Tampa Bay Times

Open for hurricanes: Mosques in the South got the best public relations coverage

Open for hurricanes: Mosques in the South got the best public relations coverage

I’m writing this from Alabama, just after having attended the Religion News Association’s annual confab in Nashville. While visiting friends near Huntsville, I learned that hotels and motels on every nearby interstate are booked out with Florida refugees.

Those who can’t find lodging are bunking up with friends or in churches

Also in mosques. Unlike church sanctuaries, which are filled with pews, mosques have wide open large carpeted spaces for worship that can easily be transformed into places where people can camp out. (Of course churches and synagogues have community or parish halls that can accommodate people but mosques can offer the actual worship space.)

The website Mic.com has especially concentrated on mosques, such as this feature about an Orlando mosque offering shelter from Irma and this piece about Houston mosques offering shelter from Harvey.

The Tampa Bay Times managed to insert a bit of religion into this account

TAMPA — For now it's their hurricane shelter, but Muslim rules about removing your shoes are still being observed at a makeshift shelter set up at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque.
More than 500 people are planning to hunker down at the makeshift shelter set up at the mosque's multicultural center, which is now full. Most are Muslim, but the shelter was open to all people and is providing refuge for at least 50 non-Muslims, said Aida Mackic, a shelter organizer who is also the interfaith and youth program director with Council on American-Islamic Relations
Three large conference rooms are being used as the main sleeping quarters. One is for men, one for women, and there is a common area for families who want to remain together.

It's the first time, the Tampa paper said, that the newly built mosque has been used as a hurricane shelter. The Washington Post ran a piece about mosques in Atlanta as did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. WGCL, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, also ran a list of available mosques.

Were mosques getting better PR than other houses of worship?

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Playoff or prayoff? Media still muddying matters over praying at a stadium

Playoff or prayoff? Media still muddying matters over praying at a stadium

Geez, the months-long fracas with Cambridge Christian School lends new meaning to the term "political football."

And like a hotly contested game, much of the coverage has moved the ball up and down the field, without a goal.

At least an NPR outlet in Florida has spelled out the basic constitutional conflict that could affect freedoms for the rest of us. With a few glaring omissions, which we'll get into later.

The immediate issue is over prayer. As a Christian school, the Tampa-based Cambridge does a lot of it. So does its football team, the Lancers, including over stadium sound systems.

That brought them toe to toe after regional playoffs in December. Just before the championship game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando (aka the Citrus Bowl), the Lancers wanted their amplified prayer time. The Florida High School Athletic Association said no.  Now the matter is in court.
 
What's new in the NPR story is clarity: having an outside expert explain the clashing values in the nation's founding document:

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Tampa football team sues to pray, but media still don’t score a touchdown

Tampa football team sues to pray, but media still don’t score a touchdown

The Lancers of Cambridge Christian School may have lost their championship game; but in court, they have just begun to fight. The Tampa school this week made good on its threat to sue for the right to lead public prayer before a game.

In January, the Florida High School Athletic Association denied them the mic and speakers at Orlando's Citrus Bowl, even though they were facing another Christian school -- University Christian of Jacksonville. Mainstream media coverage varied greatly, as I wrote in a January GR post.

Unfortunately, they did little better this time around.

The fracas turns on whether the FHSAA, as a "state actor" -- commissioned by the state legislature to regulate high school sports -- is responsible for speech flowing through public-address systems at stadiums like the Citrus Bowl (renamed Camping World Stadium). If so, they argue, they can't allow religious talk like prayer.

Cambridge Christian, as you can guess, is standing on the First Amendment rights of free speech and exercise of religion.  They argue also that the athletic association is doing the opposite of the First Amendment by opposing religious free speech.

In January, the Tampa Tribune did much better than the Tampa Bay Times. Now that the Times has bought the Trib, their better side seems to have taken over -- at least with this story:

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Church struggle: Tampa Bay Times settles for tabloid-style coverage

Church struggle: Tampa Bay Times settles for tabloid-style coverage

Ruskin, about 21 miles south of Tampa, is best known for its beaches and resorts -- and, like elsewhere in Florida, for the occasional gator encounter. But when it's the site of a power struggle in a church, it draws coverage from the state's largest newspaper. 

But not necessarily informative coverage -- either for religion or basic journalism. The Tampa Bay Times is apparently there just for the tabloid-vintage fun of watching reverent people squabbling.

Thus far, the Times has devoted at least two articles to the infighting at the church, detailing a lawsuit by the pastor and stunts like changing the locks. But the lack of a seasoned religion writer -- the Times laid off its veteran specialist, Michelle Bearden, in 2014 -- shows in the coverage.

