Religious freedom vs. gay discrimination in Arizona

Here we go again.

In Arizona, a religious freedom bill has riled gay rights supporters, as The Associated Press puts it. Or, as a Los Angeles Times headline describes it, gay rights activists are in an uproar over the "religious freedom" (scare quotes courtesy of the Times) measure headed to Gov. Jan Brewer.

In Phoenix, readers of The Arizona Republic woke up to this banner front-page headline this morning:

Religion bill OK'd, on way to Brewer

The subhead:

Measure pits freedom against discrimination

The Republic's big type certainly plays the story down the middle, avoiding the seeming bias of some national media reports.

But what about the local newspaper's story itself?

Let's start at the top:

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.

House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.

The bill, which was introduced last month and has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage. Discussion of the bill went viral on social media during the House floor debate Thursday.

Opponents have dubbed it the "right to discriminate" bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

So, the bill is controversial. It's conservative. It's concerning to gay rights advocates.

Is it just me, or does the Republic story — unlike the headline and subhead — seem tilted up high?

In the fifth paragraph, the Phoenix newspaper finally gets around to explaining the position of the supporters:

Proponents argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.

After that rough start, however, the Republic actually does an excellent job of highlighting the debate — pro and con — on the bill:

Proponents say the bill would, for example, protect a wedding photographer who declined to take photos of a same-sex couple's commitment ceremony due to the photographer's religious beliefs.

"We are trying to protect people's religious liberties," said Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park. "We don't want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if you are a small-business owner."

But opponents say it could also protect a corporation that refused to hire anyone who wasn't Christian and could block members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community from access to nearly any business or service.

"The message that's interpreted is: 'We want you to work here, but we are not going to go out of our way to protect you, to protect your rights, to protect your family,' " said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix. "God forbid should someone come to the Super Bowl and come to a restaurant that is not going to allow them in."

Moreover, the paper presents specific details on the legislation and provides relevant context on similar discussions nationwide (such as those previously highlighted by GetReligion in Oregon and Kansas).

Journalistic balance doesn't necessarily equate to quoting an equal number of supporters and opponents, but it often does. In this case, the Republic does just that: Readers hear directly from four lawmakers who supported the bill and four who did not, along with a Center for Arizona Policy legal counsel who touts the bill and an American Civil Liberties Union program director skeptical of it.

By my rough count, the Republic had 227 words of direct quotes from proponents and 220 words of direct quotes from opponents. That's pretty even, right?

Stay tuned for more coverage as the bill makes its way to the governor's desk.

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