Georgia religious liberty follow-up: News media pros finally quote religious people

Georgia has religious people! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution finally remembered!

But don’t pop the bubbly just yet. The newspaper saw the light mainly after the much-contested religious rights bill was vetoed on Monday. And even then, religious and social conservatives got precious little space in an article supposedly focusing on them.

AJC's story is one of several follow-ups in mainstream media, on the next moves by advocates of the law and similar ones in other states. We'll see how it stacks up against the others.

Here is how Georgia's largest newspaper covered a press conference by several of the groups:

A coalition of conservative and religious groups in Georgia on Tuesday blasted Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of a "religious liberty" bill this week, saying he had turned his back on the state’s faith community.
"What this says to me is Gov. Deal is out of touch with the people of this state," said Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who was joined with leaders of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and a half dozen other organizations at a Capitol news conference.
Lawmakers, Ditty said, "are not elected to represent Hollywood values or Wall Street values. The voters are tired of political correctness."

Sounds decent until you notice a few things. First are those well-worn sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty," a signal that you're supposed to doubt its legitimacy. Second, the entire story takes less than 300 words. The stories on protests by business and sports executives were several times that long.

Also, more than half of this article has background to the debate, as well as a rebuttal from the governor. That's a mere eight-paragraph story, with three paragraphs for the conservative side.

You can read more balanced and detailed reporting from the Associated Press. Yes, it still tosses off the pejorative "religious freedom" phrase, but it specifies Gov. Deal's religion (Baptist). It also quotes an actual pastor, Garland Hunt of The Father's House in Norcross, Georgia: "There was an economic threat that was put on Georgia by Disney, the NFL and any other person in Hollywood. Because of economics, he faltered."

For balance, AP turns to Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, "the state's largest gay-rights advocacy group." Notice, though, that AP didn’t feel the need to add quotes around "gay rights advocacy group." See how that looks? localizes the matter with Kayla Moore. You may remember the last name: Her husband, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, made waves years ago by unsuccessfully fighting to put a monument to the Ten Commandments on public property. Mrs. Moore has her own activist group, the Foundation for Moral Law, and she pretty much fumed over the Georgia veto:

"It is bad enough that these corporations have put their weight behind same-sex marriage. But when Georgia's governor caves to the radical gay agenda by vetoing a bill that does nothing more than protect the religious freedom of those who have sincere religious objections to same-sex marriage, we must ask whose interests he truly represents: the people of Georgia or those of the corporations who showed themselves as enemies of religious freedom and traditional values."

The Washington Post appraises the state of the Republican Party, with religious liberty laws as the lens. The Post says a historic alliance is breaking up over social issues, blaming Donald Trump for fanning the flames:

Trump’s rise has muddied the ideological waters for the camps that have long made up the bulk of the GOP coalition — the three-legged stool built by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s consisting of fiscal conservatives, national security hawks and social conservatives. He has railed against free-trade deals backed by big business and blasted an interventionist foreign policy embraced by GOP hawks.
But the state-level battles between businesses and evangelicals demonstrate that the Republican Party’s troubles go beyond the concerns over Trump — pointing to a potentially irreconcilable divide between core elements of the GOP base.

The Post adroitly digests into one paragraph an explanation for evangelical ire. It even uses mostly even-handed terms:

The state fights gained momentum in response to deep anger among social conservatives over the Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize gay marriage nationwide. Evangelical activists began pushing measures they describe as promoting "religious liberty" — aimed at protecting people such as wedding cake bakers or photographers who object to same-sex marriage from being legally compelled to participate in ceremonies. But these protections are often written broadly, with critics arguing they allow discrimination against the LGBT community in other ways, such as in employment and providing charitable services.

I say mostly even-handed because of those sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty." It's a puzzling lapse: Five other times, the article mentions religious freedom and religious liberty without the markers.

One or two conservatives are even allowed colorful comments. "The devil has gone down to Georgia again, but this time it was in the form of big business and cowardly politicians," says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Adds Franklin Graham: "We can’t bow down to economic threats that risk the protection of our citizens and go against common sense and morality." But for a story pegged to the veto in Georgia, the piece would have done well to ask someone in that religious community.

And it's hardly an impossible dream, as you can see from the Los Angeles Times today. The Times presents a true inside-baseball view of religious conservatives on their place in society, and their treatment by professional politicians.

The Times reverses the proportion in other stories by giving the most space to two pastors, with backup from two state representatives. Major media don’t often add full-bodied, thoughtful quotes like this one by Baptist pastor Don Hattaway:

"We simply want to act out our faith," Hattaway said. "We don't want to harm anyone. We minister to people and we feed the hungry, and we don't ask what lifestyle people are living. But we also don't want people telling us to embrace a lifestyle that is clearly immoral and denounced in Scripture."
"A lot of people feel betrayed" by the veto, he said. "If a Republican governor, put in office by people who are conservative, Bible-believing Christians, can't stand boldly and protect our basic liberties, I think we are all threatened."

Fellow Baptist pastor Mike Stone adds resentment at "politicians treating the church as a mistress. They come round every two years when they need an itch scratched, but they're not willing to make a long-term commitment."

Only one blemish mars this story, and you can probably guess it: the sarcasm quotes around "Georgia's 'religious liberty' bill." That said, the Los Angeles Times stands far above the competition with this searching, sensitive story.

And if it can accomplish that from the West Coast, what could more local newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have done?

Thumbnail photo: Georgia state capitol, via Shutterstock.

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