Paxton's pastor sues lead witnesses in criminal case."

Interesting, I thought. So I clicked. 

It turns out that Paxton attends Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Dallas-area megachurch accustomed to making headlines. 

The Rev. Jack Graham, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, is Prestonwood's pastor. But that's not who the headline is talking about.

The lede:

AUSTIN — Attorney General Ken Paxton's pastor has sued the lead witnesses against him in his upcoming criminal trials. 
Last week, Prestonwood Baptist Church Executive Pastor Mike Buster filed a lawsuit against Rep. Byron Cook and Florida businessman Joel Hochberg, the two men named on Paxton's fraud indictments. Paxton attends Prestonwood's main campus in Plano.
Buster alleges that Cook and Hochberg bilked him out of about a half-million dollars, described as "a substantial percentage of his personal net worth." Cook was manager of an energy asset management company that Buster says recommended he purchase mineral rights from Cook and Hochberg "at exorbitant markups and after very short holding times."

Later in the story — for those not familiar with Paxton's legal troubles — the paper notes:

Paxton, a Republican, was indicted in July 2015 on two first-degree felony charges accusing him of defrauding Cook and Hochberg in a tech startup investment scheme. He is also accused of funneling clients to a friend's investment firm without being properly registered with the state. 
He faces maximum penalties of 99 years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines if found guilty. Paxton has flatly denied the allegations and blamed them on a political witch hunt perpetrated by Hochberg and Cook, also a Republican.

OK, so what is the connection between Buster and Paxton? Good question. At least I think so. Apparently, the Dallas Morning News disagrees. Or maybe this quick-hit story was all about the clickbait.

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'Released Time' religious education: High school's Muslim prayer room raises constitutional questions

'Released Time' religious education: High school's Muslim prayer room raises constitutional questions

When I worked for The Associated Press in Dallas from 2003 to 2005, my family lived in the fast-growing bedroom community of Frisco, Texas.

I remember writing about the "kindergarten boom" that the suburb was experiencing at that time:

FRISCO, Texas — Cindi Wright jokes that the shopping mall in this one-time farming community — now one of the nation's fastest-growing cities — resembles a stroller convention.
"It has more strollers per capita than any other mall," said Wright, a mother of three young children.
Babies don't stay little for long, though, as educators in this city 25 miles north of Dallas have figured out.
The Frisco school district graduated fewer than 400 high school seniors in May, but it expects a crush of about 1,600 kindergartners when the new school year starts Monday.
Low interest rates and plenty of available housing have fueled an influx of young families, producing a kindergarten boom unmatched in Texas, demographers say.
"I don't know what it is," said Wright, 33. "It just seems like everybody's our age and everybody's having kids."

A dozen-plus years later, some of those kids are students at a Frisco high school that — in recent days — has drawn the attention of top Texas politicians and made national headlines.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the controversy earlier this month (for those not familiar with Texas education lingo, "ISD" stands for "Independent School District"):

Frisco ISD responded tersely on Friday to the Texas attorney general's concerns about the legality of a prayer room at Frisco's Liberty High School that is often — but not solely — used by Muslim students.
Frisco ISD learned of the AG's concerns on Friday from the media about the same time a news release was sent from the AG's office along with a copy of a letter addressed to district Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. 
The letter from Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie states that "it appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs," which would violate the First Amendment.
Lyon's letter in response, posted online late Friday on the district's website, suggests the concern "appears to be a publicity stunt by the OAG to politicize a non-issue."
The prayer room is open to any students and does get used by students of other faiths, according to the district's spokesman.
"Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption," Lyon wrote in his letter.

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Keep reading long enough, and there's another side to Planned Parenthood story in Texas

Keep reading long enough, and there's another side to Planned Parenthood story in Texas

Which of these headlines — from different major Texas newspapers today — impresses you as most impartial from a journalistic standpoint?:

1. Planned Parenthood tries to close gaps

2. Provider plans fight over Medicaid

Now read the story ledes that go with those headlines and answer that same question.

First lede:

AUSTIN — Now that Planned Parenthood and its affiliates have been removed from the state’s Medicaid program, the group is trying to make sure thousands of low-income Texas women will still have access to health care.
The group also faces an ongoing investigation from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said Wednesday his office “stands ready to defend any challenge by Planned Parenthood to their termination.”
Texas has been working to remove Planned Parenthood from the Medicaid program since October 2015 but didn’t deliver the final notice to the organization until late Tuesday. The notice from the Health and Human Services Commission said Planned Parenthood is “not qualified to provide medical services in a professionally competent, safe, legal and ethical manner” because of conversations officials at the group had about the use of fetal tissue in research.

Second lede:

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Town fighting transgender bathrooms has rattlesnakes and cougars. What about religion?

Town fighting transgender bathrooms has rattlesnakes and cougars. What about religion?

Until late last month, I'd never heard of Harrold, Texas. Maybe you hadn't either.

The tiny town near the Oklahoma border burst into the headlines recently when it joined Texas and 10 other states in challenging the Obama administration's directive that public school bathrooms, locker rooms and showers must accommodate transgender students.

My GetReligion colleague Jim Davis made brief mention of Harrold when he critiqued initial media coverage of the lawsuit.

The early reports — which included brief mentions of Harrold with a quote or two from the town's superintendent — made me curious. I wanted to know more about the little community and its role in the bigger fight. 

Apparently, I wasn't alone.

The Associated Press sent a reporter to Harrold and got firsthand color such as this:

Kindergarteners and high school students in Harrold share 10 bathrooms in a single brick schoolhouse that is shorter than the football field, where the Harrold Hornets play six-man football because there are not enough players for 11. A few times a day, a train rumbles past the schoolhouse. Superintendent David Thweatt says "hobos" sometimes jump off and wander toward campus. Once, he said, a drifter holed up in a school bus and left a smell that took days to air out.

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