We get a promising lede in these 550 words, even a hint of religious literacy:

RUSKIN — Thou shall not steal, reads the eighth commandment, but Shirley Dail insists she had to take possession of the Ruskin Church of Christ Christian Church to save it.
In the two months since she seized the shrinking church, where she had worshipped off and on the past 16 years, the 80-year-old Dail has brought in a vibrant congregation, she said. 
Now, the people she pushed out are in court fighting to get their space back.
The house of prayer on Second Avenue NW in Ruskin is a house divided, according to a lawsuit filed by the church July 14.

I'm also pleasantly surprised that the Times calls the church "a house divided," although it doesn't attribute Jesus as the source of the phrase. But the story is better on the lawsuit and the "he said, she said" part than on anything touching religion. Or even on following up the "he said, she said."

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In story about Muslim women art exhibit, follow-up questions are not on the menu

In story about Muslim women art exhibit, follow-up questions are not on the menu

Ever taste only part of a good meal? An article on an art exhibit on Muslim women in the Tampa Bay Times feels like that.

The Times raises several tantalizing questions about Muslim women -- their garb, their self-image, their public image -- but doesn't follow up most of them. The result reads less like dinner and more like a canape. 

It's a timely and urgent topic because traditional Muslim women  face more profiling than so Muslim men. With headdresses variously covering their hair, or wrapping around their necks as well, women are instantly identifiable as non-Jews or non-Christians -- and non-secular people, for that matter. So "Loud Print," the show at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, has the potential to open some eyes.

The artist, Ameena Khan, seems acutely aware of the issues herself:

Khan uses her artwork to initiate conversations about Muslim women. Her paintings portray a diverse group of women wearing hijabs, a cloth wrapped around their heads. One of the most striking paintings shows a woman struggling to keep her head up because her yellow hijab is so big. It's meant to represent the struggles Muslim women face wearing a hijab in public.
Meant to keep Muslim women hidden, the hijab seems instead to draw unwanted attention and sometimes hateful comments, Khan said. 
"You have this burden that you're carrying around," she said. "That's all people see."

Sounds pretty evocative, but it stops short. If a woman's most prominent garb is a symbol of her religion, and if a hijab is meant to keep women hidden, how are people to see the individual underneath? How is she to express herself otherwise? The Times doesn't say.

It does explain the idea of starting a conversation about Muslim women -- partly. Interestingly, the artist did it via social media:

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Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

It's an increasingly common habit -- a bad one -- to mix news with commentary. But the Tampa Bay Times yesterday was especially blatant, starting with the headline: "What about the coaches?"

The article is the third in less than a week on Christian clubs like Young Life, First Priority and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and their activities in public schools. The Times pretty agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint to Hillsborough County Public Schools: Adults were evangelizing on campus through the clubs, thus breaching the constitutional separation of church and state; and school officials, including coaches, were letting them. Also, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had two misdemeanor convictions on his record.

All of that is more than fair game for a newspaper to check out. And in fairness, it talked to David Gaskill of FCA, in a story on Thursday. That’s an improvement over January, when the Times talked to the accusers but none of the defenders.  

But it's hard to read yesterday's story as anything more than a j'accuse, when it starts with:

A complaint alleging illegal activities on the part of a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did not just point the finger at self-styled campus minister David Gaskill.
It also named -- sometimes with photographic evidence -- coaches who either invited Gaskill to lead the students in prayer or participated with them. Those named in the complaint include Freedom High School football coaches Todd Donahoe and Cedric Smith; Tampa Bay Technical High School wrestling coach Edward Bayonet, Freedom girls basketball coach Laura Pacholke, Wharton High School wrestling coach David Mitchell and Middleton High School baseball coach Jim Macaluso.
Will the district investigate these coaches too?

The article gives the answer immediately: "They will not." Instead, they and other school employees who work with volunteers will get training on adherence to the First Amendment. A school board member adds that FFRF is "very happy with the district's response."  So why were the coaches the focus of the lede? Is this something like gospel shaming? (And why didn’t the Times ask FFRF if they really are satisfied?)

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A flag on the pray: Florida media cover prayer controversy at public stadium

A flag on the pray: Florida media cover prayer controversy at public stadium

Football players pray all the time -- especially in a school like Cambridge Christian in Tampa -- but what if their headmaster wants to do it over the loudspeakers of a publicly-owned stadium?

Cambridge is "tackling" that issue, as Florida media put it, after being denied the right to pray at a championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando last December. Local media are hot on this story, yet they leave several questions unsettled.

