'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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Crux listens as Africans ask: Why isn't it big news when terrorists slaughter our people?

Crux listens as Africans ask: Why isn't it big news when terrorists slaughter our people?

Somewhere in the world, according to this old journalism parable, there is a chart hanging on the wall of a major Associated Press wire service bureau. (Yes, I have discussed this myth before.)

The purpose of the chart is to help editors figure out, when disaster strikes somewhere in the world, just "how big" a story this particular disaster is, compared with others. Is this an A1 or front of the website story? Is this a story that major television networks will mention or perhaps even send personnel to cover? Or was this a story with lots of death and destruction, but it belongs in the back pages somewhere with the other "briefs" that readers won't notice?

The chart has a bottom line and editors can do the math.

It states that, when tragedy or terror strike, 1000 victims in Latvia equals 500 in India, which equals 100 in Mexico, 75 in France, 50 in England, 25 Canada, five in the United States of America (that's flyover country) or one Hollywood celebrity or a famous person in New York City or Washington, D.C.

In other words, according to the mathematics of news, not all human lives are created equal. It's a matter of location, location, location.

The question posed in a quietly provocative piece at Crux, a Catholic-news publication that frequently covers religious persecution, is this: How many terrorist victims in Nigeria do you have to have to equal several victims in the heart of London?

The headline: "In London’s wake, Africans ask: ‘Where’s the outrage for us?’ " This past week, I was in a meeting with a veteran journalist from Nigeria (who also has editing experience in the American Northeast) and he was asking the same question. Here is the overture of the story:

ROME -- In the wake of Wednesday’s terrorist attack on London’s Houses of Parliament that left four dead, the cross-section of African Catholic leaders meeting in Rome this week immediately expressed solidarity and revulsion.

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Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

So how many times has GetReligion published posts about people -- journalists, academics, politicos, you name it -- struggling to define the term "evangelical"?

That's hard to say, because the question keeps evolving as the term grows more and more political, at least as it is used in the mainstream press. Here is a GetReligion search page that offers you 16 of these post in one handy collection.

This issue shows up in all kinds of settings, but it's clear that the political angle -- #DUH -- is the key here. Here is how I expressed that in a post a few years ago focusing on a familiar question: Why do journalists keep getting confused about the faith practiced by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum?

A decade ago, the editors of Time magazine decided -- during one of the many "Who the heck are these born-gain people?" moments in the recent life of the mainstream press -- to do a cover story focusing on the 25 most influential evangelical Protestants in American life.
It was an interesting list. However, one name in particular raised many eyebrows -- Sen. Rick Santorum. The issue? Santorum was and is a very conservative Roman Catholic.
This struck me as interesting, so I did some background research on this issue. The consensus was that the Time team realized that Santorum was not a Protestant -- and thus, not an evangelical -- but the larger truth was that he, well, "voted evangelical."

That "voted evangelical" came from a magazine spokesperson. It's a classic.

Now, if I was going to point journalists toward an authoritative voice on this topic, historian Mark Noll would be right at the top of this list. Here is the intro to a Q&A interview with Noll published by the The Record, the student newspaper at Wheaton College.

For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

You knew the following question had to come up. Right?

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Religion, morality and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?

Religion, morality and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?

HEATHER’S QUESTION:

I remember being shocked years ago that some Irish terrorist acts were carried out in the name of Catholicism. What were the reactions to that, compared with the support or denial of Muslims toward violent jihad today? (Paraphrased)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy can only sketch a few aspects of the religio-ethnic strife that has so roiled Ireland for centuries, or of the terror syndrome currently plaguing world Islam. Another preliminary point: Believers should realize that such bloodthirsty conflictrs are a strong argument skeptics use to brand all religious faith as evil.

Neither Islam nor Catholicism is pacifist in principle. So for both religions the questions become under what circumstances the use of force is moral, and how it should be applied. Ranking authorities in both faiths have denounced terrorism, whether by the Irish Republican Army and related groups made up of Catholics, or by extremist minority Muslims in factions like the Islamic State or ISIS.

