religious freedom

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

A trip to Washington, D.C., especially around the time of Independence Day, is always a good way to get the history juices flowing. It’s also a good way to get story ideas if you’re an editor or reporter looking for a new angle to this annual holiday.

Walking around the nation’s capitol is also a reminder of how much religious faith and this nation’s founding are connected, in terms of personalities and big themes. God is everywhere in this country’s past and the monuments that populate this wonderful city are a reminder of it.

One statue that many often ignore or neglect to focus on is that of Charles Carroll located in the National Statuary Hall collection. Not only is his life an excuse to cover July 4th through a new lens, but also gives readers the chance to learn about our country’s religious origins.

Who was Carroll? It’s a question not too many people have asked, in recent decades. It is one that editors and reporters should be flocking to cover. If anything, it would allow for news coverage to get away from the standard tropes that include fireworks, grilling recipes and mattress sales. Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and its longest-living signer. That alone would be reason enough to focus some of the coverage on this man, especially in Maryland media — in the state where he lived and died.

Crux did a wonderful feature in 2016 on Carroll, complete with tons of history and interviews with experts who studied Carroll’s life. This is how the piece opens:

On July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — one of the most amazing coincidences in U.S. history unfolded. On that day, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, and John Adams, perhaps its greatest advocate, died within hours of each other.

David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams tells the poignant story of how the two patriots he called “the pen” and “the voice” of the Declaration, who had helped forge liberty in their new nation later became bitter political rivals but in their old age corresponded as friends.

But their rivalry even extended to their dying moments, as McCullough noted that Adams on his deathbed in Massachusetts whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Yet earlier that afternoon, Jefferson had died in Virginia.

And then there was one.

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Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Australia is often referred to as a “secular” nation, but the reality is more complex than that. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the practice of religious faith, researchers are more likely to find modern Australians at the beach or in pubs than in church pews.

Australia isn’t post-Christian Western Europe, but religious faith is rarely a major player in public life. (If my reading on this topic is out of date, please leave comments and point me to new sources.)

Thus, it’s interesting that religion is currently making big headlines down under, in part because religious issues are affecting politics and another topic that ordinary Australians view with religious fervor — rugby.

The question in this post is whether these two stories might be connected: First, there was Rugby Australia sacking the land’s most popular star, after he included homosexuality in a social-media post on sin, hell and the Bible. Then, days later, conservatives — led by an evangelical Protestant — shocked the world by winning a national election.

Once again we see a familiar questions: Are worries about religious liberty and free speech playing a role, in many cases, in this “populist” political wave that journalists around the world are struggling to cover?

First, let’s talk rugby, with this story from News.com.au, days before the national election:

An understandably gutted Israel Folau has issued a parting jab at Rugby Australia shortly after his official axing from the Wallabies.

The 30-year-old had his $4 million contract scrapped … following the nuclear fallout to his anti-gay Instagram post.

“It has been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” he said.

That social media post, which Folau has refused to take down, quoted the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.

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Friday Five: BYU conference, border separation, McCarrick scandal, Chris Pratt on MTV and more

Friday Five: BYU conference, border separation, McCarrick scandal, Chris Pratt on MTV and more

I'm filing this edition of Friday Five from Provo, Utah, where I've spent the week attending — and speaking on a few panels — at Brigham Young University's Religious Freedom Annual Review.

In case you missed it Thursday (and based on our analytics, most of you did), GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and I were part of a diverse group of journalists and attorneys who spoke on "Getting It Right, Media Coverage of Religion Freedom."

Check out my post to watch a video of that presentation, which includes The Atlantic religion journalism superstar Emma Green and other experts. As a bonus, you can see my Twitter thread that includes tmatt's "Seven Deadly Sins of the Religion Beat."

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The controversy over the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border is the easy choice this week. 

Tennessee religion writer Holly Meyer, writing for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, produced a compelling piece on ministry leaders who say the Bible compels their immigration work.

For more links and analysis, see our earlier posts headlined "Horror on the border: Some journalists starting to spot old cracks in Trump's support" and "Seven can't-miss takes on use of Romans 13 to defend policy on separating immigrant families."

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At a religious freedom conference in Utah, a diverse panel explores how to get news media coverage right

At a religious freedom conference in Utah, a diverse panel explores how to get news media coverage right

Whew!

A diverse panel of journalists and attorneys — including GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and myself — just wrapped up a panel discussion on "Getting It Right, Media Coverage of Religion Freedom."

The 90-minute exchange occurred at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, as part of the Religious Freedom Annual Review. BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies hosts the event each year. 

You can watch the entire discussion via this Facebook Live feed.

Hannah Clayson Smith, senior fellow at BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies, moderated the panel. 

Besides tmatt and me, other panelists included:

• Sahar Aziz, professor of law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at the Center for Security, Race at Rights at Rutgers University Law School.

• Emma Green, staff writer covering politics, policy and religion at The Atlantic.

• Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director for the Baptist Joint Committee.

Earlier today, Green gave an excellent keynote address on the legal and political landscape of religious liberty. I don't see that talk online yet, but if I come across it, I'll add a link.

On a lighter note, I loved Green's response when asked about the polarization caused by social media:

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Are there really 139 religious freedom bills out there? Deseret News offers an ambitious round-up

Are there really 139 religious freedom bills out there? Deseret News offers an ambitious round-up

With religious freedom in the news these days (from cake bakers in Colorado to imprisoned Christians in North Korea), it’s only right to call attention to a mammoth project the Deseret News just kicked off.

