Gay rights and religious freedom

hirschEvery year I steel myself for the onslaught of Holy Week stories the mainstream media love. You know the ones -- media pieces attempting to undermine miraculous stories about Jesus and his life. Some of them have been very bad. But this year those attacks have not been limited to Holy Week. Hurrah. What's more, here's a story I've been wanting to see more mainstream media coverage of since last June, when NPR first explored the issue. It deals with the clash between gay rights and religious freedom. The latest entry comes from Jacqueline Salmon, religion writer at the Washington Post:

Faith organizations and individuals who view homosexuality as sinful and refuse to provide services to gay people are losing a growing number of legal battles that they say are costing them their religious freedom.

The lawsuits have resulted from states and communities that have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Those laws have created a clash between the right to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of religion, religious groups said, with faith losing.

The article quickly names the prominent cases -- the Christian photographer forced by the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to pay $6,637 in attorney's costs after she refused to photograph a homosexual commitment ceremony, a psychologist in Georgia fired after declining to counsel a lesbian about her relationship for religious reasons, Christian fertility doctors in California being successfully sued after they refused to artificially inseminate a lesbian patient because of religious reasons, a Christian student group not being recognized at a University of California law school because it denies membership to anyone practicing sex outside of traditional marriage:

"It really is all about religious liberty for us," said Scott Hoffman, chief administrative officer of a New Jersey Methodist group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which lost a property tax exemption after it declined to allow its beachside pavilion to be used for a same-sex union ceremony. "The protection to not be forced to do something that is against deeply held religious principles."

But gay groups and liberal legal scholars say they are prevailing because an individual's religious views about homosexuality cannot be used to violate gays' right to equal treatment under the law.

"We are not required to pay the price for other people's religious views about us," said Jennifer Pizer, director of the Marriage Project for Lambda Legal, a gay rights legal advocacy group.

What I love about the story is how completely neutral it is in the presentation of the information. As same-sex marriage, same-sex partner recognition and prohibitions barring discrimination against gays are legalized, it's understandable that there would be a clash of legal rights with those who oppose homosexuality for religious reasons. For too long the media line has been "what possible harm can there be if gay marriage is legalized?" It's asked as if it's a rhetorical question rather than a really good question with some difficult answers. This story shows that there is a clash and that there are different views about whether that clash is problematic. It doesn't pick winners or losers, it just lays out the situation.

religious-freedomSomething else that I really appreciated about the article was how it showed how religious freedom -- in these legal cases -- hasn't been extended to Christians' professional lives. It also showed how difficult it is to fight discrimination lawsuits. Online dating site eHarmony, begun by an evangelical psychologist, agreed to launch a new web site for gay matchmaking rather than fight:

Company attorneys said that it settled because of the unpredictable nature of litigation and that New Jersey's attorney general did not find that eHarmony had violated the state's anti-discrimination law.

"People seem to say that if you enter the world of commerce, you lose all your First Amendment rights" to free exercise of religion, said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization that has represented several businesses. "They . . . have become nothing more than vending machines, and the government can dictate the conditions under which they dispense their goods and services."

Salmon looks at many different angles, all of them illuminating. She even notes that famous case at Bob Jones University where it lost its tax-exempt status because of its views on miscegenation:

Some legal analysts suggest that religious groups that do not support gay rights might lose their tax exemptions because of their politically unpopular views.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who supports same-sex marriage, said the Bob Jones ruling "puts us on a slippery slope that inevitably takes us to the point where we punish religious groups because of their religious views."

It's a great and really interesting article that manages to tell the legal stories without making one side or the other seem cruel, immoral or undeserving of decent treatment.

The article already covered a lot of ground, but I'd like to learn a bit more about why one side is prevailing and one side is not. I hope that other reporters continue to look at this issue and shed some more light.

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