Shutting 'you' up again: On religious freedom, Florida Politics team ignores key voices

They're talking about "you" again.

They, as in "mainstream media." You, as in "person who takes your faith seriously."

When church meets state these days -- as with a pastor protection bill in the Florida legislature -- newsmen want to talk about what others think about you. But too often, they don’t want to talk to you.

The above story, in Florida Politics, deals with a bill that would shield clergy from performing gay weddings. Efforts to pass such bills is a trend in several states since the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. The publication sets a pro-con stage:

The Florida House voted 82-37 to approve a bill that allows members of the clergy to refuse to perform gay marriages.
The passage came after more than an hour of passionate debate. Opponents questioned why the bill (HB 43) was needed, with some calling it an insult to the state’s gay community.
"This bill is about discriminating in the name of religion, sadly," said Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Florida House. "It is an insult to the gay community."

The story does, of course, include quotes from politicians who support the bill because politics is important. Politics is real.

Rep. Scott Plakon, the Longwood Republican sponsoring the measure, said the measure offers protections to "pastors ... that have concerns" about gay marriage. The proposal protects clergy, churches and religious organizations and their employees from civil action for refusing to perform gay marriages.
"This is an important issue," said Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican. "We just want to make sure with this bill that no one’s religious beliefs are going to be violated by refusing to officiate at a civil ceremony. We respect the Supreme Court, but we also respect our citizens’ rights to exercise (their First Amendment rights). This is in the tradition of our Legislature."

Another Florida Politics story reports the measure passing the state senate as well.  The bill is now bound for Gov. Rick Scott, to sign it or not.

The two stories go on like that a lot, batting back and forth among legislators on both sides.

Here is the key point: Only one non-governmental body is allowed a hearing in the stories: the pro-LGBT group Equality Florida, which originally opposed the bill but now pronounces itself neutral. There are no think tanks and legal experts on the other side of this debate?

And have you noticed who isn’t quoted here? Pastors. You know, the ones in the title of the bill. Would they perhaps have some viewpoints on the matter?

All we get in the House article is this lone sentence: "Many ministers from older, mainline religious organizations opposed the bill; while smaller evangelical groups came out in support of it." (The Senate story says much the same.)

Which denominations are those? What do they say? Notice also that evangelical groups are tagged as "smaller," letting us think the mainliners represent the religious consensus. Seriously? In Florida the world of older, mainline Protestant churches are larger than the world of nondenominational Protestant, Pentecostal and Baptist churches? #Seriously?

That crucial sentence was apparently lifted from Florida Politics' Feb. 4 scan of some clergy voices.  There, we read: "A long line of ministers spoke about the bill, with those from older mainline religions opposing it and many from smaller evangelical churches strongly in support."

At least that story quotes some actual minister-type humans, though the featured quotes sound mismatched:

The Rev. Brant Copeland of Tallahassee’s First Presbyterian Church called the bill a "form of bearing false witness against one’s neighbor," saying it wrongly painted the gay community as "out to get" people of faith.
On the other side, Gilberto Rodriguez, who leads the Temple Elijah Center of Power, Authority and Dominion in Lutz, told lawmakers that even though he has two gay siblings he loves, "someday they will die and will have to decide where they want to spend eternity."

One pastor is on topic, while the other just talks religion. Surely the writer could have found a decent, on-topic "nay" in that long line of ministers?

And I wonder if a pastor from the Southern Baptist Convention -- at 915,000 members, the largest Protestant body in Florida -- was invited to give his views? Because Bill Bunkley, president of the Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, doesn't sound too approving.

As quoted in the Florida Baptist Witness, Bunkley wants the state to protect not only churches but "faith-based organizations participating in the delivery of state social services and small family-operated businesses who incorporate their faith-based principals in their business model."

But neither story says why Equality Florida withdrew its opposition to this bill. For that, you'll have to read a third piece, which wasn't linked from this one. Carlos Guillermo Smith of the group says the bill sponsors have promised not to expand it in ways that will legalize discrimination.

The react story has similar cautious approval from Shannon Minter, from the National Center for Lesbian Rights. And here's something the previous story didn’t hint at: a thumbs-up by the Anti-Defamation League Florida chapter. Hava Holzhauer, Florida regional director, echoes Smith's optimism. She adds, though, that the ADL regards the Constitution’s religious freedom protections as an adequate shield.

That's the only quote I saw in either story, from someone besides the bill backers, that shows any concern for religious freedom. In fact, if you look through the archives, most of Florida Politics' coverage has been either irate or dismissive -- calling it the "Contentious 'Pastor Protection' Act," or "so-called Pastor Protection Act." And more often than not, "Pastor Protection" is set in sarcasm quotes.

Maybe they'd sound less cynical about pastors if they talked to a few?

Yes, I rant about the topic often, as I did in February and in November and back in April.

Why? Because I can't imagine how otherwise professional reporters and editors think their job is done by collecting opinions about religious people, but not from them.

Maybe it's just that secular media like Florida Politics see religion as marginal to their beat and their readership? Fine. You don’t have to know everything about everything. Just talk to people who do know about it. And I shouldn't have to add: When reporting on a bill, report the reactions of people it will affect.

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