There’s similarity between the two situations in that religious identity has been fused with, and often submerged by, power politics and ethnic solidarity. There are also major differences, as follows:

Though sporadic killings still occur, fortunately the IRA’s death campaign ended through democratic negotiations with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. By contrast, terrorism by ISIS and similar Muslim factions in an ongoing, large, well-organized and seemingly ineradicable movement, especially where democracy is limited.

While the IRA campaign occurred in several northern Irish counties with occasional attacks elsewhere, Muslim-inspired terror is raging worldwide, and the scope of the bloodshed is far greater.

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Guardian drags Mike Pence into Christian music festival story, blunting crucial points

Guardian drags Mike Pence into Christian music festival story, blunting crucial points

I'm beginning to see a pattern: To get attention in mass media, faith-based events and/or culture have to be tied, however tenuously, to U.S. President Donald J. Trump or his administration.

I get it: Sex sells, and few things, it seems, are more "sexy," news-wise, than the 45th President of the United States and his team.

But sometimes, this desire for a political connection dents an otherwise good and thoughtful piece on culture, faith, and people -- you know, stuff that sometimes exists apart from politics.

For an example, let's turn again to one of Britain's top progressive newspapers, The Guardian. It should be noted that this paper began life as the Manchester Guardian and was once home to Malcolm Muggeridge, a once-socialist reporter whose Christian conversion was one of the great biographical stories of the last century, if you are talking about interesting lives in journalism.

"St. Mugg," as he was known after his radical conversion at age 60, probably wouldn't find a home at The Guardian today. But there are some good writers contributing to its pages, however much they may be caught up in the frenzy of "Must-include-a-Trump-reference" that has overtaken us.

Say hello, then, to Jemayel Khawaja, a freelancer in Los Angeles who knows music and culture quite well. The Pakistani-born Khawaja authored one of the better analyses of contemporary Christian music that I've seen in the media, once you get past the obligatory, almost tortured, Trumpiana:

“Lord Jesus, thank you for dying for me,” says a bearded man in cut-off shorts standing atop a floodlit stage as hundreds of youths look on. “Lord Jesus, you can have my life.” Teenagers in Avenged Sevenfold shirts with bandannas wrapped around their faces bow their heads and pray together. And then the double-time kickdrum drops in, the guitars start chugging, and the mosh pit resumes.

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The continuing journalism saga of, 'Will someone please explain Christianity to ...'

The continuing journalism saga of, 'Will someone please explain Christianity to ...'

Welcome of episode three (yes, the podcast) of the ongoing saga of mainstream journalists wrestling with the picky details of Christian tradition and doctrine (that whole Bible thing, you know) about the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

To catch up on this drama, you may want to glace at "Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?" and then "Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?"

Concerning that second item, I must report -- sadly -- that, as of this morning -- the Associated Press website still contains the inaccurate photo tag line that reads:

The renovated Edicule is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem's old city Monday, Mar. 20, 2017. A Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

To repeat the main point here, Christian tradition (that whole Bible thing, again) teaches that -- after his resurrection -- Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples, was seen by crowds, etc., before his ascension into heaven. Journalists do not have to believe these doctrines. They do, however, need to report the beliefs accurate in stories linked to these sites, biblical passages, holy days and rites.

At the moment, reporters are veering into this territory, of course, because Holy Week and Easter are getting closer. Editors and producers know that it's time to put something into print and video about Easter, a holy day that isn't nearly as commercial and fun (in secular terms) as the season previously known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

That was the starting point for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. How many times have you seen stories linked to Easter that either mess of the basics of Christianity or actually attack them? We are talking about television specials, covers of major newsweeklies and so forth and so on.

'Tis the season, you know.

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A question for Rex Tillerson: Did God really tell him to be secretary of state?

