Covering religious rights on campus

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Back in 2004, a Christian student group was denied recognition at the University of California's Hastings College of Law because it required its officers and voting members to uphold certain Christian teachings. The school said that the group couldn't discriminate on the basis of religious belief. One of the teachings that the Christians in the group were required to confess was that Christians should not engage in sexual conduct outside of marriage. The school felt that this was discriminatory against homosexuals. The school offers billboard space and rooms for recognized groups. This group was seen to be outside of the school's nondiscrimination policy and so the group was denied status. The group sued, saying the school had violated its freedom of speech, religion and association.

So this is yet another example of how religious freedom and gay rights can come in conflict in the public square. This is a major area of concern for gay activists and proponents of religious freedom. In fact, Christianity Today calls it the "title fight between anti-discrimination laws and religious identity."

We actually already looked at media coverage of the case when it was announced that it would be heading to the Supreme Court (here and here).

And there were some pretty noticeable problems with how the media framed the debate last year. Most of these problems dealt with serious misunderstandings about the facts of the case or the particular issues being debated.

I usually try to cut reporters a bit of slack if they're writing the first story or two about a big issue. But you have to wonder about this McClatchy Newspapers report by Michael Doyle. It's not like this is a new story or even that terribly confusing. But confused is exactly what he is. After a fine headline "Supreme Court takes up religious group's rights on campus," here's the story lede as it ran in the Miami Herald:

A San Francisco campus conflict between religious devotion and human sexuality will now give Justice John Paul Stevens a final opportunity to apply the First Amendment in the 21st century.

No, no, no. This is about whether non-discrimination clauses can trump First Amendment rights.

Compare it with this much better Associated Press lede that sticks closer to the facts of the case:

In a case that pits nondiscrimination policies against freedom of religion, the Supreme Court is grappling with whether universities and colleges can deny official recognition to Christian student groups that refuse to let non-Christians and gays join.

The high court was to hear arguments Monday from the Christian Legal Society at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. The Christian group said its constitutional freedoms of speech, religion and association were violated when it was denied recognition as a student group by the San Francisco-based school.

Anyway, the Miami Herald report goes on:

The first thing lawyers do is fight over what the fight is about.

And to some extent that's true. But if you're going to say that lawyers are fighting over what the fight is about, shouldn't you, you know, talk to the lawyers on opposing sides?

An attorney who serves as co-counsel with the National Center for Lesbian Rights on behalf of the respondent in this case is quoted -- which sort of gives the wrong impression about who is bringing the case or who is attempting redress. Particularly since the attorneys serving the Christian group aren't quoted at all. And it's not like the folks at the Alliance Defense Fund are hard to reach.

There are folks quoted who support the Christian group's right to retain its religious identity and participate in campus life.

In fact, the last part of the story focuses so much on this matter, including quotes from previous SCOTUS decisions that support the right of religious groups to practice freely in the campus environment, that it would be nice to get some response from those arguing the other side of today's battle.

All in all, it's just a disjointed story that doesn't do justice to either side of the debate -- or to readers.

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