Religious liberty war moves to Louisiana, with press still struggling with basic facts

In case you haven't noticed the tidal wave of ink, there is no sign that the Indiana wars -- with outbreaks of fighting in Georgia and Arkansas -- will end anytime soon. The next front line will be in Louisiana, in large part because that's the home base for another possible GOP presidential candidate. Why focus on the First Amendment debates when there are political horse races to consider?

Let's flash back for a moment to my recent post that ran under the headline, "No thanks for the Memories story: Journalism basics at stake in Indiana pizza war."

In it, I gently praised a Reuters report for noting that -- for supporters of Religious Freedom Restoration Act principles -- there is a difference between justifying open discrimination against a class of individuals and allowing religious believers a chance (repeat, a chance) to defend themselves in cases caused by a rare act of conscience clearly linked to religious doctrines in their faith traditions.

That Reuters report began like this:

(Reuters) A small-town, family-owned pizza restaurant in Indiana has aroused social media outrage after telling a local TV station it would support the state’s recently passed religion law by refusing to cater gay weddings.

Once again, the Memories Pizza owners had stressed that they had no intention of ever refusing service to gays and lesbians who ordered pizza. Instead, they said that -- for doctrinal reasons -- they would say "no" if faced if faced with a case (theoretical, of course, since this had never taken place) in which someone asked them to cater a dinner linked to a same-sex marriage rite. People serve pizza at wedding receptions all the time, apparently.

Once again let me stress: Journalists do not have to agree with this distinction between the justification of consistent discriminatory actions and the possible defense of rare acts of religious conscience.

However, journalists do need to know that this argument is a crucial element of these debates and know how to accurate describe this distinction for readers. To look back in RFRA history: Believing that Native Americans may be able to justify the use of peyote in sacred ceremonies is not the same thing as arguing for the legalization of peyote.

So, as I said, the RFRA battle has moved on to Louisiana, home of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Here is the crucial section of this report, in terms of the journalism issue I am discussing here:

... Louisiana's debate could be different in one significant way.
Whereas Indiana and Arkansas had versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which included broad language that critics have said could have unintended consequences, Louisiana's Marriage and Conscience Act is more focused and deals specifically with religious beliefs in relation to same-sex marriage.
Polling suggests that could -- emphasis on could -- be more popular and more difficult for opponents to beat back. Critics can't as easily point to the possibility of the vague language leading to unintended discrimination, and polling shows half or more of voters support exempting religious businesses from serving gay weddings. A March 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll found only 28 percent believe businesses should be able to refuse service to gay and lesbian people in general because of religious belief, but a January AP-GfK poll found 57 percent believe that wedding-related businesses should be able to refuse service. (A later Pew poll put it at 47 percent.)

Yes, and there was also a Marist Poll in which 65 percent of those polled opposed "penalties or fines for individuals who refuse to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples" when the refusal is based on religious doctrines. Meanwhile, 31 percent supported or strongly supported penalties in these cases.

The Post report, as it should, features commentary from gay-rights activists on the possible impact of this law.

However, GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that it does not contain any response or commentary from supporters of this basic RFRA line between consistent discrimination and rare acts of religious conscience.

What struck me in the Post story -- after the passage cited above -- was a statement, without attribution, that the Louisiana bill "would allow private businesses to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage and not provide the same benefits to same-sex married couples." 

What does that mean, precisely? It would help, at that point, to have talked to a supporter of the bill for an explanation. It could mean, of course, that the state of Louisiana -- in this pause before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy settles the issue -- does not yet recognize same-sex marriages. But it also sounds like it would be acceptable, let's say, to refuse to sell pizza to a same-sex couple that walked in the door wearing wedding rings.

What does the law actually say? Readers are not offered a chance to hear from authoritative voices on both sides of that issue. Trust me, there are plenty of pro-RFRA voices -- on the left and the right -- who would have been able to speak for the other side of this debate.

Why not talk to experts on both sides? Isn't that the basic, journalistic approach? Why not treat both sides of this issue with respect? Or is this another one of those Post "reported opinion" features that are becoming the norm, these days?

Just asking.

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