This week, reporter Diana Henriques devoted nearly 19,000 words over four days to a front-page series with the provocative title "In God's Name: Favors for the Faithful."
Sunday's opening shot was titled "Religion Trumps Regulation As Legal Exemptions Grow - From Day Care Centers to Use of Land, Rules Don't Apply to Faith Groups." By "faith groups," the Times means Christians. Though the series mentions in passing mosques, synagogues, and Hindu temples, the focus of criticism is almost solely on Christian churches. "(Perhaps the Times could apply similar scrutiny of programs that pull Muslim children out of school to learn the Koran for up to three years, instead of issuing friendly PR.)
"At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.
"The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.
"The differences do not end there. As an employer, Ms. White must comply with the civil rights laws; if employees feel mistreated, they can take the center to court. Religious organizations, including Pastor Fuson's, are protected by the courts from almost all lawsuits filed by their ministers or other religious staff members, no matter how unfairly those employees think they have been treated."
Of course, the Times is not arguing against burdensome and intrusive regulations, but wants them to apply to every group. While valuing its own First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, the Times ignores the very first clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
"In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide 'war on religion' that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations - from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples - enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly."
Henriques locates conservative bogeymen: "The changes reflect, in part, the growing political influence of religious groups and the growing presence of conservatives in the courts and regulatory agencies. But these tax and regulatory breaks have been endorsed by politicians of both major political parties, by judges around the country, and at all levels of government."
"These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services - police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens."
And this sounds like personal opinion instead of news: "Precious as protecting religious freedom is, however, there are cases where these special breaks collide with other values important in this country - like extending the protections of government to all citizens and sharing the responsibilities of society fairly.
"Religious organizations defend the exemptions as a way to recognize the benefits religious groups have provided - operating schools, orphanages, old-age homes and hospitals long before social welfare and education were widely seen as the responsibility of government.
"But while ministries that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters benefit from these exemptions, secular nonprofits serving the same needy people often do not. And rather than just rewarding charitable works that benefit society, these breaks are equally available to religious organizations that provide no charitable services to anyone."
Except for the benefits of religion itself, but that kind of charity apparently doesn't register at the Times.
Part Four, "Religion-Based Tax Breaks: Housing to Paychecks to Books," focuses on spiritual book author Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life."
Henriques opines: "Pastor Warren will also be remembered as their champion in a fight over the most valuable tax break available to ordained clergy members of all faiths: an exemption from federal taxes for most of the money they spend on housing, which typically represents roughly a third of their compensation. Pastor Warren argued that the tax break is essential to poorly paid clergy members who serve society.
"The tax break is not available to the staff at secular nonprofit organizations whose scale and charitable aims compare to those of religious ministries like Pastor Warren's church, or to poorly paid inner-city teachers and day care workers who also serve their communities."
No liberal labels are to be found in Henriques' enormous series, but she does locate another conservative: "Pastor Warren quoted comments made to him by a conservative radio commentator, Hugh Hewitt, who said the issue arose because of 'the implacable hostility of the political left to the role of God in the world and the country.'"
But although she quotes former USC law professor Edwin Chemerinsky, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief against the tax break, he doesn't get a liberal label.A Business & Media Institute report on the series points out the professor is not a big fan of religion, quoting a post by Chemerinsky on the liberal HuffingtonPost blog: "The religious right is the enemy of freedom."
Lastly comes a sidebar in Wednesday's edition that acts as a warning that religious groups are trying to get even more benefits: "In the Congressional Hopper: A Long Wish List of Special Benefits and Exemptions."
"For all their gains, some advocates for religious freedom see the last 15 years not as a time of increased accommodation for religious groups but as a long battle in which religious groups have had to fight hard just to hold their own against a tide of unsympathetic policies. Indeed, they say government must do more to protect religious institutions of all kinds from the hostile environment of modern America.
"A Congressional wish list supported by some religious leaders and other advocacy groups would accomplish that."
It includes a snide view from a lawyer (and though the Times doesn't say, a former associate White House counsel to President Clinton): "'Much of the angry talk about a national war on religion 'is a reaction to modernity and the pace of change in our society,' said Edward R. McNicholas, a director of the religious institutions law practice at Sidley Austin. 'People want to cling to their religious values as they encounter more cultures that are different and foreign to them. So the language of exclusion has been taken up in the political rhetoric.'"