In battle of gay rights vs. individual conscience in Missouri, here's a surprising winner

When it comes to political fights pitting gay rights vs. religious freedom, so much mainstream media coverage skews one way.

It's not terribly difficult to guess which way (here at GetReligion, editor Terry Mattingly even coined a special term for it).

This USA Today story this week is typical of the slanted (read: left-leaning) approach that many purportedly balanced news stories take concerning LGBT issues. In this piece, the gay-rights advocates are presented as rational and only concerned about fighting discrimination. The conservative religious types toting Bibles are depicted as "ugly" and "nasty." At least that's my impression after reading the national newspaper's take.

But hey, let's focus on the positive, not the negative, today and critique a solid, well-rounded news story from The Associated Press:

This piece benefits from three important "p" adjectives: Precise language. Proper framing. Purposeful balance.

Let's start at the top:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri voters, who were among the first nationally to adopt a constitutional ban on gay marriage, could get a say later this year on whether to grant greater religious protections to some business owners and individuals who object to same-sex marriage.
A proposed constitutional amendment that got its first hearing Tuesday in a Senate committee would prohibit government penalties against those who decline to provide goods or services "of expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex marriage ceremonies and celebrations.
The Missouri measure doesn't list specific types of business people who would be covered — though it comes as bakers, florists and photographers in other states have faced legal challenges for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings.

What do I mean by precise language? Here's what: So many of these types of stories lead with phrases indicating that religious opponents want to "deny services to same-sex couples." But this AP story makes clear that the issue involves "expressional or artistic creation" and "same-sex ceremonies and celebrations." That precision is extremely helpful.

Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, explained the subtle difference in an email I cited last year:

Buying generic products and basic services is not the same thing as asking someone to create artistic works or expression to promote or celebrate an event. The question on the table is not whether a person should be denied the former class of marketplace transactions (they shouldn’t be), but if the government should have the power to threaten citizens for choosing to not communicate a creative message or participate in an event that violates their conscience. A government that has the power to tell you what you can’t say is bad enough. A government that tells you what you must say in order to avoid ruin is terrifying. ...
The clients ADF represents have served all people over the years they have been in business. Of note, Barronelle Stutzman, the floral artist in Washington, served for many years and befriended the man who ultimately sued her for the mere act of giving him a list of other florists who would be willing to help him celebrate his ceremony. So the idea that she “refused service based on sexual orientation” is ludicrous. She referred Rob Ingersoll because she is conscience-bound to live her life and mind her business in a way that honors Biblical teaching on marriage. The First Amendment has always protected that freedom. The insistence that recently-enacted local laws and ordinances trump constitutionally-affirmed liberty is upside down. The First Amendment is the preeminent civil right law of our nation. The Johnny-come-lately local laws and ordinances must yield when they conflict with the precious promise of liberty America was founded to fulfill. For Barronelle, that promise hangs by a thread. Not only is she facing the loss of these freedoms, but she could lose her family business, her home, and her life savings.

Where does proper framing come in? That manifests itself in the way the AP writer allows a supporter to explain — in his own words — the purpose of the bill:

State Sen. Bob Onder said his measure isn't intended as a "blanket" exemption from serving gay and lesbian customers.
"It's really more a matter of people not being commandeered into — being forced into — participating in a ceremony that violates their religious beliefs," said Onder, a Republican from Lake St. Louis.

And purposeful balance?

Readers hear from an ACLU official opposed to the measure:

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed similar efforts elsewhere, said the Missouri measure would "prevent the equal treatment" of lesbian and gay people, bar local governments from enforcing their own policies and harm the economy.
"This isn't about religious beliefs," said Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Missouri. "This is about a personal, moral objection to something that has already been found constitutionally legal and a civil right by the United States Supreme Court."

But readers also hear from a Baptist attorney who makes the case that freedom of religion involves more than freedom of worship:

Several pastors and church leaders testified in support of the measure. Religious beliefs aren't only expressed during a worship service but are a way of life, said Michael Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who is general counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention.
"People should be able to practice what they preach and not be penalized by the government," he said.

The AP report is only 600 words — but it packs a lot of detail and context into a small amount of space.

Kudos to the journalist from the Show Me State who showed how quality journalism on gay rights vs. religious freedom can be done.

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