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News & Press: Top 10 Religion Stories

Actions by Islamic State extremists top Religion Newswriters' 2014 Religion Stories of the Year

Thursday, December 11, 2014  
Posted by: Debra Mason
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This version was corrected on 12/12/14 to fix a numbering problem.


Columbia, Mo.—The extremist Islamic State's violent reign of terror in Iraq and Syria was voted the No. 1 Religion Story of 2014 by the world's leading religion journalists. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision giving closely held companies the ability to claim religious objections to health care mandates was a close second. 

For the second year in a row, Pope Francis was named the top Religion Newsmaker of the Year. He was selected overwhelmingly, receiving more than half of all the votes among a slate of 10 newsmakers.

The online ballot was conducted Friday, Dec. 5 through Wednesday, Dec. 10. Only RNA members, who comprise religion journalists in the U.S. and abroad, were eligible to vote. The Top 10 ballot items are listed here. Because of two ties, the list actually includes 12 stories:

1.  The self-styled Islamic State expands a reign of terror into Iraq and Syria, driving out the Iraqi army from Mosul and exiling ancient Christian communities, Yazidis and other religious minorities on threat of death. The United Nations, Christians and many Muslim groups strongly condemn the videotaped beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other hostages as inhumane and un-Islamic.

2.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rules that two closely held companies — Hobby Lobby and Conestoga — can claim religious objections to contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The ruling is considered a victory for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is highly controversial.

3. (TIE)  A cascading deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes the kidnappings and murders of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, an Israel-Hamas war that leaves more than 2,000 dead, tensions over Temple Mount access and attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including a deadly attack on rabbis praying in a synagogue.

3. (TIE) Pope Francis continues to draw both worldwide admiration and consternation for his efforts toward inclusiveness, including outreach to the needy and people of other faiths.

4. Mainline Protestants take controversial steps regarding performing same-sex weddings and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. United Methodist minister Frank Schaefer is defrocked for performing same-sex weddings but is later restored by the church’s Supreme Court. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly allows pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where they're legal. The Moravian Church’s largest province approves the ordination of gays and lesbians.

5. Health-care workers, many of them faith-based, successfully remain at their West African posts as the Ebola epidemic spreads. The treatment of American medical missionaries Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol gains wide attention.

6.  Mainline denominational leaders and Latino evangelicals rejoice over President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform. Conservative leaders are ambivalent, largely because of GOP complaints that Obama overstepped his authority. Some faith-based organizations mobilize to serve their needs.

7. Pakistani Muslim schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, still recovering from Taliban gunshots in retaliation for advocating for girls’ education, shares the 2014 Nobel Prize with Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu and children’s rights advocate from India.

8. Faith-based groups help lead peaceful protests against racial injustice in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting case amidst violent outbursts after the police officer involved is not indicted. Protests also break out after a New York grand jury does not indict a police officer in another case of an unarmed black man dying in an altercation with white police officers.

9. Women clergy make strides individually and collectively. The Church of England overwhelmingly votes to allow women bishops. Seventh-day Adventists agree to vote on women’s ordination in 2015. For the first time, women lead three of the nation’s most prominent mainline churches, while the U.S. Navy names its first female head chaplain.

10. (TIE)  India elects Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose track record, and that of his government, spurs fears of discrimination against religious minorities.

10. (TIE) Movie critics term 2014 as “The Year of the Bible” because of the release of a dozen films based on the Bible or with faith-rooted scripts chronologically from Noah and the Exodus to the Rapture. The movies God’s Not Dead makes $60 million and Son of God nearly as much.

The other 12 news stories on the 2014 ballot are listed below, but because each news story received so few Top 10 votes, they could not be accurately ranked. 

  • Mormon leaders acknowledged for the first time that church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, took as many as 40 wives, some of whom were already married and one just 14 years old. The church’s disclosures are part of an effort to be transparent about its history at a time when church members are increasingly encountering disturbing claims about the faith on the Internet.
  • The Jewish community was shaken when prominent Georgetown Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with voyeurism after police found a hidden camera inside the building housing a ritual bath, known as a mikvah. Freundel, who pleaded not guilty, was fired by his synagogue. Freundel was a highly influential leader within modern Jewish Orthodoxy, and the accusations had reverberations even in Israel. The U.S. Attorney's office set up a hotline number for potential victims.
  • Mark Driscoll, who built a church and publishing juggernaut amid blunt talk of sex, strict Calvinism and male authority, resigns under fire as pastor of Mars Hill Church, the Seattle-based multi-site congregation he founded. Driscoll was accused of bullying and misappropriating donations.
  • Atheists give their first — and perhaps last — invocation before a town meeting in Greece, N.Y. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the town illegally banned non-Christians from giving the opening invocation. But following the decision, the town adopted a new policy excluding atheist groups.
  • The movement to ordain women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) church gains momentum, but also suffers a blow when Ordain Women leader and Mormon feminist Kate Kelly is excommunicated from the Mormon church in June.
  • Egypt continues suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in a continued backlash against the Brotherhood’s brief rule. Courts sentence hundreds to death in mass trials, and ousted president Hosni Mubarak is cleared on charges of killing protesters.
  • Bill Gothard, 79, a prominent speaker, advocate for male authority and widely influential in the homeschooling movement, resigns as president of his family-oriented, Illinois-based Institute in Basic Life Principles, after his board learns of sexual harassment accusations against him from more than 30 women.
  • Pope Francis canonizes the two most influential popes of the 20th century, John Paul II and John XXIII, saying they stood against evil in the tragic events of their times.
  • Evangelical Christians active in higher education come under fire on opposite coasts over the right to hire and fire based on religion. Intervarsity Christian Fellowship adopted a new style of ministering to college students after the California state university system banned it as an official student group. Gordon College in Massachusetts loses some community support after its president backed the hiring rights of faith-based institutions receiving federal grants.
  • Boko Haram, an extremist group claiming Islamic mandate, terrorizes Nigeria with murderous attacks on churches and mosques and the kidnapping of more than 200 school girls, spurring a so-far unsuccessful worldwide campaign to #bringbackourgirls.
  • As same-sex marriage gains wide approval legally and in popular opinion, U.S. religious conservatives soul-search over how to respond to a fight many perceive as lost. Southern Baptists hold two major conferences related to sexuality and marriage. Advocacy groups such as Evangelicals for Marriage Equality and the Reformation Project make strides. Major charity World Vision is criticized for backtracking on plans to hire married same-sex Christians.
  • Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in northern Myanmar (Burma), continue to flee or to be interned in camps amid clashes with pro-government, nationalistic Buddhist leaders.

Among the 10 potential Newsmakers of the Year on the 2014 ballot, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Muslim schoolgirl who survived a Taliban shooting and shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of girls’ education along with Hindu children’s advocate Kailash Satyarthi of India, came in second place with 13 percent of the votes for newsmaker. The Ebola health-care workers, many of whom are faith based and who stayed in West Africa during the outbreak, received 12 percent votes for newsmaker. 

Results are based on an online survey of more then 300 journalists with a response rate over 30 percent. The Religion Newswriters Association is the only worldwide association dedicated to helping journalists write about religion with balance, accuracy and insight. Founded in 1949, the association is headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism. The association has conducted its Top 10 Religion News Stories of the Year since the early 1970s.

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