Media gag order: In Georgia religious liberty flap, one side is played up, the other shouted down

So Georgia passed their hotly debated religious freedom bill, allowing faith-based objections to serving gays. What could be stronger than the voice of the people?

At least two things: Pro sports magnates and mainstream media. Together, they're shouting down the opposition in a drive to get Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill.

Team associations, like the NFL and NCAA, threaten boycotts. Team owners preach equality and tolerance. Religious voices -- except for one exception, which we'll mention later -- essentially get a gag order.

Typical for much of the coverage is yesterday's Washington Post story:

The NFL issued a stern warning Friday to the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta, a reminder that if a "religious liberty" bill is signed into law by the governor, it could affect whether the city is chosen to host a Super Bowl.
The bill states that, with few exceptions, the government may not "substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability." It would also protect faith-based groups from penalties if, in the absence of contracts, they refuse to provide "social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief." Those groups would also be protected if they chose not to hire an employee whose religious beliefs are in contrast with the organization’s.
The purpose of the bill, which has gone from the state legislature to the governor, is, according to one legislator, to provide a response to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. The NFL joined hundreds of businesses in Georgia that see it as discriminatory.
"NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites."

The Post goes on like that for 1,200 words. It adds rebukes from the NCAA and from Atlanta teams the Hawks, the Braves and the Falcons. They all recite similar scripts about tolerance, equality, diversity and welcoming everyone.

But why did the state pass the bill? What does the article have on that? Only state senator Greg Kirk: "When the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage, dynamics changed. There was a need for a law, for this law, and it took Georgia to lead the way of the country to put this law together."

What need? Doesn't say. The Post didn’t even interview Kirk -- just lifted his quote from the New York Times. And incredibly, the Post couldn't or wouldn't find a pastor or religious activist or Christian college official in Georgia.

And notice what I call sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty." As GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway has asked, would mainstream media put quotes around "gay rights"?

I'm especially picking on the Post out of disappointment, considering the often fine coverage on its Acts of Faith page. But in this case, the paper is no worse than many other media -- especially with those sarcasm quotes:

* "NFL warns state of Georgia over 'religious freedom' bill," says CBS News, making sure to get the sarcasm in the headline. Same for CBS affiliate WTVM in Columbus, Ga., which simply ran the team statements in full, in italics.

* "Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is in the process of deciding whether to sign a law that its supporters call a 'religious liberty' bill but which opponents point out would legalize anti-gay discrimination in the state," says NBC Sports, borrowing heavily from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

*"Atlanta is being warned that the city could miss out on a future Super Bowl bid if Georgia passes a 'religious liberty' bill now being considered by Governor Nathan Deal," intones.

* "Georgia’s 'religious liberty' bill recently passed through state legislature, and governor Nathan Deal is currently weighing its ratification, with review due in April," Sports Illustrated says, in a patch job from the New York Times and AJC.

The funny thing is, many of the articles link to that Times story -- a story that shuns sarcasm and quotes both sides. The article says the bill is meant to "strengthen legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage, delivering a sudden victory for religious conservatives." It adds that the bill "defied the wishes of many of Georgia’s most influential companies, as well as gay rights groups that said the bill would allow for lawful discrimination."

And like the Post, the article explains why proponents felt the need for the bill:

The proposal declares that with few exceptions, the government may not "substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability." The language is similar to that in laws in effect at the federal level and in 21 states.
The Georgia bill would also shield faith-based groups from penalties if, without violating voluntary agreements like contracts, they refuse to provide "social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief." It would also protect such groups if they chose not to employ someone whose religious beliefs conflict with the organization’s.

That's more detail than most Atlanta media themselves gave, at least this past weekend. The city's NPR station, WABE, manages to avoid the sarcasm quotes …

The Georgia General Assembly recently passed a bill, called the "Free Exercise Protection Act," that would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to people based on their religious beliefs.
But making the bill into law could create some backlash from the NFL, which Atlanta is hoping to host for the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.

… but makes no effort at full, both-sided coverage. And if it ever ran a discussion on the bill -- the kind of coverage at which NPR excels -- the station doesn't supply a link here.

The hometown Journal-Constitution does maybe a B-plus job in its 1,000-word article. It does put ‘Religious liberty bill’ in sarcasm quotes in the headline, but like the Times, it also explains what the bill says. It even quotes people who actually favor the bill.

Here's one of them:

Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett has said the party does not believe the bill discriminates. He called it "appropriate, fair and good for Georgia."
"Under the Gold Dome, Republican leadership and members of the General Assembly have worked tirelessly to craft legislation that protects people of faith without sanctioning discrimination of any kind," Padget’s statement says. "This compromise bill does just that."

But none of the above stories -- not even the AJC piece, which had at least four writers -- quotes any religious sources on an issue that has an obvious religious angle. Even the NYT story quotes no religious conservatives, although it mentions them in the lede.

But the Times does include a religious quote -- from State Representative Karla Drenner: "This bill suggests that at my core, there is something offensive about who God made me to be." Why her? Because she's "Georgia’s first openly gay legislator."

Religious rights versus gay rights continues as an undeniably hot topic in American society -- so heated, it's questionable whether the Supreme Court should have tried to resolve it single-handedly. It's good -- no, necessary -- for the national conversation to continue.

How to accommodate both sides? I don't have that answer. But I do know how not to do it: by gagging the conversation with propaganda thinly masked as news. By tacitly telling one side, "We've got your back!" while telling the other side, "Just shut up."

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