Indianapolis Star tries to listen, but misses BIG question: What was the florist really saying?

So the First Amendment battles in Indiana roll on.

Apparently, someone at the Indianapolis Star decided that it was time to listen to one or two people on the pro-religious liberty side of this debate, allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. The symbolic hook for this news story was the town of Goshen, a small community containing a number of plot lines.

However, before we get to one of the key voices in this piece -- florist Sally Stutsman -- let's look at one or two crucial pieces of framing material. As always, it is crucial who gets to define the terms of the debate and who, well, gets to use the scare quotes. Another key player is a conservative activist named Eric Miller of Advance America, who at a crucial point in the story declined to be interviewed. Now, read the following carefully:

Advocates are gearing up to push for statewide inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes -- what they see as a next step in the LGBT rights fight -- to ensure those characteristics cannot be reasons for firing people from their jobs, denying housing or education opportunities, or refusing services.
Others, including Miller, contend that would give LGBT Hoosiers “special rights” at the expense of the devoutly religious who oppose same-sex marriages.

Ah, "special rights." What might that term mean? Truth be told, we don't know what the term means in this case because the Star team did not ask anyone on the moral and cultural right to define it. We just know, because of the scare quotes, that this is a bad thing.

In my experience, the term "special rights" is usually used by conservatives to say that they do not believe that homosexuality is the same as race, gender, age, disability or religion, defining characteristics that have always defined protected, or "special," classes of citizens. In other words, these citizens have rights as individuals and then they have unique rights as members of this defined, protected class.

Even in these cases, courts have given organizations some leeway. No one has sued the New York Yankees, so far, for discrimination against female pitchers. Catholic churches and Orthodox synagogues have male clergy. There are female-only softball teams.

However, when the Star editors added those scare quotes to "special rights," yet then declined to define the term, did they notice that they had just stated that LGBT activists were, in fact, now seeking the "statewide inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes"? Note to Star editors for future stories: Someone needs to talk to African-American church leaders about this issue. At this point, Justice Anthony Kennedy has not openly granted sexual orientation the same unique, protected status as race.

So back to the heart of this story -- Goshen. What is happening there?

Left in the middle is the small, conflicted town of Goshen -- population 32,000, described by many as a purple spot in a red county and mired in the tug of culture wars.
Behind the flare of politics, this is a place where some, including the Mennonite institution of Goshen College, grapple with this gay rights issue in a quieter kind of way, stuck between both believing all people should be treated equally and yet holding steadfast to Bible teachings that homosexuality is a sin.

Let's pause again for a familiar question: Does anyone in a pew or pulpit in Goshen argue that "homosexuality is a sin" or are they actually arguing that sexual acts outside of traditional marriage are sinful? That is a crucial point of distinction, especially in the debates at Goshen College.

Now, it's time to listen to the florist:

Look in the window of Goshen Floral and Gift Shop ... where there is no sticker, no declaration that the business will welcome everyone. The shop owner, 61-year-old Sally Stutsman, describes herself as a strong, faithful Christian, and in some ways, she’s torn.
Not about same-sex marriage -- she opposes that, listens to her pastor at the First United Methodist Church preach against it.
“In my opinion, it’s not right. I know how I feel about things,” she said. “But that’s between them and God, not between them and me.”
When women have come in to send flowers to other women, or men send flowers to other men, Stutsman said it makes her uncomfortable. But she still makes the sale.
“I’m not going to seek that business,” she said. “But if someone walks in, I’m not going to turn them away.”

OK, it is clear that Stutsman does not want to discriminate against gays and lesbians as a class of people. She is not advocating a blanket right to discriminate against a class.

This raises another crucial question for journalists, worthy of coverage: Has any business person, anywhere, (as opposed to leaders of a doctrinally defined religious ministry) requested a right to discriminate against gays and lesbians as a class? Yes, I know that the trans issue is different and raises another level of complications for some.

So what is Stutsman saying? Later in the story she makes a second appearance. This is long, but crucial. The Star team is trying to listen to her:

In the floral shop on Lincoln Highway, Sally Stutsman has thought a lot about this possible scenario: What if two brides came in wanting wedding flowers? Or two grooms?
There’s another florist down the road who says she has happily made wedding arrangements for same-sex couples. But Stutsman said she doesn’t know how she would handle it.
In her shop, a tapestry hangs stitched with the words to Amazing Grace, near a shelf filled with little angel statutes to send with flowers as keepsakes. She doesn’t tell people this, but Stutsman prays as she puts flowers together. She takes it personally, especially if it’s people she knows -- and in Goshen, she said, everyone knows everyone. ...
Stutsman said she thinks it’s her legal right as a business owner to turn away a customer. She doesn’t want to sound wishy-washy, but she’s torn over whether she would be able to sell flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
“It’s a real struggle as a Christian,” she said, “to be accepting of everybody, but not approve. You want to be loving and accepting. But I still have very strong feelings against it.”

There is the crucial question again and it appears that the Star editors heard what this florist said, but did not grasp its significance in the history of debates about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation with its roots in First Amendment liberalism.


"Stutsman said she thinks it’s her legal right as a business owner to turn away a customer."

Is that what she said? Or did she say that she will not discriminate against gays and lesbians as a class, yet does want the right to discriminate in one narrow, doctrinally defined case -- when she is asked to contribute her skills and prayers to a same-sex marriage rite that violates her beliefs as a traditional Christian? Again: What did she actually say?

Think back over the history of RFRA. Did Native Americans seek the right to use peyote or the right to use peyote in specific rites that had existed in their faith for centuries? That's a crucial distinction to recognize and to allow people to debate. Once again, journalists do not have to AGREE WITH that point of law, but it is urgent that they know that it exists. This is THE issue in discussions of conscientious objection to acts of state power.

Once again, let me ask editors and reporters to consider looking at this issue in the mirror, flipping this doctrinal and legal debate around. As stated in an earlier post:

So let's say that there is a businessman in Indianapolis who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.
Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.
Whose religious rights are being violated? Can both sides find a way to show tolerance?
This is, of course, a highly specific parable -- full of the unique details that tend to show up in church-state law and, often, in cases linked to laws built on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) language. It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.

Again, is this gay Episcopalian saying, to quote the Star, that he believes he has a "legal right as a business owner to turn away a customer"? Or is his request more complex than that?

So it is with Stutsman and others in Indiana. Are they being quoted accurately?

IMAGE: Free rainbow flowers clip art from 7-Themes.

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