Gay rights vs. religious freedom

gayrightsYesterday, I wrote a post noting how the mainstream media were following to a tee the media plan of same-sex advocates. I asked for stories that broke the mold. A few readers obliged, sending along a story written and broadcast by National Public Radio's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. It's beautifully written and crafted and really enlightens readers and listeners about the tensions involved in legal battles over gay issues. Here's how the story is framed:

As gay couples in California head to the courthouse starting Monday to get legally married, there are signs of a coming storm. Two titanic legal principles are crashing on the steps of the church, synagogue and mosque: equal treatment for same-sex couples on the one hand, and the freedom to exercise religious beliefs on the other.

The collision that will play out over the next few years will be filled with pathos on both sides.

Titled "Gay Rights, Religious Liberties: A Three-Act Story," the story begins by telling the story of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster -- how they met and fell in love eight years ago at a Jewish retreat. When they decided to formalize their union, they tried to get married at a Methodist worship space overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Act Two details the conflict between Methodist doctrine and practice about the blessing of same-sex unions and the desires of the lesbian couple.

When Bernstein and Paster asked to celebrate their civil union in the pavilion, the Methodist organization said they could marry on the boardwalk -- anywhere but buildings used for religious purposes. In other words, not the pavilion. [Rev. Scott] Hoffman says there was a theological principle at stake.

"The principle was a strongly held religious belief that a marriage is between a man and a woman," Hoffman says. "We're not casting any aspersions or making any judgments. It's just, that's where we stand, and we've always stood that way, and that's why we said no."

The refusal came as a shock to Bernstein, who says Ocean Grove has been revived by the gay community.

"We were crushed," she says. "I lived my whole live, fortunately, without having any overt prejudices or discrimination waged against me. So while I knew it was wrong, I never knew how it felt. And after this, I did know how that felt. It was extremely painful."

It is so nice when a reporter can let conflicting sides put the conflict in their own terms, as Hagerty does. Efficiently and clearly, Hagerty explains that the couple filed a complaint with New Jersey's Civil Rights office alleging unlawful discrimination. They made the case that religious beliefs are not a defense. The Methodists responded that their First Amendment rights protect them from such a case. The lesbians won and the state revoked the Methodist's tax exemption for the worship space. The Methodists are appealing.

The third part of the story looks at the issue nationwide:

As states have legalized same-sex partnerships, the rights of gay couples have consistently trumped the rights of religious groups. Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, says that does not mean that a pastor can be sued for preaching against same-sex marriage. But, he says, that may be just about the only religious activity that will be protected.

"What if a church offers marriage counseling? Will they be able to say 'No, we're not going to help gay couples get along because it violates our religious principles to do so? What about summer camps? Will they be able to insist that gay couples not serve as staff because they're a bad example?" Stern asks.

Hagerty mentions other cases. Yeshiva University was ordered to allow same-sex couples in its dormitory for married couples. A Lutheran school has been sued for expelling two lesbian students. Catholic Charities abandoned adoptions services in Massachusetts after it was told to place children with same-sex couples. A psychologist in Mississippi who refused to counsel a lesbian couple lost her case and a doctor who refused to provide in vitro fertilization to a lesbian in California is likely to lose his case before the California Supreme Court.

The stories, such as this one about a wedding photographer, are riveting: FirstAmendment

On January 28, 2008, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission heard the case of Vanessa Willock v. Elane Photography.

Willock, in the midst of planning her wedding to her girlfriend, sent the photography company an e-mail request to shoot the commitment ceremony. Elaine Huguenin, who owns the company with her husband, replied: "We do not photograph same-sex weddings. But thanks for checking out our site! Have a great day!"

Willock filed a complaint, and at the hearing she explained how she felt.

"A variety of emotions," she said, holding back tears. "There was a shock and anger and fear. ... We were planning a very happy day for us, and we're being met with hatred. That's how it felt."

Willock declined to be interviewed, as did the owners of Elane Photography. At the hearing, Jonathan Huguenin said that when he and his wife formed the company two years ago, they made it company policy not to shoot same-sex ceremonies, because the ceremonies conflicted with their Christian beliefs.

"We wanted to make sure that everything we photographed -- everything we used our artistic ability for, everything we told a story for or conveyed a message of -- would be in line with our values and our beliefs," he said.

The defendants' attorney, Jordan Lorence at ADF, says that of course a Christian widget-maker cannot fire an employee because he's gay. But it's different when the company or a religious charity is being forced to endorse something they don't believe, he says.

"It's a very different situation when we're talking about promoting a message," Lorence says. "When it's 'We want to punish you for not helping us promote our message that same-sex marriage is OK,' that for me is a very different deal. It's compelled speech. You're using the arm of the government for punishing people for disagreeing with you."

In April, the state human rights commission found that Elane Photography was guilty of discrimination and must pay the Willock's more than $6,600 attorneys' fee bill.

Hagerty speaks with legal experts who predict gays will easily win future battles between religious rights and gay rights.

It's a really good story, complete with a lengthy sidebar detailing how same-sex couples are successfully challenging policies of parochial schools, parachurch organizations and Christian business owners. There's also an interactive map of the United States showing different laws by states.

The story covers a ton of ground, which only highlights the need formuch more coverage on each of the individual stories and legal battles she mentioned. It also highlights how horribly the media have reported the legal and religious ramifications of the California State Supreme Court ruling.

The other story I wanted to highlight as a good example was written by Anne Krueger and Angela Lau of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The reporters simply surveyed religious leaders throughout the area about the same-sex issue. It's packed full of context and it really does a good job of presenting the information fairly, showing that some clergy and parishioners view same-sex marriage as a fundamental right while others view it as an unholy union.

The first mention goes to the Unitarian Universalists, but it's followed immediately by an evangelical megachurch. Others weigh in:

freeexercise

The Roman Catholic Church is absolute on the issue. The sacrament of matrimony requires one man and one woman. Holding to that belief, the Rev. James Rafferty of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Chula Vista will not perform weddings for gay couples.

"The bottom line of the church is the building up of relationships between spouses and the begetting and rearing of children," Rafferty said after morning Mass yesterday. "The second one cannot take place between same-gender couples."

The San Diego Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in Hillcrest has compiled a list of more than two dozen clergy willing to perform weddings for gay and lesbian couples.

John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister who heads a nonprofit social justice organization in San Diego, joined that list even though his denomination's governing body does not sanction same-sex marriage.

I really appreciated how the reporters noted whether local clergy were obeying or disobeying their denominational policies and why. The reporters also contrasted teachings within Judiasm and Lutheranism.

Here's how they ended the piece:

In his May 17 statement, [Bishop James Mathes of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego] reminded his followers that faith also can be about accepting that people won't always agree.

"I ask all people of the diocese to hold the court's decision gently," Mathes wrote. "Prayerfully remember that God has placed his children, who share different perspectives on same-sex relationships, next to each other in church every Sunday."

This story reads like the reporters understood that very thing as they prepared this story. Considering how one-sided much of the coverage has been, it's a welcome change.

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