Christian web designer at the Supreme Court: How reporters covered 303 Creative case

Christian web designer at the Supreme Court: How reporters covered 303 Creative case

On the face of it, 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, sounded unimpressive.

A Christian web designer living near Denver was suing her state civil rights commission for the right to create wedding web sites without having to include creative content about same-sex weddings in the mix. She hadn’t been approached by any gay couples yet — but because she might be, she launched a pre-emptive lawsuit with the aid of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm with an impressive track record of 11 wins at the Supreme Court level.

Yet, the more I read about the case and the issues it was trying to raise, the more intrigued I got. And the hearing on Monday didn’t disappoint. It lasted some two and one-half hours, which is long by Court standards. Covering hour-long hearings at the high court is difficult at best; I can only imagine how tough it was for reporters to sift through 150 minutes of speech — and all the tangents that were involved — to sum up how the hearing went.

Which is why I am merely critiquing the first drafts of what I hope will be more in-depth articles as time goes on. I’ll start with how CBS covered the story:

The Supreme Court's conservative bloc appeared sympathetic Monday to a Colorado graphic designer who argues a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates her free speech rights by forcing her to express a message that conflicts with her closely held religious beliefs.

During oral arguments in the case known as 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, the court seemed to move closer to resolving a question it has left unanswered since 2018, when it narrowly ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding: whether states like Colorado can, in applying their anti-discrimination laws, compel an artist to express a message they disagree with.

An editorial comment: It's a minor annoyance that the plural “they” is used for a singular “artist.” Just write “he or she” for heaven’s sake.

One issue with reporting on this case is that it takes a ton of backstory to explain that this case isn’t just about a web designer, but also a cake designer-baker in a previous Supreme Court case.

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Machine guns in the Monastery of the Kiev Caves: Can reporters find sources for facts?

Machine guns in the Monastery of the Kiev Caves: Can reporters find sources for facts?

Let me begin with some personal remarks, since it would be valid for readers to raise these issues.

Yes, I am an Orthodox believer who has — twice — worshipped with the monks of the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. I have walked its matrix of underground sanctuaries, tombs and monastic cells. It’s hard for me to imagine something more horrifying than soldiers with machine guns inside the Lavra, passing the bodies of numerous saints. I confess that, for a decade, I have prayed that we would not see a military takeover of this sacred site by forces on either side of the divides inside Ukraine.

Yes, I saw the New York Times report with this headline: “Ukraine Raids Holy Site Amid Suspicion of Orthodox Church Tied to Moscow.” I have read a dozen or so other mainstream media accounts of the rising tensions about the current Ukrainian administration considering some kind of Lavra takeover.

All of these reports are based on information from government officials and the leaders of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was — depending on the sources cited —created by Western Ukrainian leaders, the U.S. State Department (under the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden), the government of Turkey and/or the first-among-equals Ecumenical Patriarch who leads the tiny Orthodox body that remains based in Istanbul.

These reports continue to ignore or downplay the statements and actions of the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church, led by Metropolitan Onuphry, which has — since the day of the Russian invasion — stressed its total opposition to this action of the Vladimir Putin government in Moscow. This church, the canonical church of Ukraine for many generations, has taken steps to cut its ties to Orthodox leaders in Moscow, even as its leaders have recognized they do not have the clear authority to do so. They appear to be pleading for the wider world of Orthodoxy (as in patriarches of multiple ancient churches, not just Istanbul) to intervene, somehow, in this crisis.

As a rule, mainstream journalists have expressed little interest in the actual Orthodox traditions and laws linked to this tragedy. In particular, the press has ignored the global voices of the Orthodox who oppose Putin, but support Metropolitan Onuphry and, thus, the monks of the Lavra.

Frankly, my head is spinning as I try to deal with the myriad journalism issues involved in covering this massive story. I am aware that most journalists are limited in what they can cover, due to language issues and the difficulty of on-site work in the midst of this conflict. I want to look at two issues in this Times report because — this is a positive — it includes some remarks from an actual monk from the Kievan Caves. Such as:

Father Hieromonk Ioan, a member of the Kyiv monastery, said that the clergy there were not loyal to Moscow but did not shy away from the close historic ties with Russia. “We have certain relations with Russia and it’s painful for us what is going on now,” he said in an interview outside the monastery. …

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Despite sex-abuse reforms, some key Southern Baptist leaders remain oblivious

Despite sex-abuse reforms, some key Southern Baptist leaders remain oblivious

The story of the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse crisis is not going away.

