SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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God and Man at the CIA? Foreign Policy drags director's faith into analysis piece

God and Man at the CIA? Foreign Policy drags director's faith into analysis piece

Here's a shocker: Many of the appointees of the Trump Administration are very different people than those who served in the Obama Administration.

The sun, I am reliably told, also rises in the East and sets in the West. Bears use the woods for a bathroom. And the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church -- despite some naysayers out there -- really is a Roman Catholic.

Sorry for the #sarcasm, but it's difficult to suppress the impulse after reading a lengthy piece at the website of Foreign Policy magazine about the issues arising at the Central Intelligence Agency since Mike Pompeo, a now-former U.S. Representative from Kansas, became the agency's director.

The headline says (almost) all: "More White, More Male, More Jesus: CIA Employees Fear Pompeo Is Quietly Killing the Agency’s Diversity Mandate." This is a feature, a "soft" piece, so one has to dive in a bit before finding the blast at Pompeo and his personal faith:

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, has said previously that Islamist terrorists will “continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”
The concerns are not that Pompeo is religious but that his religious convictions are bleeding over into the CIA.

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For chaplains helping folks find peace after police deaths, generic religion's the best religion

For chaplains helping folks find peace after police deaths, generic religion's the best religion

Forgive me for that clickbait of a post title.

But that's exactly the impression given by a front-page Dallas Morning News story this week on chaplains comforting police and crime victims in their darkest hours.

It's one of those stories that you read and then scratch your head. 

"Something's missing," you tell yourself. "What could it be that I'm not seeing here?" 

Hang with me for a moment, and I bet we can figure it out.

The lede is compelling enough:

Win Brown's heart sinks when his other phone rings.
His ministry phone signals that he'll soon be comforting people on the worst days of their lives.
Across 17 years, the volunteer chaplain has been there -- for search crews scouring East Texas for the seven Columbia astronauts, for Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana, and for police officers as they go to the homes of families shattered by violence.
After a gunman killed five police officers following a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas, he and other chaplains rallied for a Thanks-Giving Square prayer service. It was just the beginning of their healing work. 
Some people needed a hug. Many wanted to pray. A few just needed to know that the emotions welling up within them and streaming down their faces were normal reactions to an abnormal event.
“Everyone grieves differently and needs something different,” Brown said. “But I’ve seen the proverbial light bulb go on many times when you say, ‘You’re not going crazy.’ ”

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The Atlantic asks great question: What if your corporate chaplain needs a prayer rug?

The Atlantic asks great question: What if your corporate chaplain needs a prayer rug?

Anyone who has walked the religion-news beat for even a year or two knows that it's amazing how often questions of a truly theological nature can show up in daily life -- including in the workplace.

I've been meaning to pass alone an interesting piece in The Atlantic about the rise of corporate chaplains in major businesses and industries. It's all part of trying to increase worker wellness and the story does a good job of taking this concept seriously.

That's where the theology comes in. The following passage really surprised me with its dead-on accurate reflection on whether all faiths are created equal when it comes to the ability to practice them freely in a corporate space.

Many programs are contracted out through non-profit organizations such as Marketplace Ministries, a global, Protestant non-profit that claims to be the largest provider of workplace-chaplaincy services in the U.S. According to its CEO, Doug Fagerstrom, the organization added more new companies to its roster in 2015 than ever before.
... Workplace chaplaincies do seem to be overwhelmingly Christian. When I asked Fagerstrom about the diversity of Marketplace Ministries’ staff, he clarified that they have “over 50 different denominations represented” among their roughly 2,800 chaplains -- they’re all Protestant, in other words. In its mission statement, the company says it “[exists] to share God’s love through chaplains in the workplace.” And Fagerstrom said he and his staff try to hire folks who have biblical training -- “it helps them to be able to answer or direct some of those tough questions.” One of their closest competitors, Corporate Chaplains of America, has a similar mission: to “build caring relationships with the hope of gaining permission to share the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ in a non-threatening manner.

This leads us to the following observation:

There’s nothing wrong with Christian chaplains, of course. But there is something specifically Protestant in the notion that spiritual fulfillment -- that “whole self” someone can bring to work -- is best attained through intellectual and emotional coaching, rather than the physical ritual of religious practice.


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Dude, the St. Louis Cardinals' chaplain is doing awesome, generic religious stuff with team

Dude, the St. Louis Cardinals' chaplain is doing awesome, generic religious stuff with team

Yes, it's Super Tuesday, but let's take a break from all the divisive political talk and focus on something noncontroversial: sports.

Wait, what!?

I kid. I kid.

But with spring training started and the sweet smell of fresh-cut grass in the air, I wanted to call your attention to a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch column on the team's chaplain:

JUPITER, Fla. — As he promenaded about the Cardinals clubhouse Sunday, this guy had some sort of a magnetism to him, like a popular ex-ballplayer, back to see the boys. But I didn’t recognize this guy from the mental packs and stacks of baseball cards in my brain. Still, the current Cardinals seemed so comfortable chatting with him; clubhouse employees, too.
Who is this guy?
“We’ve got strength coaches, we’ve got hitting coaches, we’ve got pitching coaches,” he’d tell me later. “I just want to be the guy who’s kind of a spiritual coach, really.”
His name is Darrin Patrick, and he’s important to your favorite players.
He’s the Cardinals’ chaplain, and he’s carved a niche for himself here. He’s a disarming dude the players relate to and still admire. He wears jeans. He sports stylish gray glasses that complement his salt-and-pepper stubble.

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What's so controversial about those generic pre-game NBA chapel services?

What's so controversial about those generic pre-game NBA chapel services?

I'm going to dig into my GetReligion file of guilt for this post, in part because it's another weekend of NBA playoffs action and I have hoops on my mind.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting feature story about one of those new old trends that may have been around for many years but, once it's in the pages of the Times, its relevant again. In this case, we are talking about something controversial -- NBA players meeting for Bible study and prayers, as opposed to staying out late at night enjoying the bright lights and the other pleasures common among multimillionaire sports stars.

The headline: "N.B.A. Pregame Routine: Stretch. Tape Ankles. Join Hands in Prayer."

At the heart of the story is Andrew Lang, a former NBA player who now serves as a team chaplain -- which makes me wonder if he is now actually the Rev. Andrew Lang, an ordained minister. Why does Lang not receive a clergyperson's title, under Associated Press style? I don't know for sure, but I have noticed that this seems to happen more often with African-Americans than with white clergy, for some reason. Here's the opening:

ATLANTA -- Like so many of his N.B.A. peers, Andrew Lang chose to stay close to the game when his playing days came to an end. But the second act of his career did not relocate him behind a front-office desk or onto a coach’s chair or inside a broadcast booth.
It brought him, instead, to a small auxiliary locker room at Philips Arena, bare except for some padded folding chairs. There, before every Atlanta Hawks home game, Lang fulfills his responsibilities as the team’s chaplain, taking prayer requests and imparting a prepared message to players before they step onto the court.
Some nights, Lang might sit there alone. Some nights, he might find himself holding hands and praying with nearly a full N.B.A. squad. Whether or not anyone shows up, Lang has made it his duty for the last 14 years to be there, ready to help.

Truth be told, this story is surprisingly positive and well researched. But there are important holes in it.

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AP's not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

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Got news? Concerning Catholic priests, Mass and padlocks

Because of my background in church-state studies, for the past third of a century or so I have been interested in the many legal puzzles linked to the work of military chaplains.

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