Once again, we are facing one of those "framing" issues. Read the top of this A1 Washington Post report about the collision between the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and government officials here in the District of Columbia. Now ask this question: Is the heart of this story (a) civil rights for a new protected class of gays and lesbians, (b) religious liberty in America or (c) both?
The answer, of course, is "both."
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said ... that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.
Under the bill, headed for a D.C. Council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.
First, let me note that there's another problem in there. What is a "religious organization"? Surely churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, etc., are not going to be told who they can and cannot hire, in violation of centuries of doctrines and traditions?
A copy editor must have removed some crucial language. I think, in order to be consistent with the rest of the story, that needed to say, "Under the bill ... religious organizations that accept city contracts would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would ..." etc. The story gets that right elsewhere. But that whole paragraph is a spew-your-morning-coffee classic, especially coming at the top of an A1 eye-grabber.
There are parts of this story that let you know that the Post team knows that there are religious-liberty concerns involved in this story. For example, there is this exchange between the church and its critics in city government:
"If the city requires this, we can't do it," Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."
Several D.C. Council members said the Catholic Church is trying to erode the city's long-standing laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination. The clash escalates the dispute over the same-sex marriage proposal between the council and the archdiocese, which has generally stayed out of city politics.
Long-standing? I think the Roman Catholic Church has the District beat, in terms of "long-standing" laws and doctrines linked to this subject.
The problem, again, is that this story is quite complex. Thus, it is hard to frame the issue in a way that is fair to both sides, or to multiple points of view on both sides. Also, at some point we really need to know how the bill will hit:
* Religious congregations. Period.
* Non-profit religious groups that do not accept government contracts.
* Non-profit religious groups that do accept government contracts -- such as Catholic Charities and others. The Salvation Army, for example?
* Non-profit religious groups -- such as religious colleges and schools -- that do not accept government contracts, but are allowed by courts to receive other forms of government assistance (like scholarships or grants) for their students or specific programs.
* For-profit businesses or groups that exist for the purpose of producing religious materials, such as books, music, radio programs, etc.
* Religious believers who do not want to be forced to violate their religious beliefs while in the workplace.
Now, this Post story does deal with that final one, since that issue has been debated at the District level. And the main focus of the report is that third item, the status of religious organizations that accept government contracts. However, that fact leads us to another puzzling statement in the story:
The standoff appears to be among the harshest between a government and a faith-based group over the rights of same-sex couples. Advocates for same-sex couples said they could not immediately think of other places where a same-sex marriage law had set off a break with a major faith-based provider of social services.
Well, that may be what the advocates for same-sex couples say. But what about experts from the religious-liberty side of the debate? What did they say about that crucial question?
Framing, framing. It's all about the need for a balanced, journalistic approach to framing the issue.
No previous major breaks between a faith-based provider and city over this kind of issue? How about this Weekly Standard report from 2006, the one with that "Banned in Boston" headline? While it is in a conservative publication, it includes quotes from a wide range of experts and insiders on both sides of the issue, including some very candid and helpful material from legal experts on the gay-rights side.
As a refresher, here is the top of that Maggie Gallagher essay:
Catholic Charities of Boston made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. "We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. ... The issue is adoption to same-sex couples."
It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation's oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. "Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list," Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. "It's a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes." Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, "This is a tragedy for kids."
How did this tragedy happen? It's a complicated story.
Yes, this is a complicated story -- especially if journalists attempt to frame and report it in a way that does justice to believers on both sides of the debate.
Reminder: We are not here to debate the issue of same-sex marriage or even the Archdiocese of Washington's stand in this case. We are here to talk about how the talented professionals at the Post and in other mainstream newsrooms can struggle with covering this issue in a balance, fair, accurate manner. This is a pro-journalism blog. Think about that before you click "comment."