Religious Liberty: Atlanta Journal-Constitution follow-up ignores religious sources again

Drat. After criticizing mainstream media the other day, for playing up opposition to Georgia's religious rights bill while gagging the pro-law side, I was all ready to praise the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a balanced follow-up. Sadly, I have to hold the applause.

Yesterday's post, "Sides argue about impact Georgia ‘religious liberty’ bill would have," details some arguments for and against the bill, which would allow religious objections to serving with LGBT people. The bill was passed on Wednesday and now awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature, or his veto.

AJC delivers on its promise, partly. It reveals the contents of a "packet of documents" from the state Republican Party to its legislative allies, with background and talking points. It tells (yes, again) of corporate opposition, on the grounds that such a law would drive away businesses -- including pro sports championships like Super Bowl -- from Georgia. And it reports a Monday press conference by three gay legislators.

On the downside, the article is lopsided against the bill (yes, again).  It doesn't quote any religious leaders, although it mentions religious rights, beliefs, people and organizations 10 times.  And yet again, it uses sarcastic, scare quotes in the headline -- a clear signal for the viewpoint we readers should take about the measure.

For sheer volume, the 1,300-word article seems actually to favor the pro-law side. I count 11 paragraphs in favor of the bill, 10 against. (Some paragraphs are neutral, with background or simple narratives of the proceedings.) But look closer.

Here is how AJC quotes House Speaker David Ralston and his spokesman about the proposed new law:

The talking points specify that HB 757 "strikes a balance between protecting rights under the First Amendment while at the same time welcoming all to Georgia without fear of discrimination" and that it is a "carefully drafted, narrowly-focused measure with clear anti-discriminatory language that does not impact commercial transactions and will keep Georgia the #1 state in the nation for business."
Ralston on Monday was more direct. In an interview that will air at 7 p.m Tuesday on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s "The Lawmakers," Ralston said the bill is "free of discrimination."

The article then proffers a counter-argument, though in more of a vague "sources say" vein:

Despite Ralston’s comments, opponents of the measure insist HB 757 would allow discrimination. For example, some have said nearly anyone involved in the wedding industry could refuse to provide services to a gay couple should the bill become law.
That’s because the bill says no "individual" could be forced to attend a same-sex wedding. Under that language, opponents said, a photographer, musician or florist, for example, could refuse to serve a gay couple. After all, a person can’t photograph a wedding if he can’t be forced to attend it.

The newspaper also has a disparaging appraisal from Alexander Volokh, a constitutional law professor from Emory University. He suspects the bill, if signed into law, "might give a 'Kim Davis' legal basis for 'I don’t want to do this marriage." To its credit, AJC gets a reply from Republican partisan Edward Lindsey, who says the bill also "makes clear government employees cannot use it to avoid their duties."

Still, this is not a straight "he said / he said" type of article. It takes pains to list the opposition forces: The Buckhead Coalition, a group of Atlanta business and civic leaders; the Georgia and Atlanta chambers of commerce; and leaders of major corporations, including Intel, PayPal and Yelp.  Plus the NFL, which has threatened to cancel Atlanta's Super Bowl bid over this matter.

So whoever favors this bill, aside from its Republican sponsors?  The article finally gets around to them, in another "sources say" vagary:

Conservative groups such as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board have urged supporters to ask Deal to sign the bill, saying it would protect religious viewpoints that marriage should be between a man and a woman and prevent discrimination against religious groups.

Then it gives the last word to three openly gay legislators, along with two others who have gay relatives. State representative Karla Drenner: "Freedom of religion is an American value; it allows all of us to believe as we see fit … it does not allow us to use religion to harm or take away from others."

We at GR have seen this tactic again and again: live quotes from the liberal side, humanizing them and making them more relatable; canned quotes from the conservative side, making them … well, you can fill in the rest.

So that's the lineup: Businessmen, sports figures, gay legislators and a law professor, all arrayed against a few Republicans and two faceless, carefully labled "conservative" groups that don’t even rate a direct quote. Which is the "right" side? If you say "the side that cast the majority vote from elected representatives of Georgia's voters," you don't grasp things as clearly as AJC.

Not that the breaking news story on Wednesday was any better. Headlined "Gay marriage opponents win ‘religious liberty’ vote in Georgia Senate," it already had the sarcasm quotes at 6:36 p.m. It was also barren of reactions by religious groups or individuals, although it mentioned them eight times.

Nor was it much different three hours later. That update preserved the skeptical headline, "Republican lawmakers pass 'religious liberty' compromise" -- adding a hint that the GOP used naked force instead of the usual legislative process. And in what has become an AJC pattern, the article dropped several references to religion without quoting any religious people.

By this afternoon, the newspaper was in full relapse when it caught up with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in Boca Raton, Fla. The headline calls it "the so-called ‘religious liberty’ bill" -- a double scoop of sarcasm. Then it regurgitates the threat of a Super Bowl boycott and the disapproval of Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

What about reactions from the religious people who were mentioned in those sarcasm quotes? Nah. And why should there be? Just because they're among those who would be most affected?

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