Religious freedom: Charlotte Observer actually asks the religious some important questions

What?!? A daily newspaper quoting ministers on a state religious freedom bill? Cue Tchaikovsky!

No, wait. The Charlotte Observer does quote two pastors about North Carolina's proposed law, a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But one is on their radar because he ran for the Senate last year. And the other is apparently the loyal opposition.

The fast-moving bill is similar to those that have drawn fire in Arizona, Indiana and elsewhere. Supporters say they are attempts to shield religious people from unwarranted government coercion. Opponents say they're ruses to legalize discrimination against gays.

It's a clear religious and moral issue. Unfortunately, most of the Charlotte Observer article quotes business, government, political and even sports groups like the NCAA -- a stable familiar to anyone who has followed the ongoing battle over Indiana's version of RFRA. The effect is largely like hearing people talk about you while you're standing right there.

Roughly a fifth of the 1,100-word Observer article chronicles economic jitters, based on blowback from businesses after Indiana passed its RFRA. The story grants two paragraphs to American Airlines, which hints that it will use its influence against the North Carolina bill, as it did against a similar bill in Arizona.

The Observer article does some things going for it. For one, it shuns the "scare" or "sarcasm" quotes around "religious freedom," as we've seen in many media -- even the otherwise classy NPR -- in covering the new law in Indiana.

The newspaper also balances its quoted sources. It cites Gov. Pat McCrory and a state senator against the bill, then two legislators who favor it. The Observer checks in with the state's American Civil Liberties Union but also with an opponent, the North Carolina Values Coalition.

For the pro-RFRA pastor, the Observer allows two partial quotes:

The Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who ran last year for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, said he was “highly disappointed” that McCrory did not see the benefit of having such a law in place before June, when many analysts are predicting the U.S. Supreme Court will rule same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
State religious freedom laws in North Carolina and elsewhere, said Harris, who leads First Baptist Church of Charlotte, “would protect Christians from governments eager to advance the agenda that sexual rights are superior to religious liberty.”

The other clergy source? From the left wing of American religion -- which is actually pretty savvy of the newspaper, when you think of it:

The Rev. Robin Tanner, who leads the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte, said that when the country’s founders exalted religious freedom, "they understood it as religious freedom from persecution, not religious freedom to persecute. The proposed laws, like Indiana’s, are unnecessary and harmful to the ideals of freedom."

Still, the balance is not all balanced. When Harris, the Baptist pastor, warns of the government bullying religion, the paper asks for an example. He brings up the florist in Washington who was sued by a gay couple, in the Observer's words, "after she refused, on religious grounds, to sell and arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding." But the Observer doesn't provide -- and few other media do, either -- any context or insight for the Washington case, as my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. says.

In particular, Barronelle Stutzman, the florist, served the gay customers amicably for nine years before they sued her. So it was hardly a case of homophobia or business discrimination. Her main issue, as she told an NBC affiliate, was that her faith precluded her from participating in the wedding.

What's more, the Observer is softer on the Rev. Robin Tanner, the Unitarian Universalist pastor. When Tanner suggests the state RFRA amounts to "freedom to persecute," the newspaper doesn't ask for examples where the national law was used to persecute. Since that law passed in 1993, the lawbooks should be full of such cases.

Nor did the newspaper have any follow-up questions for Sarah Preston of the state's American Civil Liberties Union. "Any individual or corporation could refuse to abide by any law under the guise of religious freedom," she tells the Observer. "Somebody could violate the noise ordinance because their religion compels them to drum all night long."

So the paper questions Harris' warning and gives a pass to Preston's and Tanner's speculation. But why stop at liberal guesses? A conservative like myself could dream up several other what-ifs:

What if a Muslim caterer were asked to do the food for a barbecue festival?

Or a Seventh-day Adventist were asked to open his banquet hall on Saturday?

Or a Jewish baker was asked to be the photographer at a neo-Nazi wedding?

 This despite the fact, as the article itself reports, that 19 other states have RFRA equivalents on the books (and another one awaits the governor's signature in Arkansas). That's a lot of case law to examine for a trend of abuse.

I haven't looked hard at those states myself, but Hunter Schwarz of the Washington Post has. His conclusion:

But while Indiana is being criticized, the NCAA didn't say it was concerned over how athletes and employees would be affected by Kentucky's RFRA when games were played there last week, there aren't any plans to boycott states like Illinois or Connecticut, and Miley Cyrus has yet to post a photo of President Clinton or any of the 19 other governors who have also signed RFRAs.

Why didn't the Observer ask ACLU about that? If its reporters didn't want to do their own work, they could have simply consulted the Post article, which ran four days earlier. Maybe they were too busy finding one more businessman or politician.

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