Calling it “the first in an ongoing series of in-depth stories and analyses dissecting and understanding religious liberty in America and the place of faith in the public square,” the newspaper -- owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- offered readers the journalistic equivalent of an Excel sheet of religious liberty lawsuits and legislative efforts in response.

It lists 139 bills in six categories: Adoption, college campuses, service refusals, LGBT rights, health care and miscellaneous. The piece begins:

The turf war over the place of faith in the public square is accelerating, and the stakes are rising like never before. Today, nearly every strata of society is affected, from kids in foster care outside Detroit, to college freshmen in Arizona, to florists and cake shop owners in America's heartland. 

On one side are believers who say their faith communities are threatened by an encroaching secular and godless movement seeking to silence and shun them. On the other side are LGBT and women's rights activists who say Americans are being denied basic human rights and enduring ongoing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

Many others, including long-time religious liberty advocates, both gay and straight, are alarmed by the direction of today's religious freedom debates, arguing that this value is meant to unify, not tear people apart. 

What’s interesting is that reporter Kelsey Dallas found 139 bills debated in one year.

The latest battlefield affects kids in need of new homes. State lawmakers are deciding whether faith-based adoption or foster care agencies should be allowed to receive government funding if, for religious reasons, they won't serve same-sex couples.

As for campus free speech, the issue isn’t religious per se, but some bills include prohibitions against treating religious organizations different than other groups or penalizing their wish to appoint leaders who hold certain religious beliefs.

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The almost ambassador: The Gray Lady slams Brownback for not leaving his Kansas job

The almost ambassador: The Gray Lady slams Brownback for not leaving his Kansas job

Some of you may remember how, in late July, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was appointed to a U.S. State Department post that champions religious freedom.

Five months later, he’s still in Kansas.

On Monday, the White House renominated him for the post after Democrats refused to allow his -– and other failed nominations -– to roll over into the New Year. The White House’s action also gave politicians a wake-up call that this is an issue the Trump administration cares about.

Weirdly, a New York Times story blamed the governor for the impasse.

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas was giving a tender goodbye.
Speaking to a roomful of fellow Republicans over lunch at the Wichita Pachyderm Club last month, he mused about his next act, a post in the Trump administration as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, which was announced in July.
“As I pass from the stage here in Kansas, I leave with a warm thought and good feelings of all the good-hearted people in this wonderful state of Kansas,” said a smiling Mr. Brownback, whose seven years at the helm have been punctuated by a firm turn to the right and a revolt from some in his own party.

The governor had a replacement: Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a plastic surgeon.

It has been nearly six months since Mr. Brownback, 61, announced that he would be leaving for a new job during his second term as governor. The holdup appears to be in Washington: A Senate committee held a hearing on his nomination and narrowly endorsed him in October, but he did not receive a vote in the full Senate.
A new year has brought new complications. Though Mr. Brownback has been renominated to the post, a relatively low-profile appointment, he will still have to be confirmed by the Senate. 

The story goes on to talk about how awkward things are in Kansas because Brownback is like the perennial guest who won’t leave. It mentions a Kansas City Star editorial that tells Brownback he should resign for the good of the state, even though it doesn’t say how the governor is supposed to pay his bills during the interim.

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Wrapping up 2017: The Atlantic looks at big religion themes in Trump's foreign policy

Wrapping up 2017: The Atlantic looks at big religion themes in Trump's foreign policy

As always, the GetReligion team slows down a bit during the Holiday season (broadly defined).

We don't vanish. We don't stop reading or paying attention to our email. But we do have other things to do, like travel and welcoming guests (and in my case, celebrating a 40th wedding anniversary).

One thing we will be doing in the next week or so is noting some of the interesting 2017 yearender features focusing on religion-news events and trends. I don't know if we will do another "Parade of Yearenders" like last year, but we'll give you a few things to read.

We have already started in recent weeks. If you haven't tried one of our "Crossroads" podcasts, click here and give this one a try -- "Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything." That post includes this years Top 10 stories from the Religion News Association, as well as my own take on the year's events in an "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate. Bobby Ross, Jr., also pointed to the RNA poll here.

It has, so far, been easy to spot a trend among the yearenders. Rather than doing lists of the major events, more and more journalists are producing lists of the top stories at their own websites (the kind of thing GetReligion does on this website's anniversary every year). That's interesting, and valid, but I always enjoyed contrasting the Top 10 news lists.

In other words: Hint, hint. Please send us URLS you spot for yearender pieces and the newsier the better. Top 10 lists? Yes, please.

It would be impossible to sum up the religion-news coverage in the year without mentioning the work of Emma Green at The Atlantic. While her work is written in an analysis style suited to magazine features, during 2017 she often focused on important religion-news topics -- especially church-state conflicts -- before hard-news operations took them on. Here's how I described that process back in September:

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How to cover religious liberty: Quote both sides — and skip the scare quotes

How to cover religious liberty: Quote both sides — and skip the scare quotes

Pssssst.

Hey you, guess what? I'm going to do a positive post. Another one.

Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Yesterday, I highlighted Emma Green's magnificent Atlantic piece on the Islamic radicalization of two Mississippi college students.

Our friends at The Media Project shared that post on Twitter and described it as "rare and high praise from GetReligion."

That prompted our editor, Terry Mattingly, to note that "we praise quite a bit of stuff."

The dirty little secret is that our positive posts typically generate far fewer clicks than the negative ones in which we point out problems with mainstream media coverage of religion. Still, we are committed both to identifying holy ghosts and offering kudos when news organizations get it right in terms of fair, balanced journalism.

To that end, I wanted to draw your attention to a story by the Alabama Media Group, which includes the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile. The story concerns a bill protecting the religious liberty of faith-based adoption agencies:

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