When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

This was the headline on a Wall Street Journal story this week:

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

Photographers, Bakers Face Legal Challenges After Rejecting Jobs on Religious Grounds

At this point, the Journal arrives at a critical juncture: the lede.

The opening sentences will give a pretty clear idea where this story is headed: Will it be a sympathetic portrayal of gay couples denied basic civil rights? Or will it be a compassionate accounting of businesspeople forced to compromise sincerely held religious beliefs?

Let's find out:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

The issue gained attention in August, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photography business violated state antidiscrimination laws after its owners declined to snap photos of a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony.

Similar cases are pending in Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, and some experts think the underlying legal question — whether free-speech and religious rights should allow exceptions to state antidiscrimination laws — could ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do you think? It appears to me that the Journal decided to play the story down the middle — to report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this age of advocacy, that's somewhat surprising, but it's good journalism, right?

Keep reading, and the story immediately quotes national advocates on both sides of the issue — fairly framing each side's broad arguments.

Then the story turns to specifics of the individual state cases, in each instance allowing the plaintiffs and defendants equal opportunity to comment. For example:

In Colorado, baker Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood outside Denver, is facing state sanctions for refusing to work on same-sex weddings, after he acknowledged telling about a half-dozen patrons that his Christian beliefs prevented him from baking wedding cakes for such ceremonies.

"We were mortified by the experience," said David Mullins, a gay man whose offer of business was declined by Mr. Phillips last year and subsequently filed a discrimination complaint.

Mr. Phillips declined to be interviewed. In an email he sent to friends earlier this year, which his lawyer confirmed was authentic, he wrote that his refusal to bake cakes for same-sex weddings is not motivated by a "hatred of gays" but rather "a desire to live my life in obedience to [God] and His Word."

The Journal even provides a short sidebar summarizing what's at stake:

Laws in Conflict

Same-sex marriages have highlighted tensions between antidiscrimination and free-speech measures:

• Laws in many states ban businesses from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation.


• The free-speech clause in the First Amendment may protect people from being compelled to speak in favor of issues with which they disagree.

• The First Amendment also protects the right to 'freely exercise' one's religion. Laws in some states restrict the government from hindering the free exercise of religion.

At 800 words, this is not an in-depth story. And it's not a perfect story. Up high, the Journal mentions cases in Illinois and New York, but it provides no details on those two states. Also, the newspaper quotes no legal experts, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. But overall, the story provides a blueprint for fair, balanced reporting.

This isn't rocket science, of course. It's basic Journalism 101. But it's nice to see.

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