Voices

Wanted: Judges like Solomon

Why should candor and common sense be elusive?

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

When I took on the assignment of reporting to you the story of a recent federal court case in which an Iowa prison ministry was ruled unconstitutional, I knew I'd have to end up both a straight newsman (see "Handcuffing prisons") and a columnist (right here).

Some folks argue that nobody should try to fill both pairs of shoes on the same story. I think I understand the dangers. But I also think there's certain value in your getting both the story and the commentary from someone who has done his homework.

I came to this assignment with some built-in biases. I've had great appreciation through the years for the work of Prison Fellowship; we at WORLD have long considered the folks at PF allies in the effort to promote Christian worldview thinking. And I've often had disdain for the activities of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (the group that sued Prison Fellowship) and their out-of-balance zeal to erase from the public square almost every vestige of Christian expression.

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So knowing all that, how can you trust me to shoot straight with the facts of this story? I'd like you to consider the possibility that a person's very openness about his or her biases should increase your trust-at least for starters. If all reporters have biases, and they do, don't we get off on the best foot by admitting them right up front? I could wish that Associated Press and NBC and all the rest would insist that their reporters tell us what their biases are on some of the big issues they cover. I won't hold my breath.

Yet mere openness about bias, by itself, isn't enough. You also want both reporting and commentary to come from an honest mind. So let me tell you, from my own experience, the sort of activity that is typical for a WORLD report like ours this week on the Iowa court case. I started by reading Judge Robert Pratt's entire decision-all 140 pages, with the footnotes. Then I digested another 100 pages of response from both the plaintiffs and the defendants, as well as from the secular media. I made phone calls to talk with people involved in the debate. And finally, I invested in what we call "shoe-leather journalism"-the kind that takes you to the scene of the crime to see for yourself how the facts stack up. I spent time in the prison where the program operates, talking freely with both prisoners and officials.

"Well," you may be saying, "isn't that what I have a right to expect from careful journalism?" So let me tell you what I didn't expect to find.

I was surprised to end up with a bit more respect than I anticipated for the case of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They forced me to ask hard questions, like: What would my response be if a group of Muslims or a group of New Agers launched programs at a local prison similar to Prison Fellowship's InnerChange program? If AU sued the Muslims and the New Agers, whose side would I be on?

I was also surprised at the ambiguity of Prison Fellowship's legal defense. Part of the time they seemed to be arguing on the basis of religious freedom; part of the time they seemed to be saying this had nothing to do with religion since the goal-lower recidivism-was a secular goal. Trying to have it both ways seemed to me to weaken the case.

In the end, there's no question in my mind who's right and who's wrong in the overall case. We needed Solomon, not Robert Pratt, in the judge's seat. We needed someone who would respond by saying: "Folks, we have a challenge here. On the one hand, we have Prison Fellowship's wonderful program that is obviously doing great good. On the other hand, AU has raised some hard constitutional issues that we need to address. Let's see if we can't bring the two together in a fruitful way."

Such candor and common sense seem more and more elusive these days, especially in courtrooms like Judge Pratt's. I hope you find both qualities-and regularly-in the pages of WORLD.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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