On California college bill controversy, media drift toward one-sided reporting

Nice to see that we GetReligionistas aren’t the only ones who notice. When the Religion News Service churned out a story on bigoted, LGBT-hating Christian colleges -- seemingly an emerging mainstream media theme days -- a Faithful Reader alerted us along with a complaint:

RNS can’t be bothered, it seems, to actually interview an opponent of this bill, choosing instead to quote from an article on a conservative website and a statement of a state representative.

But RNS isn't alone: Other responsible media, such as the Catholic-oriented Crux, are doing much the same from the religious side.

First, the RNS article. In writing up a bill crawling through the California legislature that would yank federal aid from schools seen as discriminating against gays, RNS reaches out for a single direct quote -- from a gay activist.  The opposition? A conservative blogger and a Republican state senator -- their remarks lifted from written statements.

RNS says the state bill would apply Title IX -- a federal regulation forbidding sexual discrimination in schools -- to religious as well as secular schools. If it becomes law, the California stricture may well have national impact, the article explains:

While the law is seen by some as an attempt to get California religious schools to comply with the state laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it could have national implications. Human Rights Watch, which calls the Title IX religious exemption "a license to discriminate," reports there are 56 schools nationwide that have requested such exemptions, including Wheaton College, Liberty University and George Fox University.
Forty-two California colleges qualify for Title IX religious exemptions, according to the National Center for Law & Policy, a California-based Christian legal defense group. At least seven have applied, including Biola University, Simpson University and William Jessup University.

Well, gee, who could object to that? Only religious groups that have believed for centuries that homosexuality is sinful, as well as the schools they’ve founded. Our regular readers likely see parallels with the recent bad p.r. against Gordon College, an evangelical school near Boston.

In 2015, the regional accreditation association pressured Gordon over its stand against homosexuality (though it renewed the accreditation anyway).  This year, a professor accused Gordon of bigotry in local media.  As our own Julia Duin said last month, most companies frown on public criticism by their employees.

RNS logs the opinions of conservative thinkers, plus liberal opponents:

"This threatens religious institutions ability to require that students attend daily or weekly chapel services, keep bathrooms and dormitories distinct according to sex, require students to complete theology classes, teach religious ideas in regular coursework, hold corporate prayer at events such as graduation, and so on," Holly Scheer wrote in The Federalist, a web-based magazine. "In other words, it threatens every practice that makes religious institutions distinct from secular institutions."
But state and local LGBT rights advocates support the bill.
"Prospective students have a right to know if a university they are considering attending discriminates against LGBT people," said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. "This bill would let any school seeking to skirt federal anti-discrimination protections know that its policies would be public, and that anyone discriminated against would have legal recourse."

It's a laudable attempt at point-counterpoint, but Scheer's quote doesn't address the bill itself. The bill says nothing about chapel time, corporate prayer or theology classes.  Was Scheer developing a slippery slope argument? RNS should have asked her.

Who did get RNS' direct attention? Rick Zbur, the gay activist. And he speaks more to the issue that SB 1146 addresses. But he isn’t asked to answer Scheer's concerns.

Oh yeah -- the article also quotes State Sen. John Moorlach, that Republican legislator. He says the bill "is a form of discrimination against religious liberty itself" -- a statement copied from his website. He adds that he's gotten emails, phone calls, letters and visits in recent weeks protesting SB 1146. How many? What have they said? Shouldn't we be told?

The article also reports a troubling clause in the bill, but doesn't explore it: "Only schools that prepare students for pastoral ministry would be allowed the religious exemption" under the California bill. That sounds like an echo of Obama's healthcare mandate in 2012, when the administration offered to exempt religious agencies that taught and served their members exclusively. Both come close to government defining religion. Again, RNS should have followed that down.

It's also curious that the version of the bill to which RNS linked appears to be an old one -- amended March 28. The version amended this past Wednesday adds a 300-word section, spelling out goals of the law: access to school admissions, religious practices, housing and bathrooms, all "regardless of the student’s sexual orientation or gender identity."

One of those additions is especially curious, saying the proposed California law "does not prevent an institution … from prohibiting the use of the institution’s real property for any purpose that is not consistent with the religious tenets of the organization."  What if the tenets include opposition to homosexuality? Another hanging question.

GR editor Terry Mattingly raised related questions today in his post on Mississippi's religious-objections bill, which a federal judge struck down last night. Tmatt notes that a USA Today story predominates in views of the Campaign for Southern Equality and other supporters of gay marriage. No religious leaders or church-state legal experts.

"What would tolerance look like, for believers on both sides of this dispute?" tmatt asks. "Is the goal of these legal debates to promote the rights of gay couples who seek marriage licenses (and other services) or to punish traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who believe that it would violate their consciences to be involved in same-sex union events?"

One might ask the same of the mainstream news on the debates. Is their mission to privilege one ideology over another? Or is it to provide honest coverage that acknowledges more than one credible viewpoint?

Crux found several church sources for yesterday's story:

A bill that strips longstanding legal protections for religious colleges and universities is underway in the California legislature, and critics say it will imperil Catholic education unless changes are made.
"It’s a way of harassing and making it more difficult for those of us who are people of faith who want to live and express our ways in society," said California Catholic Conference executive director Edward Dolejsi.
"We’re being painted into a corner and constricted," he told CNA.

But the Crux story has its own flaws. It leans heavily on a piece by the Catholic News Agency. It quotes three opponents of SB 1146, all Catholic, and only one advocate: the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Ricardo Lara. "Private universities should not be able to use faith as an excuse to discriminate and avoid complying with state laws," he argues. "No university should have a license to discriminate."

Finally, Crux cites the California Catholic Conference saying that SB 1146 would redefine the nature of a faith-based organization. This is close to my objection, above, but Crux doesn't explain it.

Yes, beliefs can be seductive. They can steer your view of facts by what you believe is true. But we readers have a right to reporting from TV and newspapers, instead of content cherry-picked to serve an ideology. Whenever I see stories like those in Crux and RNS, I feel like saying what liberals shouted at that Kentucky clerk Kim Davis: "Do your job!"

Photo: Library of Biola University, courtesy of the university website.


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