As often happens during the rush of the holidays, a few interesting stories get pushed to the side when it comes to national coverage.
So let's flash back to a few days before Christmas day, when the new Republican governor of Kentucky did something that was interesting and controversial. He issued an executive order that would immediately clear the way for same-sex couples to get married -- with no hassles -- in any county in the Bluegrass State.
You didn't hear about this?
The action was controversial, because under normal circumstances the state legislature needs to act in order to make this kind of change in state laws. That could happen in the very near future, but Gov. Matt Bevin decided not to wait. Still, as The Louisville Courier-Journal noted, this move had some bipartisan support:
... Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo praised the move, saying he was an early proponent of a similar approach. "It's a simple fix, and I applaud the governor for finding a way to balance the law and the concerns that county clerks, like mine in Floyd County, had."
Oh, wait, right. This action by the governor did make it possible for various state officials to willingly sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. That's good for gay couples. However, it also made it possible for county clerks to retain their jobs without, by having to sign their approval of same-sex unions, violating centuries of Christian doctrine. That's good, for those seeking a liberal interpretation of the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
Thus, Bevin's action was not really a win for gay couples, as well as traditional Christians, Jews, Mormons, Muslims and others. It was something else, as stated in the coverage by The Lexington Herald-Leader:
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin filed five executive orders ... to start reshaping state government along conservative ideological lines, including one that removes county clerks’ names from marriage licenses, granting the request of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who opposes same-sex marriage. ...
On marriage licenses, Bevin cited the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act as he removed the names of counties and county clerks, and allowed clerks to designate a third party to sign them. Davis asked Beshear to do this last summer while she refused to issue marriage licenses in Rowan County. Davis said her Christian beliefs made it impossible for her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June, leading to several lawsuits against her and five days in jail for contempt of court.
The story does contain this crucial detail:
The new license, which Bevin ordered the state Department for Libraries and Archives to create, lists at the top of the form only the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not the county or the county clerk. There is a line at the bottom where an “issuing official” may sign, but one of Davis’ lawyers on Tuesday said that could be -- as Davis has arranged it in Rowan County -- a willing deputy clerk who signs only as a notary public.
The Lexington story, however, presents this action as a defeat for supporters of gay marriage, even though this would make it easier for gay couples to get married anywhere in the state -- a fact omitted from the story.
The Herald-Leader story also does not include the quote from the Democratic House Speaker or any other Democrats who support this compromise. Apparently, this was a win for Republican religious conservatives alone.
As I mentioned before, the Courier-Journal story at least quoted Stumbo signalling support for the action. The implication -- not addressed in the coverage -- is that there will be bipartisan support in the legislature for this change on Kentucky marriage licenses, when the legislature is finally able to meet.
As it should, the Louisville story does include the views of those who see the executive order as unusual, which it was.
William Sharp, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, released a statement saying that Bevin's action has created a cloud of uncertainty over marriage licenses in the state.
"The requirement that the county clerk's name appear on marriage licenses is prescribed by Kentucky law and is not subject to unilateral change by the governor - conceded by the previous administration in court filings," he said. "Today, however, a new administration claims to have that authority."
The Associated Press coverage was similar, and did include a short version of the Stumbo quote.
So what was going on here? This coverage, once again, demonstrated the tendency among journalists to see this story -- in Kentucky and elsewhere -- through a very illiberal lens, in terms of the search for a compromise that guarantees the rights of the maximum number of citizens. As I wrote in a GetReligion piece last September, at the height of Kim Davis mania:
Most of the national coverage, has portrayed this dispute as a clash between two national armies -- with the Religious Right on one side and gay-rights supporters on the other.
We have argued that this is too simplistic and that, to anticipate where the story is going, reporters need to focus on the actual laws in Kentucky and the ground-level efforts to realign them with the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 Obergefell decision to back gay marriage. At the very least, there appear to be four camps involved in this sad circus.
(1) Cultural conservatives whose primary goal is to reject same-sex marriage.
(2) A coalition of state political leaders -- Democrats and Republicans -- seeking to comply with the Supreme Court ruling and recognize the rights of gay couples who seek marriage licenses. However, these officials and activists also want, in a way consistent with past legal efforts to offer "work around" accommodations for officials caught in conflict-of-interest binds, to recognize the religious-liberty rights of traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who cannot endorse same-sex marriage.
(3) Activists of various kinds who want to defend religious liberty, but who believe Davis has hurt their cause, in the long run, by going to jail rather than either (a) resigning or (b) allowing others to distribute marriage licenses in her name until the state legislature acts to amend state laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. ...
(4) Activists on the secular and religious left whose primary goal is to force public officials whose duties touch same-same marriage to either resign or endorse, with their actions, the Obergefell decision.
So here is my question: Why did the Lexington Herald-Leader team choose to frame Bevin's executive order -- forcing into effect the Kentucky compromise sought by state Republicans and many Democrats -- as a mere effort to "start reshaping state government along conservative ideological lines"? Why see this as a win for religiously conservative country clerks, alone, as opposed to an action that also helped gay couples across the state?
By framing the story in this manner, the Lexington editors appear to be viewing this dispute through the lens of one of the four camps I described in that September post.