In my 11 years as a reporter, I can't recall an editor or fellow journalist discussing the legal concept known as the "freedom of association." If debate over this Constitutional right arose, it came in the context of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which codified the idea that blacks' right to be free from discrimination trumped the right of other Americans' rights to associate with whomever they wish. So my experience has been that reporters don't think much about the right of association, and when they do it has the whiff of racial discrimination about it. But what happens when the issue at hand is not race but religion and morality?
My impression is that a reporter tends to overlook the religious angle, rendering it a "ghost," to use tmatt's apt description. Such a sin of omission is unfortunate. We are downplaying the importance of American religious life. As Terry has pointed out, reporters fail to explain whether religious conservatives differ on freedom of association. Yet reporters fail to capture a divide between religious liberals and secularists, specifically atheists and agnostics.
David Herszenhorn of The New York Times reported that House Democrats were divided about legislation to forbid employment discrimination against homosexuals. One key dispute was over whether the bill should contain an exemption for religious organizations:
The Democrats also carved out a blanket exemption for religious groups, drawing the ire of civil liberties advocates who argued that church-run hospitals, for instance, should not be permitted to discriminate against gay employees. The civil liberties groups wanted a narrow exemption for religious employers.
On the House floor, Ms. Pelosi acknowledged challenges. "History teaches us that progress on civil rights is never easy," she said. "It is often marked by small and difficult steps."
Can the dispute between civil liberties groups and Speaker Pelosi be characterized as more than one between purists and pragmatists? How about a dispute between atheists and agnostics who seek to erode traditionally religious morality and religious liberals who believe that the views of religious traditionalists should be respected? A sentence about both, or either, would have been helpful.
Theresa Vargas of The Washington Post wrote about a pro-life teenager who started an anti-abortion club at her high school. The ghost in Ms. Vargas's story is why exactly school administrators had initially denied the student's request to start such a group:
School administrators initially turned down Hoffmeier's request to start the club at Colonial Forge High School on the grounds that it was not tied to the school curriculum. She filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, contending that her proposal could not be denied when other clubs are allowed to form on campus. The suit put a spotlight on an often-misunderstood legal arena involving religion in public schools. Even some advocates of strict separation of church and state say religious speech by students at public school is protected under the Constitution and federal law.
Here we go again. Did school administrators disagree with the student's aims, or seek to keep traditionally religious morality away from the classroom? We never find out.
Neither story suggests that the reporter overlooked the religious angle consciously. But the story is the worse for its absence. There's another religion-shaped hole in the news.