public schools

Big news on New York's child sexual abuse law -- buried in 22nd paragraph of Gray Lady's story

Big news on New York's child sexual abuse law -- buried in 22nd paragraph of Gray Lady's story

There is an important story — a change many years in the making — found in the reporting way down under this recent headline in The New York Times: “They Were Sexually Abused Long Ago as Children. Now They Can Sue in N.Y.”

As often happens with headlines, there’s a world of content hidden in that undefined pronoun — “they.” Who is included in that “they”?

Now here me say this. There are crucial facts are in this Times report. Readers just have to dig way, way down into the body of the story to find them.

But let’s start with this question: If legislators in New York have been struggling for years to pass the Child Victims Act, why did it suddenly pass with next to zero opposition? Also, in the final stages of this legal war, who were the final opponents to this bill and why, in the end, did some of them change their minds?

The answer is there — way down in the 22nd paragraph.

Let’s start with the overture:

ALBANY — For more than a decade, victims of childhood sexual abuse in New York have asked lawmakers here for the chance to seek justice — only to be blocked by powerful interests including insurance companies, private schools and leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish communities.

Boo Catholics and private schools! So what changed? Keep reading.

As activists and Democratic officials pushed to strengthen protections for child abuse victims, those opposing interests — wealthy and closely tied to members of the then Republican-controlled State Senate — warned that permitting victims to revive decades-old claims could lead churches, schools and community organizations into bankruptcy. For 13 years, the so-called Child Victims Act foundered.

But in November, Democrats won control of the Senate. And on Monday, both the Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly approved the Child Victims Act, ending a bitter, protracted battle with some of the most powerful groups in the state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised to sign the bill into law.

Every senator, Republican and Democrat, voted for the bill — even though it never even came to the Senate floor for a vote under the Republican majority. The bill passed the Assembly 130-3.

So what changed?

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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Religious freedom question in Indiana: Can teacher refuse to call transgender student by preferred name?

Religious freedom question in Indiana: Can teacher refuse to call transgender student by preferred name?

All week, we've been talking about the U.S. Supreme Court's 7-2 decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

We've highlighted the narrow scope of the ruling in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

We've asked the "Now what?" question.

We've even noted that while everybody has an opinion about the case, not everybody has all the facts.

I won't rehash all the crucial context and background here, so please click at least one or two of the above links if you need a refresher.

But for those who are up to speed, here's a different case that raises some similar and some totally different questions: a public school teacher in Indiana who cites his religious beliefs in refusing to call a transgender student by the child's preferred name.

The Indianapolis Star reports:

A Brownsburg teacher is fighting for his job after he says the district forced him to resign over its transgender student policy.

John Kluge, the former orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School, said the school district's requirement that teachers call transgender students by their preferred names, rather than those given at birth, goes against his religious beliefs. The requirement, Kluge said, violates his First Amendment rights. 

"I’m being compelled to encourage students in what I believe is something that's a dangerous lifestyle," he said. "I’m fine to teach students with other beliefs, but the fact that teachers are being compelled to speak a certain way is the scary thing."

Advocates for the LGBTQ community say that using a person's preferred name is an issue of respect, not religion or politics. 

"This is not a request for advocacy," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth. "This is a request for respect."

Phillips, of course, declined to use his creative talents to design a special wedding cake for a gay couple. He cited his Christian belief in marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman. He owns a private business.

Kluge, on the other hand, works for a public school district. I'd be interested in whether church-state scholars believe he has a legitimate constitutional argument. 

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USA Today offers old news on Catholic priests and sexual abuse, missing some newer angles

USA Today offers old news on Catholic priests and sexual abuse, missing some newer angles

When you hear the term "breaking news," what do you think of?

I think news consumers, at this point, are pretty skeptical about this term. They know, of course, that there really is such a thing as breaking news. Major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court are breaking news. The attack on the GOP softball team was breaking news. Another van mowing down citizens on London Bridge would be breaking news.

Also, there are @POTUS tweets that justify the "breaking news" label. There are, in my opinion, many more that do not. And have we reached the point where "Game of Thrones" developments are truly "breaking news"? If not, I'm sure that's just around the corner.

Anyway, like a few religion-news consumers, I received the USA Today email push product that pinned the "breaking news" label on a long, long news feature with this headline: "Across the nation, priest sexual abuse cases haunt Catholic parishes."

Now, I have followed clergy-abuse cases since 1982 or thereabouts -- press coverage exploded in 1985 with the Gilbert Gauthe case in Louisiana. Here at GetReligion, we have poured out oceans of digital ink discussing the many waves of this story. It's a horrifying scandal and, along with the ghastly cover-ups by some bishops, totally deserves the word that Catholic conservative Leon J. Podles used as the title of his brutal, horrifying book -- "Sacrilege."

But when I saw this "breaking news" label, I immediately wondered: "Really? What has happened now?" Let me stress that I think there are angles of the scandal worthy of new and in-depth coverage (along with the massive and largely uncovered scandals in other major institutions, such as public schools).

