What a religious freedom rally looks like

We've been talking quite a bit about how the public outcry over religious freedom issues has been portrayed in the press. When the Obama administration created a new requirement that religious employers fully fund abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization, many religious employers and their supporters cried foul. The people who support the mandate argue that free contraception is a fundamental right that the government must force employers to provide. Further, failing to force employers to provide these things constitutes a war on women. And that side of things has been pretty well covered -- even adopted, at times -- by the media. That side of things should be covered well, although some media outlets have gone overboard by openly campaigning for that side. (Here, for example.)

The other side -- those who say that their previously enjoyed religious or economic liberty is more fundamental than free birth control -- have not had their side of the story covered well. So mostly when we talk about how the religious freedom side of the argument has been portrayed, we're talking about a failure to even mention that side of the argument, much less treat it with seriousness (see, for example, the scare quote trend some jumped on).

We've been drowning in examples of poor coverage of the outcry against the mandate so I wanted to highlight a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that handled it well.

Most of the religious freedom rallies that were held across the country were held last Friday at noon. (We looked at previous coverage here.) But some were held on the weekend and the one in Jefferson City, Missouri, took place yesterday. There was also another rally outside the Capitol, for a different grievance. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered both rallies, substantively, and put the story in the front section of the paper. There was even a picture of the large religious freedom rally on the front page of the paper with the headline "Crammed Into The Capitol." So the paper did not bury the news that some Missourians are displeased about this mandate.

As for the story, it's done by a great Godbeat professional, Tim Townsend. He gives a flavor of the variety of people in the crowd and quotes from different factions:

Speaking to fellow Christians in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson delivered a warning to the White House.

“The fight against a federal requirement that most health plans provide free contraceptive benefits to their members “is not about contraception,” he said. “It’s about religious liberty, and we will never give up this freedom.”

Thousands of people, many wearing red T-shirts with messages such as “I will not comply” and “I stand with the Catholic Church,” roared in approval.

Catholics, Southern Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans and members of the Assemblies of God packed three floors of the rotunda at the “Rally for Religious Liberty” to protest the January announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Arguments over liberty and governmental authority being made concurrently in the U.S. Supreme Court were mentioned by speakers and those in the crowd. The rally also came on the same day that the Missouri Senate gave initial approval to a bill that allows employers to opt out of the contraception mandate.

I might have been nervous about characterizing the entire crowd as Christian -- how does one know? -- but I just really appreciate the tightly written lede that gives the basics without telling you what to think about what the people said.

We then get a chunk devoted to the other rally -- where union members wore bright orange and green shirts in protest of "right-to-work" legislation and other worker laws. We learn that the crowds were the largest of the past decade, although no official estimate is made.

Then we get back to the religious freedom rally:

The federal birth control mandate — which would require religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to include free coverage in their employee health coverage — has been called an attack on religious freedom by many Christians.

Speaking under the words of Rudyard Kipling carved into the rotunda, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet — lest we forget,” Missouri Baptist Convention executive director John Yeats called the Obama administration a “secularist government” that had “declared war on religion and freedom of conscience.”

To huge applause, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “Obama’s health care high priestess,” and compared the administration to the British monarchy during the time of the American Revolution.

There are more colorful quotes from the Yeats fellow before we get a discussion of how the protests have taken place across the country and why. There are additional details on the mandate, promised revisions to the mandate and why that promised revision doesn't pass muster with the people fighting the mandate. And then we get a discussion of how proponents of the mandate are framing the battle as a war on women. Which segues into an appearance by the woman who heads my church body's life and health ministries:

Maggie Karner, director of life and health ministries for the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was the only woman on the podium, and one of the four major speakers. Karner said, to a standing ovation, that the issue at hand was “not about women’s issues at all.””

“It concerns all of us American citizens and our constitutional rights,” she said.

There are also quotes from average participants, as well as a member of the legislature who opposes the rally attendees and what they stand for. People are given room to speak freely using their own words and terms. It's just a very straightforward story that explains the arguments of the protesters.

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