At least not anytime soon.

Southern Baptists delegates overwhelmingly adopted abuse reforms this past summer, but some within the nation’s largest evangelical denomination remain oblivious.

Case in point: Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana broke this news:

Disgraced former Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt plans a return to ministry after completing a restoration process overseen by four pastors, according to a video released last week.

That news, just seven months after the allegations against Hunt were made public, prompted Bart Barber, the current SBC president, to release a lengthy statement via Twitter. Barber declared:

I would permanently “defrock” Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so. In a fellowship of autonomous churches, I do not have the authority to do so. Yet it must be said that neither do these four pastors have the authority to declare Johnny Hunt to be “restored.”

At The Tennessean, Liam Adams reports:

The news of Hunt’s return to ministry is the latest high-profile example of an issue the Nashville-based SBC is wrestling with: if and how pastors accused of abuse can return to the pulpit.

In his own follow-up report, Smietana delves into the outcry over the Hunt news:

Tiffany Thigpen, an abuse survivor and longtime advocate of abuse victims, said Hunt’s return to ministry is a sign that the legislated reforms have yet to change Southern Baptist culture.

“We are always going to have this network of powerful men who can do whatever they want and think they can get away with it,” she said. “And they are right.”

Thigpen said Hunt, like anyone, can be forgiven by God. But that does not mean he should be given power and a platform in the church. She said pastors like the ones who endorsed Hunt dole out cheap grace in order to protect their friends.

“They don’t care,” she said.

As noted by the Washington Times’ Mark A. Kellner, two of the four pastors involved in Hunt’s “restoration” serve churches affiliated with the SBC.

Most pastors believe clergy involved in sexual misconduct should withdraw from public ministry permanently, according to a 2021 Lifeway Research study.

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Perfect storm before and after COVID-19: Do churches have $$$ for missions and charity?

Perfect storm before and after COVID-19: Do churches have $$$ for missions and charity?

Back in the heady church-growth days of the 1980s and 1990s, researchers John and Sylvia Ronsvalle began hearing caution creep into their interviews with church leaders.

Denominational leaders were especially uncomfortable when asked about declines in giving to overseas missions and projects to help the poor.

Sylvia Ronsvalle said the leader of one large congregation gave this blunt response: "Ah! No! We can't promote missions because there won't be enough for our seminaries." She responded: "Well, I think people would be more interested in your seminaries if you were actually impacting global needs in Jesus' name."

That encounter, and many others, ended up in "Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church," one of many publications the Ronsvalles have produced while leading empty tomb, inc. Their center also serves as a hub for missions in Champaign, Illinois, their home for 50 years.

Danger signs began decades ago. Giving to religious groups -- defined in terms of potential donations based on after-tax incomes -- peaked in 1960 and then began to decline, even as church membership numbers and budgets kept rising.

This trend "pre-dated many of the controversial issues that were to emerge by the end of the 1960s," noted the 31st annual empty tomb report, based on 2019 numbers. In mainline and evangelical denominations "per member giving in current dollars, as well as in inflation-adjusted dollars and as a portion of income" was lower in 2019 than the year before.

Then COVID-19 hit. But the pandemic's impact in pews only made an ongoing charity funding crisis more obvious, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, in a telephone interview.

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Thinking with Ryan Burge: That 'nondenominational' term? Well, it isn't going away

Thinking with Ryan Burge: That 'nondenominational' term? Well, it isn't going away

Rare is the week in which I don’t read two or three important stories in the mainstream press that leave me thinking: “Journalists are really going to need to understand the wild, complex and rapidly world of nondenominational evangelical-fundamentalist-charismatic-Pentecostal-Protestant-whatever churches.”

