A former editorial writer who is suing the Indianapolis Star alleging religious discrimination has spoken at conferences encouraging journalism students to use their careers to promote Christianity.
“As a journalist, you can use your position to further the Gospel message,” James Patterson said at a national student journalism conference sponsored by Baptist Press in October 2004.
Advising students, “It’s all based on words; words are powerful,” Patterson, at the time an editorial writer and columnist for The Star, said Christians must be “a different kind of journalist” and have a “deep and abiding faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” according to Baptist Press.
In June Patterson, a 51-year-old African-American, filed a lawsuit with another former staff member, Lisa Coffey, 46, claiming that the newspaper’s editor and publisher demonstrated “a negative hostility toward Christianity” and Christian workers in their newsroom.
Patterson also claims age and racial discrimination. The suit asks that the two plaintiffs be reinstated and awarded back pay and damages.
Gannett newspapers bought the Indianapolis Star, long known for its conservative editorial stance, in 2000 from Central Newspapers, a chain owned by Eugene C. Pulliam, the maternal grandfather of former Vice President Dan Quayle.
According to the lawsuit, the paper’s new publisher, editor and managing editor implemented a policy of favoring news coverage and editorials with a positive slant on homosexuality while disfavoring editorials with a positive slant on Christianity.
“As part of their animus toward Christian employees,” the lawsuit contends, the defendants “displayed strong disagreement with anyone who had a Biblical view of homosexuality.”
Patterson, who worked 16 years at The Star before he was fired May 5, says he first got in trouble after writing an editorial in March 2003 titled “Pray for peace in this time of war.”
“With the beginning of hostilities against Iraq putting U.S. and allied soldiers and the people of Iraq in harm’s way, it is both necessary and good that Americans be in a state of prayer,” the editorial read. “Let us pray for safety of our soldiers, comfort of their families, courage for our leaders and the wisdom for all parties to war to find the quickest path to peace. Let us pray likewise for the people of Iraq, that their suffering be fleeting and that the freedom they deserve soon come to their troubled land.”
Contending that prayer “has helped to see this country through many a bloodied battlefield,” Patterson wrote, “Prayer is a way that all citizens—from children to the homebound elderly—can make a meaningful contribution to this war effort and its successful resolution.”
According to the lawsuit, Editor Dennis Ryerson said he was “repulsed and offended” by the prayer editorial and that in the future he would not allow editorials with Christian overtones or which “could be construed as proselytizing” on the editorial page.
Coffey claims she was removed from the editorial department after Ryerson rejected a test column she had written on health and economic risks of sodomy, stating that “The Star would never run anything that was so anti-gay.”
The Star responded with a statement describing the lawsuit as “wholly without merit” and the claim of hostility toward Christianity as “inaccurate and misleading.”
“Editorial positions now, as in the past, often support Christian positions on public issues,” the statement read, according to Editor & Publisher, “Any reader of The Star can see stories, editorials, columns, letters to the editor and other items that clearly show respect for Christian views if not outright backing of those views.”
The newspaper cited a comment from the editorial page editor appearing June 5 noting his Christian faith and noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed the former workers’ complaint.
“We do not discriminate,” Ali Zoibi, vice president of human resources at The Star, said in a story that appeared in the newspaper June 15.
According to their lawyer, however, the two journalists said the paper wants to weed out employees who express their religious beliefs.
“The goal appears to be to remove from employment at The Star persons who have strong religious beliefs, and we believe that violates the law,” said Attorney John Price.
“Lisa and I aren’t the only employees that have been driven away from this company, and we thought it was time for someone to say, ‘Goodness gracious, this isn’t right,'” Patterson told an Indianapolis TV station.
Patterson, who is described in the lawsuit as having “strong and sincere Christian beliefs” has spoken at least twice at conferences encouraging the integration of evangelical Christianity into newsrooms.
Last October, at the national Student Journalism Conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention news service, Patterson said one way that Christian journalists can further the gospel message is to meditate on Scripture and then allow the worldview of Scripture to inform their work.
Christians must be “a different kind of journalist” and have a “deep and abiding faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” Patterson said, according to Baptist Press.
He concluded, “Let us bear all our worship in our work as journalists.”
The conference, which has been held each of the last four years, is aimed at sending the message to college students “that Christian journalists can be a strong influence in America’s newsrooms and directly or indirectly influence America for the Kingdom of Christ,” Will Hall, executive editor of Baptist Press, said in 2002.
Keynote speakers have included David Limbaugh, author of Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity, Fred Barnes of the Fox News Network, Left Behind co-author Jerry Jenkins and former ABC News correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer.
In 2002, Don Boykin, deputy managing editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, compared secular newsrooms to a mission field. “I want to ask you to give up your careers,” he said, according to Baptist Press. “I want ask you to give up your rights. I want you to go on the mission field, not necessarily to Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, but I want you to go on the mission field that God has called you. That can be your newsroom or your university or wherever it is that God has called you.”
At the 2001 conference, California TV and radio news veteran Colleen Rudy urged student journalists to “take opportunities in subtle ways to give glory to God.” A Christian journalist “shouldn’t dwell on the calamity,” she said, but instead advised, “As you dig [for information], be ready to provide biblical insight so you’ll be ready to answer ‘Why?'”
“Be moved to action,” she said, “and when God gives you the opportunity to share your faith, take the opportunity.”
In April 2004 Patterson was a featured speaker at a conference for aspiring black Christian journalists at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
The conference was co-sponsored by the World Journalism Institute, created by the publishers of World magazine “to recruit, train, place and encourage journalists who are Christians in the mainstream newsrooms of America.”
Founded in 1999, the institute was originally intended to teach World magazine’s style of “directed journalism,” where journalists strive to report biblically rather than objectively, to journalists that the magazine would hopefully one day employ.
Because of its popularity, however, the institute broadened its focus to teach not only future World reporters but also Christians seeking to become mainstream journalists.
Realizing it would be unable to teach World magazine’s journalistic style to mainstream reporters, according to a 2004 article in Christianity Today, the school turned to a new approach of teaching secular objectivity in addition to directed reporting.
“In the debate between creation and evolution, the evolutionist has to learn only one side of the story,” World Publisher Joel Beltz explained. “A creationist has to learn both sides of the story. I would say that a Christian practicing journalism has something of the same task.”
Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor at the Indianapolis Star, told columnist Richard Prince she gave Patterson positive reviews while at the paper. While describing herself as “real conservative,” she added: “When a new editor and new publisher come in, they’re entitled to put their imprint on the editorial page. I had not thought of what was going on as religious discrimination in the sense that it is mentioned in the lawsuit.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.