Plotting about "religious liberty"

Some news organizations are working in their editorials and opinion pieces (if not elsewhere) -- to downplay, denigrate or outright dismiss the religious liberty concerns some Americans have expressed recently. And yet, particularly when it comes to a new federal mandate requiring some religious organizations to violate their doctrines or face strict fines and penalties, people keep expressing these concerns. We've noted how some media types are somewhat reticent to cover that side of the story, for whatever reasons. Other media types opine in support of the mandate or against those expressing their vehement objections with the mandate. Others have focused on covering one side of the story -- those advocating in support of the mandate.

We'll keep looking at coverage -- or noting the lack of coverage -- as this issue works its way through courts and polling places. It's complicated, and I'm sure we'll see more media coverage of the religious liberty concerns as the months progress and courts begin looking at the cases. I'm hopeful like that.

I attended a portion of a Washington, D.C., gathering focused on the issue of religious freedom and was curious how it would be covered. While there were certainly folks from Catholic and Christian outlets there, I didn't see too many mainstream reporters. Not that I recognize all of these reporters by sight, of course. Perhaps the best coverage was done by C-Span, which covered the conference in its entirety. If you are interested in these issues, you can watch the entire conference here, broken up into its five sessions.

I was somewhat surprised that the Washington Post didn't send a reporter across town to cover the event, particularly considering the New York Times sent a reporter down. Correct me if I'm wrong but the Washington Post instead ran with a Religion News Service report, which was fine for the most part.

There was the curiosity with the headline:

Activists gather to plot defense of ‘religious liberty’

Why are we scare quoting those words? And it's not the Washington Post that originated the scare quotes (uh, this time). It's on the RNS site, too. Someone really needs to explain to me the scare quote philosophy behind this, since we see it somewhat frequently. Nobody seems to scare quote any other word in this issue. It reads like "we want to mock your concerns" so if that's not the intent, I'd just suggest stopping the scare quotes ASAP.

Here's the top of the piece:

WASHINGTON — U.S. Catholic bishops have used the Obama administration’s contraception mandate as Exhibit A in their high-stakes defense of “religious freedom.” But it’s not just the bishops who are fuming, and it’s not only over contraception.

Like-minded religionists of several denominations — including Southern Baptist leader Richard Land and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori — gathered in Washington Thursday (May 24) to organize a response to what they see as the sorry state of religious freedom in America today.

“We must all be willing to stand up and tell the government ‘no,’” said Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Secularists don’t like people of faith because the ultimate authority for us is not the state. The ultimate authority is God.”

So there you go. More scare quotes. Some interesting language ("used"?). A bizarre choice of quote. I mean, even if Land is eminently quotable, that is not a good quote to summarize the general mood or content of the event (which, to be fair, is clarified later).

We learn who sponsored the summit, some of the groups who attended, and that the rhetoric was less confrontational than Land's. Indeed, we're told, calls for civility from various denominations were heard. Then we get numbers from Public Religion Research Institute (you'll be shocked -- shocked! -- to hear that PRRI's March poll showed that religious liberty is not a concern in the country). We learn that speakers discussed other religious liberty concerns, too.

The conference was very interesting and included a wide variety of speakers and perspectives. One of those was William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who generally suggested that the current flap over religious liberty wasn't a big deal, since there have been major disputes over many of these issues before in history. When he spoke, I wondered whether reporters would lead with his quotes. (And yes, my other guess was that they'd lead with Land.) In this story, his words are put at the end:

William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, rejected the general consensus that religious rights had devolved to a critical point, and called for a “sense of proportion” even as he disagrees with the original contraception mandate introduced by the Obama administration.

In the United States, Galston argued, it’s inevitable that religious rights will occasionally collide with the government’s responsibility to protect citizen welfare. “This is not a fatal disease,” he said. “It is a chronic condition we are called upon to manage.”

I think that placement is exactly right. To be honest, I found Galston's comments some of the most interesting from his panel. In large part that's because the media have done such a poor job of covering this issue that we haven't seen good responses to some of the claims being made by those vehemently opposing the mandate. By "good" responses, I mean those that take the issue seriously and understand the claims being made and come to a different issue (rather than rude dismissals or mockery).

The lack of coverage means that we're not seeing enough coverage of criticisms of some of the claims being made about whether free birth control is a good idea -- economically, bureaucratically or health wise -- but we're also not seeing good coverage of criticism of the claims being made by those focused on the religious liberty angle. Instead we just see coverage that imagines everyone is either on the side that support the idea of forcing employers to cover free birth control for "women's rights" reasons or that they're on the side that worries about the mandate for religious liberty concerns. There are many other perspectives in this fight, too. I hope to see more coverage of them all.

Earlier I mentioned that Catholic outlets covered the event. You may find their coverage more substantive than what can be found elsewhere.

Religious freedom stamp via Sylvana Rega /

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