For starters, the vast majority of these church have absolutely zero connections to any group providing even minimal legal, financial, ethical or theological oversight. In many cases, the pulpit-star who started the congregation remains in complete control, with a hand-picked board as the only balance on his power. He may not have even attended an accredited seminary.

Think about that the next time you ponder the role of structures of “evangelical power” in stories about clergy sexual abuse or, oh, the odd riot at the U.S. Capitol.

This brings me (#NoSurprise) back to the world of researcher Ryan Burge (must-follow on Twitter) and a recent think piece he wrote for Christianity Today with this headline: “How ‘Christian’ Overtook the ‘Protestant’ Label.” Before we get to a Burge chart or two, here’s the overture:

Over the past several decades, American evangelicalism has moved away from the religious labels, symbols, and buildings that used to define church.

Many newer churches don’t contain stained glass, crosses, or traditional sanctuary setups. They tend to adopt contemporary names, leaving out denominational labels or other religious language. Along with those shifts, churchgoers have changed the way they speak about their faith; think of phrases like “It’s is not a religion; it’s a relationship.”

These trends have had a real impact on how younger people understand their religious identity. Evangelical Protestants have been debating for years over the definition and usefulness of the “evangelical” label. Now, it appears “Protestant” may be losing its place too.

Put the word “Baptist” on the sign in the lawn? No way. And, of course, there are zillions of different meanings to the word “Baptist” — in the world of independent churches. But that’s another (related) subject.

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Podcast: ProPublica probes for-profit hospice horrors, but ignores faith-based networks

Podcast: ProPublica probes for-profit hospice horrors, but ignores faith-based networks

Every now and then, your GetReligionistas run into a story that puts us in a real bind, in terms of the basic media-criticism work that we do here.

The nonprofit journalism group ProPublica, in this case working with The New Yorker, recently published a great example of this kind of report. We are talking about a deeply researched piece that is a must-read story — period. Reporter Ava Kofman’s work is painful, even agonizing, to read, for all the right reasons.

At the same time, the story is seriously lacking when it comes to exploring religious facts and beliefs that are essential to its subject, which is hospice care.

The feature does include a nod to the Christian history of hospice care, but avoids any meaningful discussion of the differences between the work done in faith-based hospice networks — which are massive — and what happens with some (maybe many) for-profit hospices, such as those at the hellish heart of this report. The headline: “Endgame: How the Visionary Hospice Movement Became a For-Profit Hustle.”

This must-read report was the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in) and I will stress that this subject was deeply personal for host Todd Wilken and for me. Wilken is a Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor and has years of experience assisting with end-of-life issues and questions. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor who spent the last decade of his ministry working in Houston’s hospital complex, include the Texas Children’s Hospital.

This story does a great job of the “follow the money” components of scandals linked to for-profit hospice care. Here is the anecdotal lede:

Over the years, Marsha Farmer had learned what to look for. As she drove the back roads of rural Alabama, she kept an eye out for dilapidated homes and trailers with wheelchair ramps. Some days, she’d ride the one-car ferry across the river to Lower Peach Tree and other secluded hamlets where a few houses lacked running water and bare soil was visible beneath the floorboards. Other times, she’d scan church prayer lists for the names of families with ailing members.

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NPR offers a faithful Mike Pence interview: But readers will need the transcript to know that

NPR offers a faithful Mike Pence interview: But readers will need the transcript to know that

National Public Radio posted a story the other day with a totally predictable headline: “Mike Pence, pondering a presidential run, condemns Trump's rhetoric on Jan. 6.

What we have here is a perfect chance to meditate on that concept that readers see all the time here at GetReligion, when dealing with the political lens through which most (#IMHO) elite-market journalists view the world. That would be: “Politics is real. Religion? Not so much.”

Things are a bit more nuanced with this particular NPR feature. To be blunt: The Steve Inskeep interview is way, way better than the feature that someone — an intern, perhaps — wrote about the contents of the interview.

The text version is — I am sure this will shock many — all about Donald Trump, Donald Trump and Donald Trump, with a near-laser focus on the events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol.