So what is the breaking news in the USA Today "investigation," which involved quite a few reporters? Here is the long overture:

In May 2003, Thomas O’Brien, then bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, admitted to sheltering at least 50 priests accused of sexual abuse, often shuffling them around to parishes across the state.

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Scouts use this school for free, but Bible club must pay: What might be strange about that?

Scouts use this school for free, but Bible club must pay: What might be strange about that?

The Indianapolis Star had an interesting church-state story recently. It concerns a federal lawsuit filed by a Bible-based club charged fees to use a public school for meetings, while other groups don't have to pay.

I thought the Star did a pretty nice job of treating each side fairly, and the story's lede is excellent.

However, one key aspect of the story disappointed me. It's like there was some kind of gap there, yes, linked to religion. More on that in a moment.

First, though, let's start at the top. This chunk of the story is very, very long, but you need to read it all:

What's the rent on a Pike Township classroom? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
The Boy Scouts will tell you it's free. So will the Girl Scouts, Girls Inc. and a character-building group called Boys II Men. 
Ask the Child Evangelism Fellowship, though, and they'll tell you it costs $45 each time you want to use a Pike Township classroom. 
CEF says the fee is too high -- and it's unconstitutional.

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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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Scare quotes and factual journalism in Florida: This here is what they call a 'religious liberties' bill

Scare quotes and factual journalism in Florida: This here is what they call a 'religious liberties' bill

Yes, there are scare quotes in the Miami Herald's coverage of a fast-tracked religious liberties bill in the Florida Senate.

As regular GetReligion readers know, that is so often the case when the mainstream press reports on such legislation — but not always.

However, we come today not to dwell on the Sunshine State newspaper's sin (we're in a forgiving mood) but to praise the overall quality of the Herald's reporting.

The lede sets the scene:

TALLAHASSEE — Students and teachers in Florida’s public schools would more explicitly have the right to say the Lord’s Prayer, pray to Allah or worship Satan under a highly polarizing measure that’s being fast-tracked through the Florida Senate as the 2017 session begins this week.
Called a “religious liberties” bill, SB 436 is intended to “clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who’s driving the measure in the Senate.
“I grew up in an America where you were free to express your faith, and there was no intimidation of whether you could say ‘Jesus’ out loud or not,” Baxley said. “This is where we’ve come: The pendulum has swung so far that there’s been a chilling effect on people of faith of just expressing and being who they are.”
While comments before the Senate Education Committee on Monday heavily emphasized a need to protect Christians, Baxley’s bill would shield students, teachers and school staff of all faiths from religious discrimination — protections already guaranteed through the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The phrase "called a 'religious liberties' bill" gives the impression that the concept is new to the Herald, when, in fact, that issue was a factor in Donald Trump's surprise election as president. 

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When a 4-year-old biological male prays to be a girl, a few questions for journalists to consider

When a 4-year-old biological male prays to be a girl, a few questions for journalists to consider

The Houston Chronicle tugs at heartstrings — or at least makes a valiant attempt — with a story today focusing on a kindergartner who wants to use the girls' restroom at school.

No, the timing of the cover story in the major Texas newspaper's City and State section is not coincidental: It's related to the Trump administration's decision this week on transgender students using public school restrooms and locker rooms. In case you missed it Thursday, we highlighted three key questions to consider on that issue.

Today's Chronicle headline and subhead play the issue down the middle:

Transgender policy change shows split
Reactions vary among Texas school districts

But the actual story leans heavily in favor of one side. Guess which? It's the side upset with the decision to overturn an Obama-era directive. By my count, four transgender rights advocates are quoted vs. one source on the other side — a school superintendent whose past quotes are recycled.

While the piece ostensibly is an overview of area school district policies, the story begins and ends with the kindergartner mentioned above. And yes, there's a religious angle — not to mention a ghost or two.

Hang with me for a moment, and we'll get to my journalism-related questions.

But first, let's start with the lede:

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Facts, framing and fairness: Three questions to consider on Trump transgender bathroom decision

Facts, framing and fairness: Three questions to consider on Trump transgender bathroom decision

One of the big news stories of the past 24 hours — in fact, the lead story in today's Washington Post and New York Times — involves the Trump administration's decision on transgender students using public school restrooms and locker rooms.

Interestingly, the story did not make the front page of USA Today or the Wall Street Journal.

I quickly read the coverage from those four national newspapers, along with reports from The Associated Press, CNN and Reuters.

In case you missed the headlines, the lede from AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Transgender students on Wednesday lost federal protections that allowed them to use school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities, as the Trump administration stepped into a long-simmering national debate.
The administration came down on the side of states' rights, lifting Obama-era federal guidelines that had been characterized by Republicans as an example of overreach.
Without the Obama directive, it will be up to states and school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination law and determine whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.
"This is an issue best solved at the state and local level," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. "Schools, communities and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.

In my rapid-fire assessment of the stories, I'm interested in three key questions:

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