Did The Tennessean mean to capture a key nuance in the post-Obergefell debates?

If you set out to pick a state that was the opposite of my old state of Maryland, in terms of politics and culture, it would have to be Tennessee, where I live now.

Maryland is a historically Catholic state that has evolved -- other than in some rural corners and in most African-American church life -- into an archetypal Blue State.

Meanwhile, the political history of Tennessee has been rooted in a populist and often culturally conservative brand of Democratic Party politics, until the rise of the modern Republican Party. I mean, as a U.S. senator, Al Gore had an 84 percent National Right to Life approval rating. East Tennessee has always been heavily Republican, dating back to the Civil War in some parts of the mountains. But these are not, as a rule, Republicans who automatically hate the government. Can you say Tennessee Valley Authority?

This brings me to an interesting story that ran the other day in The Tennessean, the historically liberal Gannett newspaper in Nashville, the state capital. Whether the editors knew it or not, this story contains material that describes one of the key religious liberty debates taking place -- but rarely covered by journalists -- after the 5-4 Obergefell ruling backing same-sex marriage.

As you would expect, there are Republicans in Tennessee who pretty much want to blow up the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the story notes early on:

Many Tennessee Republicans aren’t hiding their anger over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across the country.
They're adamant they need to respond, either in a way they feel will champion states' rights or religious liberties. Some lawmakers want the state to consider allowing employees who object to same-sex marriage to refuse to serve same-sex couples.

There is that big idea yet again, that citizens who oppose same-sex marriage want the right to -- vaguely defined -- "refuse to serve same-sex couples." Hold that thought.

Now, there are Republicans who are talking about impeaching Gov. Bill Haslam because he refuses to ignore the Obergefell ruling. One outspoken GOP lawmaker is Rick Womick, who readers are told wants state "officials to stop 'intimidating' county clerks into issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples."

However, later in the story another Republican puts a different, more nuanced, spin on this issue. In effect, he has argued that some officials be able to handle same-sex marriage cases in a way consistent with conflict-of-interest laws.

Please read this long passage carefully:

... Sen. Rusty Crowe suggested the state should consider allowing employees who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds to simply hand off any work that may require them to interact with gay married couples to employees who don't share their qualms.
Crowe, R-Johnson City, referenced an email he said he received from a state employee who was purportedly nervous about being fired for refusing to serve same-sex married couples.
"And in this case, the gentleman stated in the email that … he was very comfortable in his job helping people with food stamps and all kinds of things that he dealt with, even the gay individuals that he had to deal with. But he simply could not deal with those situations that required him to deal with those individuals that were marrying based on this new ruling from the Supreme Court, and thus he thought he was going to be fired," Crowe said.
"I don’t know that you all have seen those sorts of situations yet, but I would be very disappointed and angry if the state were to take the position of letting people go that feel they can’t perform because of their religious beliefs."

Yes, the word "even" grates at me, too, in the phrase "even the gay individuals that he had to deal with." But this is a direct quote from a real political debate.

Here is what interests me about this story. The reporter covered the debate, but didn't seem to recognize that there are legislators on the conservative side of the religious-liberty issue that are taking different approaches to this matter. It's the same problem that we saw in the simplistic and often inaccurate news coverage of fights over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and elsewhere.

Once again, RFRA does not guarantee that a religious believer automatically wins a case. It simply means that they are allowed to use a religious-liberty argument in court. It is crucial that their defense be rooted in a historic doctrine or tradition consistently followed in their faith (think drug cases involving Native American rites vs. a brand new pro-weed religious sect with a reality-TV show). It is also important that they are seeking a clearly defined and a very narrow, specific right to apply their faith (the right to use a drug in a specific, ancient religious rite, as opposed to using that drug while watching rock concerts on cable television).

So what did Crowe argue, in terms of the rights of clerks facing duties linked to same-sex marriage? Did he say that they had a right to refuse to deal with gays and lesbians, period? Did he even say that they had a right to refuse to deal with same-sex couples, period? Or did he say -- again, think conflict of interest laws -- that they had a right to say that they could not in good conscience take part in work directly linked to a gay-marriage ceremony? Then, these officials would be required to quickly refer that work to someone without a similar doctrinal issue. There would be no attempt to deny service to the gay couple. A key question: Is there a county in this state without a clerk willing to fill this role?

Once again, the goal is not for journalists to agree with what Crowe is arguing. The goal is to understand that nuance in his argument and to accurately present it to readers, so they can understand the actual debate that is taking place.

Like I said, this Tennessean article got this nuance into print, even if the reporter and the newspaper's editors didn't realize that was what they were doing. Bravo?

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