Texas Tribune

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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Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

My parents, Bob and Judy Ross, served for 25 years as houseparents at Christ's Haven for Children, a Christian child-care ministry based in Keller, Texas.

Mom and Dad lost count of the exact number of children for whom they cared. Some came into their home and stayed just a few days. Others they raised from preschool through high school graduation. In all, more than 250 girls lived in my parents’ cottage.

My mother said she and Dad always wanted a mission to lead people to Jesus Christ. At Christ’s Haven, they found it. They studied the Bible with all the girls in their care, and Dad baptized many of them, as I noted in a Christian Chronicle column in 2007.

I couldn't help but recall my parents' experience as I read a Texas Tribune story this week proclaiming that "Texas' next religious liberty fight could be over foster care":

You can’t talk about religious liberty in Texas without mentioning Lester Roloff.
In the 1970s, Roloff, a Baptist preacher, was known for his homes for teenagers in Corpus Christi. A 1973 legislative report on child care in the state said members heard testimony from children previously in Roloff's Rebekah Home for Girls about irregular meals and whippings. Roloff told lawmakers his homes should be exempted from state interference due to his religious roots.
“We spanked them because God loves them, and we love them,” Roloff told the committee.
Those hearings led to the Legislature passing Senate Bill 965 in 1975, which established child care licensing laws in the state.
Now, 42 years later, Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster and adoptive homes and oversee their care. Critics say this could give religious groups license to use their faith as a reason to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or with families with certain religious beliefs. Legislators say this could halt bipartisan warmth on bills changing how Texas cares for abused and neglected children.

In the lede, the Texas Tribune sets a negative tone on the legislation right away — and that critical theme dominates the story. Besides the bill's author, the "nonpartisan media organization" quotes six sources. Five of them voice concerns about the bill. You get the (not-so-balanced) picture.

The bill itself (read the full text here) addresses "the conscience rights of certain religious organizations and individuals." However, guess what word never appears in the Tribune story? If you said "conscience," you win the prize.

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Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

As you may recall, I was not impressed with initial media reporting on a transgender-related bathroom bill in Texas.

Perhaps the title of my January post --  "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" -- gives some clue as to my overall analysis of the news coverage.

Fast-forward to recent stories on religious leaders in the Lone Star State entering the fray, and I'm feeling a little more generous in my appraisal.

The Austin American-Statesman, in particular, deserves a high passing grade for its fair, evenhanded treatment of the Godbeat angle.

I should stress that I'm grading on a curve because the American-Statesman — like other news organizations — faced the difficulty of reporting on both sides when one side closed its proceedings to the press. 

The lede from the Austin newspaper:

The fight over legislation to block transgender-friendly bathroom policies ventured into the religious realm Thursday as faith leaders gathered in Austin to promote competing views.
The day began with a closed-door briefing for Christian pastors by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials who see religious support as crucial to the passage of Senate Bill 6, which would limit the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.
The event by the U.S. Pastor Council was billed as “show up time” for those who would lead the fight in support of the bill.
That was followed by an afternoon gathering of more than 40 religious leaders — many holding signs reading “My faith does not discriminate” — who oppose SB 6 as immoral.
“Our lawmakers are considering anti-transgender bathroom bills and bills that come disguised as religious freedom — dangerous pieces of legislation that place a religious mask over what amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst of First United Methodist Church, where the event was held.

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Big news report card: Grading coverage of Houston's defeated ordinance on gays, transgenders

Big news report card: Grading coverage of Houston's defeated ordinance on gays, transgenders

If you're a news — or culture war — junkie, you already know the outcome of Tuesday's hotly contested municipal battle in Houston.

Voters in the Texas city of 2.2 million people soundly rejected — or as The Associated Press described it, failed to approve — the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, dubbed "HERO."

As The Wall Street Journal reported:

HOUSTON — In a victory for social conservatives, voters in the nation’s fourth-largest city on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to extend nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people.

