Lo! A Washington Post scribe gets the religious-liberty angle in the Supreme Court story

Well this is awkward.

Going into the coverage of the great U.S. Supreme Court debate on same-sex marriage, I knew that most of the coverage would -- for valid reasons -- focus on the strictly legal, political and social elements of this major story.

I knew everyone would -- for valid reasons -- focus on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the leader of our nation when push comes to shove. Duh. I knew that religion would play little or no role in most of the mainstream coverage, since concerns about "religious liberty" (with scare quotes) and related First Amendment concerns are now "conservative news."

So I went into this with a simple task in mind. I wanted to know if anyone in the mainstream media recognized the ultimate church-state end game, which, if sexual orientation equals race, would include calls on the cultural left for doctrinally conservative religious institutions (especially schools, social-service agencies and parachurch ministries) to be stripped of their tax exemptions. The key: Search for "Bob Jones University" in the coverage.

As expected, the religious-liberty angle was covered in many alternative, "conservative" news reports (such as this, this and this). As expected, elite newsrooms didn't explore that angle in their main stories, since old-school First Amendment liberalism has suddenly become a "conservative" thing.

But lo and behold, one story in The Washington Post focused in, tight, on this angle that is of great interest to millions of Americans in doctrinally conservative churches, synagogues, mosques and their related ministries. So what's the problem here at GetReligion? The byline on that story belongs to former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, whose work, for obvious reasons, we rarely push or critique. Like I said -- awkward. So where did she start?

The Supreme Court Tuesday considered whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, raising questions about how it would affect religious institutions.
During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito compared the case to that of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university in South Carolina. The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 the school was not entitled to a tax-exempt status if it barred interracial marriage.
Here is an exchange between Alito and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., arguing for the same-sex couples on behalf of the Obama administration.
Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.
So would the same apply to a 10 university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?
General Verrilli:  You know, ­­I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is­­ it is going to be an issue.

Later on, there was another wrinkle linked to the free exercise of religious convictions by doctrinally conservative religious institutions:

Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “Would a religious school that has married housing be required to afford such housing to same-­sex couples?”
Verrilli said that individual states could strike different balances because there there is no federal law now generally banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether purely religious reasons to oppose same-sex marriage were sufficient. John Bursch, who argued for state bans against same-sex marriage, replied that he is not arguing on the religious grounds.

Of course, a key issue in this case is the status of state laws linked to same-sex marriage, should the high court proclaim a CONSTITUTIONAL right to same-sex marriage. In other words, stay tuned.

In the actual Washington Post mainbar on this event -- the ink-on-paper news -- questions linked to religion and faith received little or no attention, as was the norm in mainstream news as a rule. This is fascinating since -- think Indiana -- questions linked to religious doctrine and practice keep leaping into the headlines when the practical effects of same-sex marriage reach the level of, well, local pizza parlors.

The Post mainbar did note this (but read carefully):

Justice Antonin Scalia said that if the decisions on marriage continue to be made democratically by the states, those states could make religious accommodations that would not be possible if there was a decision that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.
“Is it conceivable that a minister who is authorized by the state to conduct marriage can decline to marry two men if indeed this court holds that they have a constitutional right to marry?” he asked.
Bonauto said it was well established that clergy are not forced to perform actions that violate their religious beliefs.

But journalists need to know that, in terms of religion news, that isn't the crucial issue. The New York Times mainbar fell into the same logical trap (the one avoided by Bailey in her digital sidebar at the Post). Here's the Times religion material:

Justices Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. were more consistent in opposing a constitutional right to such unions.
Justice Scalia said a ruling for same-sex marriage might require some members of the clergy to perform ceremonies that violate their religious teaching, a notion that Ms. Bonauto rejected.
Justice Alito asked whether groups of four people must be allowed to marry. “And let’s say they’re all consenting adults, highly educated,” he said, and then added, to laughter, “They’re all lawyers.”
Ms. Bonauto responded that marriage is about the mutual commitment of two people.
The proceedings were calm but for a brief interruption by a protester. “You can burn in hell,” he yelled from the rear of the courtroom. “It’s an abomination of God.”
Courtroom security officers promptly dragged him from the room. Justice Scalia did not seem bothered by the disturbance. “Rather refreshing, actually,” he said.

As with the fights over the Health and Human Services mandate, the church-state danger zone falls in between the rights of institutions focusing on worship and work with members of a specific, doctrinally defined flock and the rights of doctrinally defined institutions that deal with the public -- such as schools, hospitals, social-work agencies, parachurch groups, etc.

The fight isn't about what happens in a local Catholic worship space, but what happens when the Little Sisters of the Poor reach out to the poor and needy, period. The fight isn't about what happens in Sunday school classrooms, but what happens in the dorms and programs of doctrinally defined religious colleges and universities.

Did anyone out there in GetReligion reader land find other MAINSTREAM news coverage that saw the religious-liberty angle in this major story?

Please leave us some URLs and, of course, focus your commentary on the journalism angles of this story, not your views of liberal and conservative believers involved in these debates. If you have non-journalistic venom to share, please go elsewhere.

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