Wow! Wall Street Journal demonstrates how to cover gay rights vs. religious liberty

When it comes to gay rights vs. religious liberty, framing is frequently an issue in mainstream news reports.

Too many journalists — unable to keep their personal worldviews to themselves — ditch impartiality for advocacy on this subject matter.

The funny thing is, unbiased reporting makes for much better reading. Right?

I mean, who doesn't enjoy a story with real-life nuance, conflict and intrigue? Enter The Wall Street Journal with a six-month update on the "Utah Compromise": 

Every morning for about the past year, Angie Rice woke up to go to work as a special-education teacher at Roy Elementary School near Salt Lake City, sat on the edge of her bed, and wept.

She then layered four men’s shirts and put on baggy cargo pants to hide her changing shape—and arrived for work in her old identity as a man named Art.

But this fall, because of a new Utah law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, Ms. Rice, who over the past four years had transitioned from a man to a woman, felt comfortable going to school as herself for the first time.

“That law saved my life,” said Ms. Rice, 53 years old.

In the same county as Ms. Rice’s school, Ricky Hatch, a clerk who opposes same-sex marriage, has been able to continue in his job without performing weddings. A provision in a companion law passed on the same day as the antidiscrimination measure lets him appoint others to perform weddings as “clerk designees”; all have agreed to perform same-sex weddings.

“I don’t want to discriminate as an elected official, but I also don’t want to violate my religious conscience, and this law allows me to do that,” said Mr. Hatch, 48.

Six months after the “Utah Compromise” antidiscrimination law took effect, both gay-rights activists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say the law helps preserve the rights of religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage while protecting LGBT people from discrimination. At the same time, new church policies last week barring young children of gay couples from church membership, and requiring disciplinary action for Mormons in same-sex marriages, illuminate the church’s complicated path in its “fairness for all” approach that attempts to separate its teaching from its politics.

In the first six paragraphs, Los Angeles-based Journal writer Tamara Audi (there's that byline again) introduces readers — in a sensitive manner — to a transgender teacher and a county clerk who opposes same-sex marriage. There's no snark here. Audi lets her sources speak for themselves, which is what good journalists do.

In the next paragraph, she provides a nut graf that puts the compromise into context and adds the new twist of last week's Mormon news concerning baptisms of gay couples' children. (In case you missed her post yesterday, GetReligion contributor Julia Duin found overall media coverage of that new development lacking.)

Keep reading, and the Journal makes clear that the compromise is not without complications. That's another thing that good journalists do: They report on the gray reality and don't attempt to make everything fit into preconceived black-and-white boxes:

Both sides of the debate say the law has shortcomings. LGBT activists, noting the law doesn’t prevent businesses from refusing service to LGBT residents, say it isn’t ideal for other states because of its broad religious exemptions. “You don’t just want to copy and paste our language onto other states,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, a gay-rights advocacy group. “What is a model for others is how we came to our legislation, which is opposing groups coming together and finding common ground.”

Some conservatives say the measure gives short shrift to religious convictions. “You don’t guarantee religious liberty by labeling standard religious belief as discriminatory, and then seek an exemption,” said Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, part of the Heritage Foundation think tank. As the Utah compromise is used to encourage other states and cities to adopt such laws, “more people will buy into the mindset that mainstream religious beliefs and moral convictions about human sexuality are discrimination.”

Eventually, the story arc goes full circle and returns to Hatch and Rice — the clerk and transgender teacher featured up high. Rather than make quick cameo appearances (as happens in many stories that lead with a real-person anecdote), both characters play central roles in the Journal report. And that makes for a fuller, more revealing story.

Go ahead and read the whole story, and speak up if you disagree. If you run into a paywall, Google the first paragraph, and see if you can access a free version. That usually works for me.

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