Trans commotion again: USA Today skips religious angles in bathroom-showers ruling

Religious conservatives cheered this week when a federal judge blocked the Obama administration's effort to force schools to allow transgendered people to use bathrooms of their choice.

Um … they did, didn’t they? (Squinting at article) Ummm, I could have sworn they would.  But they're not in the report by USA Today on the ruling.

This story, which was also distributed by Religion News Service, does cover a lot of ground in some 700 words. It reviews the lawsuit, brought by 13 states and two school districts, protesting Obama's directive. And it adeptly summarizes both the basic question and the mechanics of enforcement:

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s 38-page order said federal agencies exceeded their authority under the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in schools. The injunction applies nationwide, and follows a number of other recent court rulings against transgender students and employees.
The Texas ruling, issued late Sunday, turned on the congressional intent behind Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that "facilities provided for students of one sex shall be comparable to such facilities provided for students of the other sex."
"It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex" in that law "meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth," the judge wrote. "Without question, permitting educational institutions to provide separate housing to male and female students, and separate educational instruction concerning human sexuality, was to protect students’ personal privacy, or discussion of their personal privacy, while in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex."

One quick complaint on my part: the phrase "against transgender students and employees."

The ruling is not worded as opposing transgendered people as people. It simply says the government overreached in interpreting the federal educational law. Judge O'Connor even went out of his way to say that state governments could pass their own laws requiring transgender facilities. (And although this article doesn't say so, it sounds like the U.S. Congress, too, could pass a law with the same provisions.)

The USA Today article brings out several other interesting facts. It says that the plaintiffs said the administration made an "implicit threat" to withhold federal funds from schools that didn’t comply with the transgender bathroom order.  It says also that the federal government didn’t follow a requirement to get public input before writing new regulations. And it says that education officials were threatened with "sanctions" if they failed "to address students by their preferred gender pronouns." It doesn't say what kinds of sanctions, though.

I also admired this background paragraph:

The decision is at least the third legal setback for transgender rights in federal court this month. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling requiring a Virginia school district to allow a biologically female transgender student to use the boy’s restroom on Aug. 3. And last Thursday, a federal judge in Detroit upheld the firing of a transgender funeral home employee, ruling that "neither transgender status nor gender identity are protected classes" under anti-discrimination laws.

That shows this battle has been going on for a long time, and that USA Today has been following the story.

On the downside, the article quotes only three sources: a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, the federal judge who issued the injunction this week, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs. And from the text, it looks like only the Justice spokesperson is quoted live.  The others "speak" via written statements.

You already know my biggest beef: the lack of religious-group voices in this story that has clear religious and doctrinal roots.  Religious groups have, in fact, been sounding off about the new ruling.

The Daily Signal quotes Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, celebrating how the ruling "stops the administration’s ideologically driven misinterpretation of the law in its tracks and protects the safety and privacy of our children in school showers, lockers, and bathrooms." And Christian Today got statements from the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, two veteran culture-war groups.

The USA Today team might have also checked with the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. As our own Dick Ostling reported this month, the 16,000-member group has issued its own statement on transgender identification -- which quotes science as well as the Bible.

No one expects mainstream reporters to cite conservative media like the Christian Post, but it would be a great place to raid for sources. But I suspect that USA Today people already knows a fair number of them. Why it didn’t call any up of them is a big question. 

Did USA Today -- and then RNS -- think the religious angle was obvious?

Hmmm. But I doubt that an article on banking would fail to quote a banker, or that a piece on politics wouldn't quote politicians.

Were some religious leaders quoted, then deleted by an editor?

Or did the writer write this piece on a tight deadline? Our own tmatt acknowledges that harried, overworked reporters these days don’t have time for religion news features. He counters, however: "But they do have time to listen to what people say and then include a few details and quotes about faith, when it is clear that these details are at the heart of a person's life and work."

I would add that when journalists cover stories linked to religion, they should take time to get comments from leaders in that field -- preferably on both sides and points in between. Liberal religious voices would have been valid sources too, you know. 

There is one more "maybe" we haven't considered. I notice that the RNS version of the article linked to a "related story" -- columnist Jonathan Merritt's piece back in May, on "3 reasons conservative Christians will lose the transgender debate."

Just possibly -- in the judgment of the RNS team -- the wrong side won.

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