More than five years ago, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today that posed this question: "Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?"
Hang with me for just a bit here, and I'll make a point — an important one, I believe — about current media coverage. But first, some background might be helpful for most readers.
The main ideas of the 2011 story that I mentioned were:
1. States increasingly were passing same-sex marriage and civil union laws.
2. Given that trend, Christians advocating for traditional marriage might be better served by shifting their resources to fight for their religious freedom.
By the time U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage last year, conscience claims by religious people who view marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman already were making frequent national headlines.
Of course, in most media reports on those claims — before and after the high court's 5-4 ruling — the word "conscience" never appeared. Rather, news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times framed the issue as a matter of Christians wanting to "deny service" or "refuse service." Often, news stories on the subject carried scare quotes around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom" — a journalistic eyebrow raising, if you will.
In many cases, news organizations didn't even bother quoting any religious people or attempting to understand their perspective. If you were a Christian baker who didn't want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding — or if you were a Christian photographer who had a problem taking pictures of a same-sex couple — you were a bigot until proven otherwise. And usually, not much opportunity was given for someone to prove otherwise. The media elite already had decided who was right and who was wrong.
In a 2015 email quoted by GetReligion, Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, attempted to explain his side's position to the Los Angeles Times:
There is a fundamental difference between “denying service to same-sex couples” (wording of the poll) and the actual issue — punishment of citizens who resist government compelled speech and expression mandates. Buying generic products and basic services is not the same thing as asking someone to create artistic works or expression to promote or celebrate an event. The question on the table is not whether a person should be denied the former class of marketplace transactions (they shouldn’t be), but if the government should have the power to threaten citizens for choosing to not communicate a creative message or participate in an event that violates their conscience. A government that has the power to tell you what you can’t say is bad enough. A government that tells you what you must say in order to avoid ruin is terrifying. ...
The clients ADF represents have served all people over the years they have been in business. Of note, Barronelle Stutzman, the floral artist in Washington [this case remains in the headlines], served for many years and befriended the man who ultimately sued her for the mere act of giving him a list of other florists who would be willing to help him celebrate his ceremony. So the idea that she “refused service based on sexual orientation” is ludicrous. She referred Rob Ingersoll because she is conscience-bound to live her life and mind her business in a way that honors Biblical teaching on marriage. The First Amendment has always protected that freedom. The insistence that recently-enacted local laws and ordinances trump constitutionally-affirmed liberty is upside down. The First Amendment is the preeminent civil right law of our nation. The Johnny-come-lately local laws and ordinances must yield when they conflict with the precious promise of liberty America was founded to fulfill. For Barronelle, that promise hangs by a thread. Not only is she facing the loss of these freedoms, but she could lose her family business, her home, and her life savings.
Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election, which was won by a candidate — Donald Trump — who pledged in a letter to Catholics last month to "defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."
It seems that — to many voters — religious freedom was an important issue in the Nov. 8 election. An issue to which many news organizations were tone-deaf, based on their previously mentioned coverage.
So will coverage of this subject improve based on a new president in the White House?
A Washington Post story out today on conservative white evangelicals celebrating Trump's victory has some interesting insight and is definitely worth a read. The story notes that during President Barack Obama's administration, evangelical Christians "watched gay marriage become the law of the land and Christians come under fire for saying they didn’t want to provide pizzas or cakes or photographs for those weddings."
In the context of that story, that's not terrible wording. But it could be much more precise. See the earlier differentiations in this post. The conscience question is crucial.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press has a piece on Trump's win resetting the national debate on abortion, LGBT rights and other issues:
NEW YORK (AP) — For the combatants in America's long-running culture wars, the triumph of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans was stunning — sparking elation on one side, deep dismay on the other.
Advocates of LGBT rights and abortion rights now fear setbacks instead of further gains. But the outcome emboldened the anti-abortion movement and breathed new life into the religious right's campaign for broad exemptions from same-sex marriage and other laws.
Kelly Shackelford, head of First Liberty Institute, a legal group that specializes in religious freedom cases, said that, for his cause, the environment will transform from "brutal" under the Obama administration to friendly given GOP control of both Congress and the White House. His clients include two Christian bakers in Oregon who were fined for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
"Many of us who fight for religious freedom have felt in the last four or even eight years there was a lot of overreaching that was wrong," said Shackelford, who was among hundreds of religious conservatives who met with Trump last June. "To have someone who is president-elect, who says I'm going to put an end to this ... we're going to go back to a country built on religious freedom. That makes us very hopeful."
Later in the story, AP refers to "conscience protections" and "the rights of people of faith" — both without seeing the need for scare quotes. The same goes for the report's usage of "religious freedom" and "religious liberty."
Kudos to AP for allowing the religious conservatives' perspective to be heard — along with quoting those on the other side worried that "the heart of this country isn't big enough to love us, too."
The AP story is newsy and impartial. It strongly reflects the positions of advocates on both sides of the culture wars, including religious freedom. Rather than take sides, AP reports fairly and as fully as possible for a wire service report.
In a divided nation where many of us have trouble understanding each other, we could use more journalism like this.