Now, that’s a crucial subject, since Vice President Mike Pence was the man that many Trump-inspired rioters wanted to hang (or they chanted words to that effect). That’s a topic that cannot be avoided, and I get that. This is an interview that will infuriate Trump disciples and, at the same time, will leave the progressive left just as mad.

The bottom line: The interview is about Pence’s memoir “So Help Me God,” and that’s a book that has a much broader focus than recent partisan politics. I would argue — based on the interview itself — that the book’s most important contents are not linked to Trump, Trump, Trump. The most provocative parts of the interview are about federalism and (#triggerwarning) the First Amendment. But, first, here is the highlighted Trump material:

Pence faces an extraordinary challenge as a political leader whose national reputation is closely tied to the record of the Trump administration but who says the Constitution and his conscience would not allow him to follow Trump's ultimate demand. …

When a mob disrupted the proceedings, Pence retreated with family members to an office within the U.S. Capitol and then to an underground parking garage, but refused to flee the building.

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New religion census: That means more numbers, more maps and more hooks for news stories

New religion census: That means more numbers, more maps and more hooks for news stories

It’s always a fun day when one of my trusted sources publishes some new raw data that I can use to better understand the religious and political world of the United States. That’s doubly true when it’s something other than survey data because it allows me to make data visualizations that are a bit different than the run of the mill bar and line graphs.

Earlier this month the Association of Statisticians of American Religion Bodies released the results of their 2020 Religion Census, which is a one of a kind dataset. Every 10 years, this very capable research team tracks religious organizations all the way down to the county level — which is a granularity that is astonishing.

For example, most surveys would be lucky to give you a sample that is large enough to understand religion at the state level. So, to have access to county level data unlocks thousands of possibilities.

This is the kind of detail that helps researchers — and journalists — look for news trends at the local and regional levels. There are news stories hidden in these numbers. The key is spotting them.

So, with that in mind, I took to map-making the last few weeks. I think that there’s a lot of surprising results in this new data.

Where is religion the most concentrated in the United States? Probably not where most people would guess.

According to data from the 2020 Religion Census, there’s obviously a strong pocket of believers in the Bible Belt — that isn’t surprising.

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Archbishop Broglio elected to lead USCCB: Press focuses on (#surprise) political issues

Archbishop Broglio elected to lead USCCB: Press focuses on (#surprise) political issues

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops assembled in Baltimore two weeks ago to elect a new president. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services, tasked with overseeing Catholic ministries to members of the U.S. armed forces, was elected to lead the USCCB.

The 70-year-old archbishop won election to a three-year term on Nov. 15 after emerging victorious from a field of 10 candidates. What Broglio’s election means for the church, our national politics and for everyday Catholics depends on whom you ask.

Certainly, news coverage of Broglio’s election seemed to focus on the priorities of the media organization’s own political priorities rather than impartial, fact-based reporting that included the church’s own positions on an array of subjects Broglio will have to deal with in his term.

As we say here at GetReligion: Politics is real. Religion? Not so much.

The New York Times framed their coverage under the headline, “U.S. Catholic Bishops Elect Leaders for Anti-Abortion Fight.” This is how their story opened:

BALTIMORE — A week after bruising losses for anti-abortion forces in the midterm elections, America’s Roman Catholic bishops rededicated themselves to ending abortion and elected a slate of new leaders to support that goal during their annual meeting. …

The job ahead is “perhaps even more massive than we thought,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who has chaired the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “We have to engage in this with mind and heart and soul.”

The bishops chose Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, as their new president. Archbishop Lori, the runner-up for the presidency, will serve as vice president. Both men have taken strong positions against abortion and are expected to continue the conservative leanings of the hierarchy on an array of social issues.

Archbishop Broglio supported religious exemptions for military service members who did not want to receive the Covid-19 vaccine “if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.” The Vatican had approved of the vaccines, but some Catholics and others opposed to abortion asked for religious exemptions because of the use of stem cells derived from aborted fetuses to develop some vaccines.

He has previously suggested that homosexuality was to blame for the church’s sexual abuse crisis, though studies have found no connection between homosexuality and child abuse.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but the news story managed to get the words abortion, vaccines and homosexuality in the first five paragraphs. Broglio is made out to be some deranged right-wing politician.

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