Religious shield bill: Orlando Sentinel produces (gasp) fair coverage

Whoaaa, looky here: an article on gay marriage that affects ministers that actually quotes ministers.

Let's hear it for the Orlando Sentinel!

Too often in stories about same-sex marriage, as I noted here and here, we get the views of legislators, law professors, think tankers and, of course, gay leaders -- not pastors. Perhaps because the Sentinel is in Central Florida, a big area for evangelical Protestants, reporter Gary Rohrer was more aware that pastors would have something to say.

The story deals with a bill in the state House meant to shield churches who don’t want to be forced to perform same-sex marriages. With six quoted sources in a 600-word piece -- three of them congregational pastors -- the Sentinel strikes an impressive balance.

Not a perfect balance, mind you. Especially with the first three paragraphs:

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation designed to shield religious leaders from being targeted for refusing to perform same-sex marriages won a House panel's approval Wednesday, but only after clergy members spoke vehemently for and against the bill.
Opponents of the bill say it's unnecessary since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, with some going so far as to say it smacks of anti-gay discrimination.
"I'm really concerned about the overt premise of this bill ... which seems to be that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are to be feared," said the Rev. Brant Copeland of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. "I find that premise very disturbing and inaccurate."

But it later catches up …

For supporters, the bill is essential to protect clergy members' consciences and houses of worship from being legally targeted. The country is moving too swiftly in the direction of protections for same-sex couples, they say, which could lead to the trampling of the rights of those refusing to perform same-sex weddings.
Bill sponsor Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said pastors need more protection in the law to guard against lawsuits from gay-rights groups and from being penalized by bureaucracies that might levy tax penalties or withhold grants or contract bids from churches that don't participate in same-sex nuptials.
"This extra layer of protection can do no harm, and it might do some good," Plakon said.

… although that rationale sounds like the chicken soup argument for treating a cold: "It couldn't hurt."

But the newspaper is impressive also for quoting Plakon on specifics. Not just something like a godly nation should oppose gay marriage. But that gay groups may use judges and bureaucrats to enforce their will over religious organizations. When bakers, florists and photographers have been sued for not serving gays -- First Amendment or no -- those concerns are not that outlandish.

The newspaper does a good job of both localizing and broadening the story. It quotes state representatives in Longwood and Altamonte Springs, in Central Florida. It also includes pastors in Kissimmee, near Orlando, and in Miami Gardens, in South Florida.

And here's a coup of a paragraph:

Carlos Guillermo-Smith, an LGBT rights activist with Equality Florida who's running for the House in eastern Orange County, said fears of gay-rights groups targeting churches with litigation are overblown. He pledged that Equality Florida would help pay the legal bills for any church sued for not marrying same-sex couples.
"We know that's not going to happen," Guillermo-Smith said. "This is an imagined problem."

I don’t think I've ever previously read a pro-gay group offering to pay for the defense of a church that may be sued over same-sex marriage. Of course, Guillermo-Smith doesn't expect to have to do so, and he doesn't say how much his group would lay out. But it's a remarkable offer anyway.

Still another nice thing about this article is reporting the effort of an activist -- John Stemberger of the Orlando-based Florida Family Council -- to meet pastors around the state, listening to their concerns. He says they're asking if they’ll be required to host same-sex weddings even if someone else performs them, or what if an employee gets a sex change. (The latter sounds far afield of the gay marriage matter, though.)

One hole in the story is a cosponsor of the House bill, "who has said Hispanic pastors brought similar concerns to him." How many? Why are none quoted? I know that when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America moved in 2010 to ordain gays in Florida, 11 Hispanic churches made a joint protest. But the Sentinel should have gotten a direct quote from at least one.

But overall, the article has a decent symmetry of sides, including a couple in the middle. And it's written without the snark of, say, political reporter Dan Sweeney of the Sentinel. His "Power Lunch" column yesterday kicks off with "Marriage is what brings us together pushes us apart today" -- with a line drawn through "brings us together." And if that sarcasm isn’t heavy enough, he adds: "[S]ome Florida Legislators want to make super-duper, extra-special certain that no one will ever have to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony."

Keeping coverage fair and non-snide may not help, but it couldn't hurt.

Photo: Lobby in front of the House of Representatives chamber at the Florida State Capitol building, Tallahassee. Photographer: Nagel Photography /


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