Belief Beat

The Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on whether the Westboro Baptist Church had the right to picket a military funeral with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Troops.” As Religion News Service reports, the justices will decide whether extreme speech that inflicts emotional pain — especially at sensitive venues such as memorials — is protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued this fall.

Some background information: the Kansas-based church, run by the Phelps family (which also seems to be the crux of its congregation), is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Check out this New York Times story and the Religion Clause blog for more legal information about this case and related precedents.

I saw the Westboro Baptist Church in action a few years ago, while covering Pope Benedict’s visit to New York. The handful of members, merrily waving placards with distinctive messages like

If you can’t beat ’em, bless ’em? Not quite, but intermarriage rates have prompted more dialogue, less debate, among Jewish leaders lately. As I reported for Religion News Service yesterday, Reform Judaism’s clergy organization has formally adopted a more accepting attitude towards the “given” of interfaith marriage, though rabbis may still opt not to perform ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews. Conservative and Orthodox clergy still won’t officiate at such weddings, but future leaders of the Conservative movement did gather at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York recently to examine how to address the “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics,” so there’s an attitude shift happening there, too.

Meanwhlie, Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky, who comes from a prominent Jewish political family, has gotten the religious and secular press alike wondering whether she’ll be married under a chuppah, which would require her to either convert from Christianity or retain the services of a relatively liberal rabbi. (Ivanka Trump made headlines when she converted before her wedding to Jewish businessman Jared Kushner last year.)

In my years of convering interfaith issues and attending numerous mixed marriage ceremonies (including my own), I’ve concluded there’s rarely a solution that pleases everyone equally. These situations can get even more tense when you’re dealing with minority faiths, like Judaism, whose members have understandable concerns about assimilation. But, with two political families involved here, an interesting reconciliation may be in the works. Thoughts?

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Scientology has suddenly made lots of news lately — without the usual focus on Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and the religion’s other celebrity adherents. Last month, newsrooms were buzzing about the church hiring three investigative reporters, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, to critique the St. Petersburg Times’ coverage of the Florida-based church. A few days ago, the Sunday New York Times ran a front-page story reporting on ex-Scientologists who accuse church leaders of abusing the staff psychologically, physically and financially.

As a GetReligion blogger points out, coverage of Scientology isn’t necessarily balanced, focusing more on the faith’s science fiction roots (aliens are involved) than any positive contributions its members have made. But as a religion reporter, I can vouch for the fact that this church just doesn’t provide the kind of access that journalists routinely get from other faiths. (Undercover reporting has its place – check out this NYT piece from November for a peek inside the church’s Manhattan center – but it’s not a great way to cultivate a beat.) Basically, Scientology hits all three categories that make religions wary of the press: it’s tiny, it’s young, and it’s secretive. This recent surge in stories may simply reflect that the group has now been around long enough to have defectors, and to become more media-savvy.

What do you think?

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From the home office in Seattle, WA:

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Welcome to Belief Beat, a blog that will highlight important and intriguing faith-related stories making headlines every day. I aim to make this a lively mix of breaking news, ongoing issues and upbeat odds-and-ends, culled from mainstream media outlets, specialty sites and the ever-expanding religion blogosphere. Sometimes, based on my professional and personal experience, I’ll throw my own two cents in; I hope you all do likewise in the Comments section under each post.