If you are following the mainstream media coverage of the case of Kim Davis, the elected clerk of Rowan County in Kentucky, then you have basically been reading about a dispute with two sides.
On one side are the gay citizens who want to get married in this county. On the other side is an outspoken Christian who, as an act of Christian conscience, has stopped handing out marriage licenses to anyone, rather than be forced to hand them out to those planning same-sex unions.
The mainstream coverage has been very vivid and full of human details. However, there is an interesting void in the stories that I am seeing in elite media (and let's not even talk about television). To spot this gap, ask yourself this question as you read the news coverage on this story in the next few days: Is Ms. Davis trying to stop gay citizens from getting married? Yes or no. In fact, is her primary goal to stop them from getting married in he county?
Now, let's look at some of the Washington Post coverage, starting with an update filed late in yesterday's news cycle. The following passage gives readers both a status report in the standoff and a look at the drama on the scene:
U.S. District Judge David Bunning has set a hearing for 11 a.m. Thursday to determine whether to hold Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in contempt, a charge that could carry with it a fine or jail time.
Davis’s decision came on a day of heated protests here. Dozens of supporters -- and critics -- of the county’s elected clerk gathered outside the courthouse, and at times inside the lobby, as gay couples tried, unsuccessfully, to get marriage licenses. After one couple was rebuffed, Davis emerged from a back office to explain that she would not be issuing any licenses.
“Under whose authority?” someone demanded.
“Under God’s authority,” Davis said.
Amid competing chants of “Do your job!” and “Praise the Lord!” Davis then asked the rejected applicants to leave the courthouse.
Once again, readers are shown what appear to be two clear positions. The Post team managed -- this is a compliment -- to let both sides speak. But there's the rub. What if there are more than two sides, more than two basic positions to consider in this church-state drama?
You can see a hint of what I am talking about later in this Post piece. Let us attend:
The situation is putting pressure on political leaders in Kentucky, where Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has resisted calls to hold a special session of the state legislature to consider changes to state law that would allow accommodations for Davis and the two other defiant clerks.
Among the accommodations that Davis has said would be acceptable is a proposal to remove county clerks’ names from marriage licenses.
Wait! There are other options?
Note these words "among the accommodations" -- plural -- that Davis would accept. So, is her primary and ultimate goal to stop gay couples from getting married? The answer is "no," since she has already said she would embrace one compromise that would even allow licenses to be handed to gay citizens in her jurisdiction.
Now, what are those other options, in Kentucky and elsewhere, and where are the journalistic efforts to describe them, while clarifying what Ms. Davis is actually saying and doing? Also, might there even be additional options that Davis would not accept, but other pro-religious liberty experts would? The liberals and conservatives who are pushing to protect religious liberty in these cases are not carbon copies of each other. There are interesting differences in strategy there, especially among those who support gay marriage AND the free exercise of religious convictions.
As I have written in previous posts, there are liberals and conservatives in these fights who are not trying to prevent gay couples from getting licenses. They are, however, trying to allow Americans to follow their own religious convictions, by not being the person issuing them.
Some would note, for example, that clerks may be in a position in which they cannot -- under conflict of interest laws -- be involved in transactions in which they have beliefs that prevent them dealing with some citizens. Thus, they favor immediately assigning these duties to another public official, with no extra hassle for those requesting a particular service from the government. This happens all the time with other issues.
That Post story actually hints at a third position in these debates, one between (1) no licenses for gay couples, period, and (3) clerks must be forced by the state to violate their understanding of the doctrines of their faith (thus losing the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, as detailed in the First Amendment) or be fired.
What might a (2) stance look like? It would recognize that same-sex marriage, by court order, is now the law. However, it would ask that other state officials be allowed, in various ways, to step in and make this transaction possible.
Do reporters need to cover this centrist stance? Why not? It's already part of the story, as seen above. And in an earlier Post story on this topic there was this:
In her defense, her lawyers described Davis in a court filing as “a professing Apostolic Christian who attends church worship service multiple times per week, attends weekly Bible study, and leads a weekly Bible study with women at a local jail.” It says she fasted and prayed for weeks before deciding that she would not issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Her lawyers say there are more than 130 locations around the state where same-sex couples can get licenses, including seven counties neighboring Rowan. They also argue that other steps could be taken to accommodate Davis’s religious beliefs.
For example, a clerk from a neighboring county could be deputized to issue licenses in Rowan County. The state could remove all references to a clerk’s name on marriage licenses. Or lawmakers could overhaul the way Kentucky licenses marriages.
These are the kinds of options that government officials provide when one of their own is caught in a conflict of interest puzzle. The complication, in this case, is that there is no immediate alternative service provider, right there in the office with Davis. That makes this case somewhat unique and extra tense.
In it's coverage, The New York Times also took the same, simplistic two armies approach, without noting that Davis herself has been willing to seek a compromise that would allow gay couples to get licenses with little or no hassle. Then, near the very end of the story there was this short passage:
Some lawmakers have discussed the possibility of changes to state law to address the issue, but Mr. Beshear, who is not running for re-election, said again that he would not call a special legislative session, so any action would have to wait until next year.
It's hard to get more hollow and content-free than that. The Los Angeles Times? Forget about it.
Apparently no one in that newsroom knows that anyone has proposed compromises to find a tolerant, centrist stance protects both the right to gay marriage in Kentucky and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers in a variety of faiths. Once again, there are people who want to defend the rights and convictions of those on both sides of this standoff.
Journalists, once again, do not have to share these people's beliefs and convictions. They do need to understand them and let readers know what is actually happening in Kentucky.
Once again, read the coverage and answer this question: Is Ms. Davis trying to stop gay marriages in Kentucky and her county? Yes or no.
Here is my question: Are there many advocates for same-sex marriage willing to accept any of these compromises? Would some do so, while others would not? Are some fighting to crush Ms. Davis and those like her, as well as get a marriage license? Even if she favors compromises that would smooth the way to same-sex rites?
In other words, might there be complications and divisions on the cultural left, as well as, in this case, on the right? And is this really an issue that only affects evangelical Protestants? There are no Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews or Muslims in this bind?
Just asking. Reporters may also want to check out this article by Ryan T. Anderson, focusing on possible state-level compromises.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Before clicking "comment," ask yourself: Am I about to comment on the press coverage of the Kentucky events or on the views of religious and legal views of Ms. Davis or her critics?