Religious freedom bill: Sarasota newspaper knows how you should view it

Florida's Protection of Religious Freedom Bill was only born on Wednesday, and pro-gay advocates already want to strangle it in the crib. Unfortunately, some of them are in media that are supposed to inform, not propagandize.

HB 401 would protect a "health care facility, health care provider, person, closely held organization, religious institution, business owned or operated by religious institution, or private child-placing agency that refuses to perform certain actions that would be contrary to religious or moral convictions or policies."

The bill was inspired by lawsuits in other states against people who didn’t want to make cakes or shoot photos for gay weddings, as its sponsor has said. That was enough for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to take off running.

Here are the first three paragraphs of its report:

Florida adoption agencies could turn away same sex couples for religious reasons and certain businesses in the state could deny them products or services under a bill filed Wednesday by state Rep. Julio Gonzalez that echoes highly-controversial legislation from other states.
The bill – slammed by gay rights leaders as one of the most discriminatory anti-LGBT measures in the nation – is a response to infringement on religious liberties around the country said Gonzalez, R-Venice.
“There have been various situations where there are increasing possibilities of subsections of society having their religious freedoms encroached on,” Gonzalez said. “Over time it became obvious to me we need to adopt some statutory protections.”

So we start with two negative paragraphs, finally followed by a quote from Gonzalez. The newspaper then adds background on similar legal measures -- in Florida, Indiana and Arkansas -- that failed to pass or withered under boycott threats and negative publicity.

Given all that, can you guess what attitude the newspaper wants to impress on you?

The Herald-Tribune article did make an impression: Within a day, the story rippled through gay media.

The Peacock Panache blog calls HB 401 a "cruel, mean-spirited attempt to offer anti-gay conservatives a legal way to disenfranchise LGBT men and women (and their families)."

The New Civil Rights Movement blog adds a presidential campaign spin, showing a video by Marco Rubio endorsing Gonzalez last year for elective office. NCRM argues that Rubio's "far-right positions, especially on LGBT people," reveal the motives behind Gonzalez' new bill.

And the South Florida Gay News sums up its attitude in the headline: "Anti-Gay So-Called Religious Freedom Bill Introduced in Florida."  Most of the article reprints a statement from Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.

To my surprise, though, her statement agrees that “freedom of religion is fundamental," though of course she opposes HB 401. She adds: "We also believe that most religions care more about loving your neighbor than discriminating against him. Faith leaders of all denominations have stood with us because they agree." She doesn't name any, though. Neither does the South Florida Gay News.

At least those are all avowedly partisan outlets. They don’t claim to be general-circulation, fact-providing newspapers like the Herald-Tribune.

In the article about HB 401, the paper pits Gonzalez against Carlos Guillermo Smith, whom it only calls a "lobbyist for Florida’s largest gay rights group." (Doesn't name the group, but it's Equality Florida.) He condemns Gonzalez's bill as “sweeping anti-LGBT legislation” that is “extreme even for the extremists.”

Then Smith waves the stick: He warns that the bill could "threaten Florida’s tourism-based economy and could provoke an Indiana-style backlash. It would be a disaster for Florida.”

From there, the article segues into point-counterpoint, with Gonzalez stating and Smith rebutting. As in: "And while Gonzalez said the bill is narrowly tailored, Smith argued it is a broadly-written invitation to discriminate on many levels." And as in:

“The argument that there is to be some sort of defensible discrimination based on race is hollow, void and inapplicable, so I don’t think you can equate the two,” Gonzalez said.
“That just means the bill, one, conflicts with federal law and, two, is unconstitutional,” Smith said.

The main exception is when the Herald-Tribune cites a section of HB 401 that would allow a healthcare facility not to perform a medical treatment for "religious or moral reasons," except when life or serious injury were at risk. Then it follows Smith's criticism with Gonzalez' defense.

But it feels the need to add that Gonzalez is "a Catholic who said his personal religious beliefs were not the motivation for the legislation." Sure, plant the suggestion and make him deny it. But the Herald-Tribune didn’t feel a similar need to ask Smith's background and whether it motivated his public stance.

And it should have done so. In June, Smith declared himself a candidate for the Florida House (although he's not running against Gonzalez). And Equality Florida's website says that Ida Eskamani, one of its staffers, is also on Smith's campaign team. Those would have been good disclosure facts, don’t you think?

The paper does say that Gonzalez is considering some changes in the bill. For instance, he thinks it'll work to limit business provisions to “custom” products or services, like making wedding cakes. Another possible change would be to protect only "business transactions related to religious events, such as products or services for a wedding ceremony."

Fair enough. For its part, the Herald-Tribune might consider a little reworking, too: more reporting, less tilting.


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