Untangle the church-state thicket, please

thicket Writing about church-state conflicts is not easy. What is the issue at hand? How does it affect ordinary people? Alas, two stories by the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post about a controversial legislative proposal failed to answer both questions adequately. HB 1080 would prohibit religious organizations in Colorado that use public money for social services to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

Sounds straightforward, right? Well, not exactly.

Jean Torkelson of the Rocky Mountain News wrote an unfocused story about the measure. Torkelson ought to have told readers that the dispute is over whether religious groups can use taxpayer dollars to hire workers who conform to their religious mission. Instead, she wrote the following:

Under House Bill 1080, faith-based organizations that run programs using public money couldn't hire using their own religious standards.

Instead, they would have to abide by state law, which last year added sexual orientation and religion to the list of categories that can't be used to discriminate in hiring.

Unlike Torkelson, Electa Draper of The Denver Post told readers the gist of the dispute. But like Torkelson, Draper left readers in the dark about another aspect of the bill. If enacted, would religious organizations really be prevented from hiring exclusively from their adherents?

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, said she was willing to work with the groups on the bill to clarify the relationship between anti-discrimination laws and the hiring practices of religious organizations that accept tax dollars.

"A last-minute floor amendment to a 2007 bill (on employment discrimination) makes it appear as though Colorado law allows religious discrimination -- that needs to be fixed," Madden said in a statement. "HB 1080 will . . . not change the real-world practices of organizations such as Catholic Charities."

Madden's explanation hardly elucidates matters. Draper and Torkelson, the reporters, should have pinned Madden down. How would the legislation not alter "the real-world practices of organizations"? After all, Madden might be expected to say as much. She wants her bill to become law.

Both stories were not without virtues. For example, Torkelson quoted a Catholic official as saying that if religious organization are denied public funding, there would be real-world consequences:

Chris Rose said breaking government ties would mean the end of a homeless shelter for veterans and almost all child care programs and mental health counseling for the working poor.

Otherwise, the stories suffered from a lack of focus and specifics. Which makes untangling the thicket of church-state clashes only tougher.

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