The Tampa Tribune has produced one of the best stories thus far through its Tampa Bay Online, adding context and digging into legal issues. The lede gets right to it:

TAMPA -- A Christian school in Tampa has signaled it will file a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletics Association after the school’s headmaster was told he couldn’t say a public prayer before a state championship football game.
Administrators from the Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution at 6101 North Habana Ave., sent a demand letter to the FHSAA Tuesday with help from the Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm from Texas that specializes in religious liberty rights.
The letter asks for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech, as well as formal recognition from the FHSAA that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. If the FHSAA doesn’t respond in 30 days, the school will take the issue to Tampa’s federal court.

The newspaper explains that Florida law "deems the FHSAA a 'state actor' prohibited from sanctioning prayer." It says also that the Citrus Bowl is Orlando property and paid for largely with taxes. So I read a variety of sources, including executive director Roger Dearing of the FHSAA, headmaster Tim Euler of Cambridge, lawyer Jeremy Dys of the Liberty Institute, even a place kicker for Cambridge.

Dys' contribution is especially noteworthy. He says the association ruling would set a "dangerous precedent for government censorship of free speech." And the Tribune takes it further:

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Religion in schools: Tampa Bay Times talks to everyone except church people

Religion in schools: Tampa Bay Times talks to everyone except church people

One of the good and bad parts of a job like GetReligion is writing about recurring issues.  It's good because you develop some experience in your work. It's bad because you keep writing about similar problems.

Here we go this week with the Tampa Bay Times, which wrote about religious groups, and talked to others about the groups, yet didn’t talk to the groups themselves. As I've said before, this is like talking about someone while they're standing right there.

The Times has been monitoring the school superintendent's friendly treatment of a couple of Christian organizations. Here's how the paper dealt with it on Tuesday:

TAMPA --Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins reaffirmed his support Tuesday for a Christian organization that aims to expand its presence in the public schools.
Addressing First Priority Tampa Bay --which has grown to serve dozens of local schools in the past six years, with the goal of helping students share the message of Christ --Eakins said the group's school-based clubs are integral to the culture he is trying to shape in the district.
"We're trying to build great character and great integrity, and ultimately capture the hearts of our kids," he told an audience of about 100 people at the South Tampa Fellowship at Ballast Point.
His message comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are questioning the district's involvement with another Christian ministry.

No kiddin' on that last sentence. By the end of its 900 words, the story has cited not only the ACLU but the Atheists of Florida, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They complain not only about First Priority but the local Idlewild Baptist Church, for its "training and motivational sessions for school administrators." They also criticize the church for giving away T-shirts with its name and logo. (The next day's story adds that Idlewild also passes out coupons, redeemable for a coffee at the church.)

The critics say Eakins' endorsement creates "social pressure" for teachers to support the efforts. The Times also brings up the First Amendment, "which is widely interpreted as a prohibition against government --including public schools --favoring one religion.

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Terri Schiavo case revisited: What role did faith play in Jeb Bush's fight to keep her alive?

Terri Schiavo case revisited: What role did faith play in Jeb Bush's fight to keep her alive?

In a fascinating story, the Tampa Bay Times explores former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's role in the case of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman who died a decade ago after the feeding tube that sustained her for 15 years was removed.

The front-page report published Sunday focuses on Bush's decision to "err on the side of life" in a messy conflict over the fate of Schiavo, whom medical experts described as in a "persistent vegetative state."

The lede:

Tricia Rivas had never written to an elected official, but gripped with emotion, she composed an urgent email to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Please save Terri Schiavo!" she wrote from her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 20, 2005. "Do something before it is too late … please! Every parent is watching this drama unfold … and will remember the outcome in future elections." Schiavo would be dead by the end of the month at a hospice near St. Petersburg, but not before Bush took a series of actions that, looking back a decade later, are stunning for their breadth and audacity.
A governor who was known for his my-way-or-the-highway approach — and who rarely was challenged by fellow Republicans controlling the legislative branch — stormed to the brink of a constitutional crisis in order to overrule the judicial branch for which he often showed contempt. Bush used his administration to battle in court after court, in Congress, in his brother's White House, and, even after Schiavo's death, to press a state attorney for an investigation into her husband, Michael Schiavo.
While many Republicans espouse a limited role for government in personal lives, Bush, now a leading contender for president in 2016, went all in on Schiavo.

Brief glimpses of faith and religion appear throughout the 2,200-word story. Unfortunately, those glimpses function more as flashing lights — as buzzwords — than real spotlights illuminating any kind of spiritual insight or depth.

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