US religion writers pick bishops’ battle with HHS as 2012 top news story

Members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the world’s oldest and largest professional non-denominational association for journalists who write about religion, picked the U.S. Catholic bishops’ opposition to national health care legislation mandating contraception coverage as the No. 1 religion story of 2012. They also chose Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as the year’s top newsmaker in their annual poll

“As the nation reeled from the Dec. 14 killing of 20 first graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn., religious leaders sought to console a stunned public and to discern religion’s role in future debates about mental health and gun control. The No. 1 U.S. religion story in December 2012 was, without a doubt, the school attack and the mournful search for meaning that follows,” an RNA statement said this week. “However, before the shooting, professional journalists who cover religion voted on the year’s other significant religious events.”

The Top 10 poll of Religion Newswriters Association members took place Dec. 11- 15, 2012, in a confidential, online ballot. More than 100 members of the organization responded. RNA has conducted the poll for nearly 40 years.

Most RNA members are working journalists in secular media, though some work in media owned by specific denominations. (Full disclosure: I am a member of RNA.)

Cardinal Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, became the point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning after drugs in Affordable Health Care Act.

The Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year are below:

1. U.S. Catholic bishops lead opposition to Affordable Health Care Act requirement that insurance coverage for contraception be provided for employees. The government backs down a bit, but not enough to satisfy the opposition.

2. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey shows that “nones,” that is people with no religious affiliation, is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, rising to 19.6 percent of the population.

3. The circulation of an anti-Islam film trailer, “Innocence of Muslims,” causes unrest in several countries, leading to claims that it inspired the fatal attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya. President Obama, at the U.N., calls for toleration tolerance of blasphemy, and respect as a two-way street.

4. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters, who support him more strongly than they did John McCain in the U.S. presidential race.

5. Msgr. William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes the first senior Catholic official in the U.S. to be found guilty of covering up priestly child abuse; later Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., becomes the first bishop to be found guilty of it.

6. The Vatican criticizes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of U.S. sisters, alleging they haven’t supported church teaching on abortion, sexuality or women’s ordination.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

7. Voters OK same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington, bringing the total approving to nine states and the District of Columbia. Also, Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage after North Carolina approves one.

8. The Episcopal Church overwhelmingly adopts a trial ritual for blessing same-sex couples. Earlier, the United Methodists fail to vote on approving gay clergy, and the Presbyterians (USA) vote to study, rather than sanction, same-sex marriage ceremonies.

9. Six people are killed and three wounded at worship in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. The shooter, an Army veteran killed by police, is described as a neo-Nazi.

10. The Southern Baptist Convention elects without opposition its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Votes for the 2012 Religion Newsmaker of the Year ranked the five potential candidates in this order:

1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York becomes a point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning-after drugs in the Affordable Health Care Act. But the cardinal also takes heat from the right when he invites the president to the traditional Al Smith Dinner in New York.

2. Rev. Fred Luter, first black president of the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention, who is expected to help the SBC become more racially diverse.

3. Mark Basseley Youssef, an Egypt-born Christian whose work has been condemned by the Coptic Church, provoked rioting in the Muslim world with his film trailer “Innocence of Muslims.” He was jailed in California on probation violations.

4. Mormon voters, who enthusiastically backed one of their own for president, acted in ways that helped overcome suspicions of them by other faiths.

5. Pro football quarterback Tim Tebow, whose book about his faith was on the best-seller list, inspired the term “Tebowing” for kneeling in prayer and led to polarized discussions about the role of faith in sports.

Impending storm, early voting and feeling encouraged about our democratic process

Here in the region where it’s “All Politics” every year, it takes something enormous to knock the last days of the election campaign down the priority list.

The forecast for days of widespread weather misery, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, therefore is likely at least partly responsible for the huge turnout at early voting polling venues in Maryland and Washington.

(CNS photo/Reuters)

Polling places that opened Oct. 27 were inundated, overwhelmed by voters who were trying to get a jump on voting. Lines stretched for blocks. People reported standing in line for hours at polling places that initially had far too few voting machines.

In fairness, this was the first time for Maryland to have early voting in a presidential election. A constitutional amendment passed by the Legislature in 2007 and ratified by voters in the 2008 general election made Maryland one of 32 states that allow early voting.

At one of Maryland’s polling sites on the second day of early voting this weekend, it took me an hour and ten minutes to get through the line that snaked about halfway around a full block from the building.

But, far from being a tedious wait, it was an energizing exercise in civics. My neighbors in line were all strangers, but we became a little community of engaged voters during our hour together.

Since the line stretched far from the boundary near the polling place where politicking is prohibited, volunteers worked the crowd. They handed out literature – while not being pushy with those who didn’t want it — and happily paused to talk if asked about the various candidates and ballot issues they represented.

Maryland has some well-advertised ballot issues this year, including one redefining the definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriages and one approving a state version of the DREAM Act. But there are also a few that have been little discussed and that aren’t well explained in the literature mailed by the county.

So, we learned from the volunteers and from neighbors in line.

A passing volunteer explained the history of a measure to give police chiefs some power that currently is part of the police union’s negotiating options. While obviously interested in one outcome, she wasn’t strident and seemed to explain the opposing viewpoint with as little bias as her own.

One woman offered to tell us about a judge she knows: “You know how nobody ever knows anything about the judges on the ballot?” she started. “Well, for a change I know one of them. I can tell you about her.”

Inside the building, the crowds were handled efficiently and cheerfully. I listened as one poll worker helped a man with limited English ability in the booth next to mine get through the ballot. He clearly knew the issues and how he wanted to vote, but struggled a little with the computer logistics. The poll worker helped him with no indication of bias, no suggestion of condescending to him.

I dropped my ballot card in the bin, picked up my “I voted” sticker and headed home, feeling pleased that I’d been able to cross “vote” off my pre-storm to-do list. But more, I was encouraged that the democratic process was working.