A question for Rex Tillerson: Did God really tell him to be secretary of state?

America’s new secretary of state is a man who admits he didn’t want the job; that he’d planned on retiring this month but that God –- speaking through his wife –- told him to do it.

Knowing that, wouldn’t you want to know a bit more details about how the Almighty delivered that set of instructions?

But then the reporter walks away after delivering that piece of news. The profile on Rex Tillerson appeared in the Independent Journal Review, which identifies itself as a “news platform” majoring on breaking news and politics that delivers its content while being “objective, fair and entertaining” (their words).

Not quite what I picked up in journalism school, but their chatty profile on Tillerson fits their stated goal of “fair reporting delivered in an entertaining fashion.”

Am curious what their read is on traditional news media: That they report but don’t entertain? Somehow, IJR has found a way to entertain folks through news reporting and aggregating and they've done well, according to this New York Times piece. But I digress. Here is how IJR began the Tillerson article:

 When it comes to taking on the world, the two words the Trump administration swears by are “America First.”
And the man charged with carrying out that policy around the globe didn’t even want the job in the first place. For Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who until now spent the entirety of his career at ExxonMobil, the challenge he faced on a headline-grabbing trip to Asia was how to translate President Donald Trump’s mandate into a workable foreign policy.

Unfortunately, I have to skip much of this entertaining –- and quite readable -– piece to get to the content that GetReligion readers are sure to interested in.

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Glass houses, religious garb, a crucial Middle East sidebar and, of course, Donald Trump

Glass houses, religious garb, a crucial Middle East sidebar and, of course, Donald Trump

Forget the bromides about how wrong it is to make snap judgements about people based solely on their physical appearance. Truth is, we -- by which I mean virtually every last one of us -- put enormous stock in appearances.

To narrow that generalization down some, I'm referring in particular to the world of religion and religious garb.

Spot a woman wearing a Muslim hijab on Main Street U.S.A. -- not to mention a niqab, or face veil -- and, invariably, we conjure thoughts about what this woman believes and how she practices her faith. Individual perspective colors our thoughts, for sure, but the larger point I'm making is that our minds are largely reactive, so react we will.

Which brings me to the following story that's been wending it way through Israeli and American Jewish news outlets. It is, as you haven't guessed, a story about appearances and religious garb. And perhaps, also, the need for endless content in our 24-7 journalistic environment.

President Donald Trump -- despite the claims of critics that, at the least, he's willing to countenance anti-Semitic displays among core supporters -- has several self-identified Orthodox Jews in his entourage.

Most famously, his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, self-identify as Orthodox.

As does Jason Greenblatt, a long-time attorney for Trump's business organization who is now a presidential special envoy. Greenblatt made his first extensive visit to the Middle East on behalf of the president last week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Whether or not Greenblatt's effort will bear fruit in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, is undoubtedly the storyline that's most important here.

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Trump returning to Liberty U: Hey CNN, is it indisputable that 'Second Corinthians' is correct?

Trump returning to Liberty U: Hey CNN, is it indisputable that 'Second Corinthians' is correct?

It's time to revisit some ancient history — circa 2016 — in the annals of Donald Trump and evangelicalism.

I refer to when The Donald "went down to Liberty University ... looking for a Scripture to quote," as I put it in a GetReligion post at that time.

As you may recall, candidate Trump hit an unexpected bump at Liberty, as CNN noted then:

But Trump, who has eagerly targeted evangelicals – a key voting bloc in the first caucus state of Iowa – in his quest for the presidency, tripped over himself Monday as he attempted to quote from the Bible to connect with the crowd of students at one of the most prominent Christian universities in the country, and the largest in the world.
"Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ballgame," Trump said, drawing laughter from the crowd of students at Liberty University who knew Trump was attempting to refer to "Second Corinthians."

Why am I bringing this up again now?

Because it's back in the news — somewhat — with the announcement that the president will deliver Liberty's commencement address this spring:

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