Progress in WPost gay-marriage package

It's been 12 months since the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage, so it's no surprise that the Washington Post marked the anniversary with some bonus coverage of the issue. When I say "bonus coverage," I mean that the editors published even more stories on gay rights than normally appear in a daily edition of the newspaper. The surprise, in this case, is that the Metro-page package of news reports was intentionally framed in a way that allowed partisans on both sides of the issue almost equal space to share their points of view.

This was an attempt at what, in the classroom, I call "visual fairness," with stories lined up side by side representing news developments on both sides of the issue. With the anniversary hook, the pro-gay-marriage camp got the nod when it came to selecting the large, emotional color photo that topped the package. The gay-rights piece focused on a fascinating and solid hard-news hook:

An unusual thing happened on the way to the altar in the District over the past 12 months.

At least as many same-sex couples as heterosexual couples -- and possibly more -- appear to have applied for marriage licenses since gay marriage was legalized in the city last March. The total number of applications more than doubled since the first same-sex couples lined up to get their licenses, from about 3,100 in the previous year to 6,600 during the past 12 months, said Leah H. Gurowitz, spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court, which issues the licenses.

Although the court does not differentiate between same-sex and heterosexual couples in its record-keeping, in previous years the number of applications varied by only 100 or less. So virtually all the increase is due to same-sex couples, Gurowitz said. Not everyone who got a marriage license lived in the District. Many couples came from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and other states farther afield.

Right next to this story was an update on the same-sex marriage wars in Maryland, which in large part will pivot on the votes of African-American politicians from Prince George's County. I should state right up front that one of the authors of this piece is veteran Post reporter and videographer Hamil Harris, a long-time friend with whom I have shared more than a few podiums in journalism classrooms.

What's the religion hook? The story focuses on a coalition of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders that is strongly opposing the bill to legalize same-sex marriage. And, as the story bluntly and accurately states:

Prince George's, the nation's most affluent and best-educated majority-black jurisdiction, is home to some of the largest and most influential churches in the nation.

The vast majority of the story focuses on the voices of these religious leaders, with some additional background material on the content of the bill itself and arguments used by the political camps on both sides. I am sure that many Post readers were stunned by the bluntness of the quotations from some of these prominent black pastors. Here is a sample:

Bishop Paul Wells of New Revival Kingdom Church of Capitol Heights said he welcomes all, regardless of ethnic origin, education, income level or sexuality. But his message is clear: Anything they are doing that conflicts with the Bible needs to stop.

"The Bible says [homosexuality] is an abomination before God," he said. "God created the institution of marriage and made marriage between a man and a woman. People ask me all the time, 'Would you marry a gay couple?' Absolutely not. I make that perfectly clear. ... I welcome those who are homosexual into the church the same way I welcome liars and fornicators. But the expectation is that the word of God will change them once they get in. ... God gave us free will, and so you are either against God's word or for God's word. There is no in between."

I terms of journalism, I do have one major concern with this report -- it contains at least one major error of omission, as opposed to commission. The problem is in this background material:

The bill contains language making clear that religious organizations are not required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations. Supporters argue that other people's religious beliefs shouldn't prevent them from being married in the eyes of the government.

The problem is that anyone who has been following the church-state debates about gay marriage knows that it is a red herring to talk about "religious organizations" being "required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations."

Other than a few extremists on the far right, the only people who are eager to discuss that issue are gay-rights supporters who insist that churches, synagogues and mosques and the believers who worship in them will not be affected by the legislation. However, this simplistic language has become part of background paragraphs in almost all Post coverage of this sprawling and complex issue.

A new report in the Baltimore Sun is much closer to the mark, since it includes materials describing the actual amendments that are being proposed -- and defeated -- to the pending legislation in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Once again, African-American Democrats are in the spotlight, in large part due to the views of their constituents -- bluntly described, in one passage, as a large "base of churchgoing African-Americans." At the moment, the ultimate outcome of the bill is too close to call.

However, the left -- with support from the religious left -- has managed to defeat a number of amendments, the content of which reveal the actual concerns being voiced by clergy and parents in doctrinally conservative religious groups. Readers will note the echoes of trends on the ground in Boston and in Washington, D.C.

The first would have allowed church groups and others that provide adoption services and foster care to turn away same-sex couples without fear of legal action. Supporters of the bill argued that current laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation clearly spell out what such groups may and may not do.

Another amendment would have allowed parents and teachers who do not support homosexual relationships to opt out of any curriculum on the topic. Bill supporters said that, too, is covered by current laws and regulations.

I know that these religious-liberty issues are not easy to cover in a few sentences. However, it does little good to keep writing stories stating that apples are protected in the bill, when the arguments that matter are about the legal status of oranges. Once again, reporters should listen to religious leaders and church-state activists on both sides of this hot-button topic.

Still, the coverage approach used by the Post in this case is a step forward, if the journalistic goal is allowing voices on both sides of the issue to be heard.

By the way, it goes without saying that your comments should address the journalism issues in these stories -- not the actual issue of same-sex marriage.

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