Gay marriage: More religious depth, please

depthSome religion stories err because the reporter, instead of diving into the topic's waters, skims along its surface. As a result, a reader comes away thinking he has not learned much. I certainly did not learn much after reading two recent stories about homosexuality in California. For The Washington Post, reporter Ashley Surdin wrote about a lesbian woman who sued a medical provider for failing to inseminate her artificially. The doctor said that she denied the woman treatment because it conflicted with her religious beliefs. The case is now before the California Supreme Court. While an interesting dispute, Surdin did not give her readers much context:

"Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case," [Kenneth Pedroza, an attorney for the two doctors] said. "There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life." And just as patients have rights, he said, so too do doctors.

Jennifer C. Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal who is representing Benitez, said that while the law protects doctors who refuse certain treatments on religious grounds, it does not allow them to do so on a discriminatory or selective basis. In other words, when doctors refuse a treatment, their refusal must apply to all patients -- not to a group, such as unmarried women or lesbians.

"All you have to do is imagine, for a moment, a doctor agreeing to an abortion for women of color but saying, 'I will not' for white women. Or a Jewish doctor saying, 'I will do an abortion for Muslim women, but not Jewish women.' Or vice versa," Pizer said. "Just imagining those possibilities shows how deeply problematic such a notion would be."

A trial court sided with Benitez in 2004, ruling that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California's anti-discrimination laws, regardless of religion. An appeals court overturned that decision one year later, finding that the previous ruling had denied the doctors' religious rights.

These passages begs lots of questions. At what point does the doctor's right to exercise her religion trump the patient's right to treatment? Also, why did the lower court rule that anti-discrimination laws outweighed those of religious freedom and the second one did not?

Surely both questions deserve a sentence or two. Without a hint at an answer, the reader comes away with a two-dimensional presentation of reality. Perhaps Surdin should have distinguished, or had an authority distinguish, between rulings that allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions but not allow them to refuse to dispense contraceptives.

For The Los Angeles Times, reporter My-Thuan Tran wrote about a similar issue: wedding vendors who refuse to sell their wares to newly married same-sex couples. As you might imagine, some vendors do so for religious reasons. To her credit, Tran found a Christian minister who doubles as a wedding photographer:

Eric Nelson of Nelson Photography in Lake Forest is a wedding photographer and ordained minister through the Trinity Evangelical Christian Church.

Nelson has already booked a same-sex wedding in July, but his religious beliefs and his business sense took him in two directions.

So he'll only be taking the photos. He will not officiate gay weddings, which he said conflict with his Christian beliefs.

"To me, it's not about being uncomfortable," Nelson said. "It's a choice, like a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning." Photographing a same-sex wedding is not the same as "solemnizing a wedding," he said.

The south Orange County photographer-minister said he would likewise turn down officiating weddings for heterosexual couples who he knew were involved in drugs or crime. "If you come to me and I find out you don't live in the best lifestyle and are not the type of person I would perform a wedding for, I wouldn't do it," he said. "I have a choice."

Nelson's comments are unexceptionable; many readers will agree with him, as with the idea that homosexual marriage conflicts with traditional religious teaching. I think readers would be better served, however, if Tran had probed Californians religious reasons for opposing gay marriage. It's clear what the California Supreme Court thinks: gays today are no different from blacks 60 years ago. But it's not clear what traditionally religious Californians think.

Of course, my call for more depth has a downside; newspapers today are short on space. But in these two stories, the lack of depth meant a loss of understanding.

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