You won't believe this humdinger of an editor's note on AP religious liberty story

That title is not just clickbait.

You really won't believe the editor's note on an Associated Press report this week on Mississippi's new religious liberty law.

But before we get to that, let's review the story itself:

BRANDON, Miss. (AP) — On many Sundays, conservative Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant can be found in the sanctuary at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, almost always in his trademark suit and boots, often among those helping pass the offering plates.
In the same sanctuary — sometimes just a few wooden pews away — are Jan Smith and Donna Phillips, a same-sex couple who are also active in the suburban Jackson church and have a 9-year-old daughter named Hannah.
The couple has fought Mississippi's ban on gay adoptions while Bryant has opposed same-sex marriage and recently signed a bill allowing government workers, religious groups and some private businesses to cite deeply held religious beliefs to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
"Trust me — the dichotomy of Phil Bryant and Jan and Donna sitting in the same sanctuary isn't lost on anyone," said Ann Pittman, who has been going to St. Mark's for 27 years. "As for me, I'm of the opinion that what two grown folks do on their own time is none of my business."
The juxtaposition of beliefs at this church in the Deep South is a window into a debate in much of the U.S. that sometimes puts friends, neighbors and even fellow church members at odds. At St. Mark's, members say the conversation is usually cordial, even if there are some uncomfortable moments at a church that has roughly 1,200 members.

Now, the story uses the familiar media framing that the law is about "denying services" to LGBT people.

That framing favors the law's opponents, whereas supporters say Mississippi's "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" simply protects residents from being forced to violate their own conscience:

In her guest commentary for Religion News Service, the Heritage Foundation's Jennifer A. Marshall describes how the law protects individual religious freedom:

While bakers, a photographer, and a florist in other states have faced massive fines, creative professionals in wedding-related businesses in Mississippi cannot be coerced to use their talents to celebrate same-sex weddings.

And in an email to GetReligion, here's how Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, responds to the "deny services" storyline:

That framing is prevarication.
(The Mississippi law) protects wedding-related businesses from being forced to participate in any wedding ceremonies that violate what their faith teaches about marriage.
It is not the identity of the people but the nature of the expression they are asking someone to participate in.

That claim is in the same journo-prop malfeasance category as scare-quoting "religious freedom."

Ah, "religious freedom" scare quotes. But I digress again.

Anyway, back to the AP story: The caveat concerning framing aside, it's actually a fascinating angle. The reporter interviews the pastor, the same-same couple and a few church members (although no supporters of the law), while the governor declines through a spokesman to comment. The piece provides some helpful context on where the United Methodist Church stands on gay and lesbian members and same-sex marriage.

But then at the end, the reporter allows Pittman — the member up high — to comment again based on the tilted framing already discussed:

"I've never understood people getting so bent out of shape about what someone else does that doesn't affect him," Pittman said. "It's not my place to say 'You are wrong. You are going to hell.' That's up to God.
"I love Jan and Donna to death."

OK, that's one side of the story.

I wonder if wedding professionals in other states — whom the government has told to violate their conscience or lose their businesses — would agree that "what someone else doesn't affect" them.

That's the other side of the story. But this AP report neglects to tell it.

But I've buried the lede long enough. Here's the editor's note at the end:

Editor's Note: (The AP reporter) is also a member at St. Mark's United Methodist.

Wait, what!?

Did the journalist interview fellow churchgoers after the Sunday assembly? Is the writer friends with any of those quoted? Has he expressed a personal preference on the law to anyone in the pews? Will it be awkward when the governor passes him the collection plate next Sunday?

Give the AP credit for disclosing the conflict of interest, but does a reporter writing such a story about his own church raise any ethical questions? Any at all?

I'm just asking. I'd love to know what you think, kind readers and Godbeat pros.

By all means, tweet us at @GetReligion or comment below. As always, we ask that you focus on the journalism issue, not your opinion of same-sex marriage or Mississippi's new law.

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