For insightful analysis of the decision from the right, check out Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher's American Conservative post titled "Houston: Ladies Rooms Are For Ladies." For a left-leaning take, consider Atlantic writer Russell Berman's piece on "How Bathroom Fears Conquered Transgender Rights in Houston."

Here at GetReligion, we focus on promoting good, old-fashioned journalism that is fair, accurate and complete.

To that end, let's grade some of the major coverage of Tuesday's vote:

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So Baylor University made a massive change to its policies on sex? Really?

So Baylor University made a massive change to its policies on sex? Really?

Trust me on this. Headline writers in the great state of Texas, and sometimes even nationwide, cannot resist themselves when it comes to juicy news stories about sex and my alma mater, Baylor University. Consider this doozy of a headline from the alternative Dallas Observer:


Yes, no one expects traditional, American model of the press journalism from this kind of alternative paper handed out for free to sell personals ads, as well as ads for hip nightclubs and fast-food joints. In this case, however, it's handy to read what the Observer said because its story was based, as usual, on its editors reading the mainstream media coverage in Texas and then reacting. So here is a key passage:

Sure, the wording on Baylor's new sexual misconduct policy is incredibly vague. But reading between the lines here, we're pretty sure that Baylor's Board of Regents is tacitly saying that Baylor students are now allowed to have homosexual sex. As long as they're married. And that they perform their homosexual acts in accordance with the Bible. And they understand that their sexuality is a gift from God. How about you just read the full, revised policy below?
Baylor will be guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity. Thus, it is expected that Baylor students, faculty and staff will engage in behaviors consistent with this understanding of human sexuality.

The problem, which you know if you clicked the "misconduct policy" link in that text (here it is again, leading you to the .pdf), is that this is not the "full" text. The policy also includes an "application" statement that says, in typical lawyer language:

This policy will be interpreted by the University in a manner consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963. Under no circumstances may this policy be construed to waive any of the rights granted to Baylor University under the exemption issued to the University on September 26, 1985, by the U.S. Department of Education covering certain regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 or under the religious exemption Section 702 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now what in tarnation, you can hear editors saying, is the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963?

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UCLA study literally tries to sell gay marriage in Texas

UCLA study literally tries to sell gay marriage in Texas

Help gays marry and boost the economy: That's one of the newest pitches in gay rights circles. A new story in Houston Chronicle says legalizing same-sex marriage could boost state income by $180 million over three years. The thorny issues are explored in this reprint from the Texas Tribune, a non-profit journalistic think tank. The story is interesting, intelligent and mostly fair to conservative and liberal sources alike. But it does leave a few questions.

The news peg is a study by UCLA researchers. It "predicts that more than 23,000 same-sex couples in Texas would marry within three years if the state allowed them to," the article says. According to the study, those 23,000 couples would add nearly $15 million in sales tax over three years. And if Texas beat neighboring Louisiana and Oklahoma, the state might reap even more.

It's a clever tactic, especially for a state that has fought gay marriage at least since Texas passed a constitutional amendment against it in 2005. Here's a pro-gay reaction from the story:

The report, which applies Texas population data to a model based on states where gay marriage has been legalized, provides a financial argument for same-sex marriage, said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Freedom to Marry, a gay rights group.

"There is a fiscal component, and there is also a families component," he said. "Allowing gay people to marry is actually a conservative value. It's about limited government and it's about stronger families."

And lookit that: two paragraphs from the opposition. I like The Texas Tribune already.

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Houston, we have a Presbyterian 'evangelist' problem (correction)

Correction: The Houston Chronicle’s coverage was much more extensive than reported below. Read our apology to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson. In her recent “State of the Godbeat 2014″ report for GetReligion, Julia Duin noted that the Houston Chronicle once had two full-time religion writers. These days, that big Texas paper has one writer covering religion, along with some other beats, Duin reported.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a major religion news story in the nation’s fourth-largest city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — generated 262 words in the Chronicle. That’s a glorified news brief, folks.

I was pleased to see that The Texas Tribune gave about three times that much space to the story, although I found the headline and lede paragraph a bit misleading.

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