Baby steps: AP shows improvement in reporting religious-objections bill in Missouri

Well, it appears that a mainstream journalist went out and found one minister to quote in religious liberty story.

They usually don’t quote any in news articles like these. So an Associated Press article on a new religious-exemption bill in Missouri is a tiny step in the right direction.

The piece, carried by the Charlotte Observer, reports the new storm a-brewing over a religious objections bill in that state. The top of story focuses on a business-heavy backlash:

More than 60 businesses including some of Missouri's biggest corporate names joined a coalition opposed to state legislation that would protect businesses objecting on religious grounds to same-sex marriages, the latest sign of a backlash against such proposals across the country.
Agricultural giant Monsanto, prescription drug benefits manager Express Scripts, and pet food maker Nestle Purina are among employers to join the recently formed Missouri Competes, according to gay rights advocacy group PROMO, which released the list just hours before a House committee heard testimony from business, sports and religious groups. Dozens crammed in the Capitol basement for the late-night hearing.
The formation of the coalition comes amid business pushback to legislation in other states protecting those opposed to gay marriage.

The article has much to recommend it. AP quotes an equal number of sources on each side. It uses terms like religious-objections legislation instead of the usual "religious freedom," in sarcasm quotes.  

And the story spots the big difference from similar bills and laws in other states:

Supporters argue the Missouri law is intentionally narrower than laws passed in other states and is necessary to protect some businesses from being forced to violate religious beliefs.
The proposal would allow voters to decide whether to amend the Missouri Constitution to ban government penalties against businesses that cite religion while declining goods or services of "expressional or artistic creation" for same-sex weddings. That would include florists and photographers.
The measure comes after bakers and florists have faced legal challenges in other states for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings. It also would shield clergy, places of worship and other religious organizations from being penalized for not participating in marriages involving same-sex partners.

Interestingly, AP gives the first quote to a supporter of the bill, the aforementioned pastor.  So many stories of this type often ignore religious voices, even when using the phrase "religious freedom" several times. And they seem to quote everyone except clergy.

Take this report on the Missouri bill from NBC station Channel 41 in Kansas City. The one-minute report takes the exclusive viewpoint of KC's Chamber of Commerce, quoting their gloom 'n' doom message without a counterpoint.

But why AP chose that particular pastor to quote isn’t clear. Sure wasn't because they wanted a long speech from him:

Lee's Summit pastor Phil Hopper was among religious leaders who backed the measure Tuesday.
"We cannot give one group of people certain rights and take away the rights of others that they've had for generations," Hopper said.

AP also excerpts a written testimony to the legislature from the Missouri Catholic Conference, saying that "no person should be forced to personally attend and participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony if this violates their sincerely held religious beliefs." That's nice, but why not get a live quote from a Catholic leader? I'll bet Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, or at least his communications office, would have cheerfully supplied one.

But the article does the same for the bill's enemies, citing a statement from an official of the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, who says it would be bad for business. A Republican legislator breaks ranks with her party to criticize the bill. And a lobbyist for Monsanto (Whoaaaa, they have their own lobbyist!) says the bill would hinder his company's pro-LGBT policies.

Besides the minister, supporters include Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who says that "nobody's trying to punish gays." Sen. Bob Onder, sponsor of the bill, dismisses criticisms as "overblown and hyperbole." He adds an interesting prediction: If "corporate elites" insist on boycotting whole states, consumers may start boycotting them.

Soooo, what's so bad about the AP story? Well, it could have been clearer that the bill doesn't endorse across-the-board discrimination against LGBT people. It would specifically offer a chance for the protection of ministers and those who don’t want to take part in events linked to marital rites that conflict with the long-established teachings of their faith tradition.

Impressive that the story includes Rep. Anne Zerr, a Republican, who is fighting the bill. I wonder if AP could have also found a Democrat who backs it? Nationwide, some old-school First Amendment liberals -- like Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee -- have supported the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But it doesn't say how the bill is different from others being passed or considered. AP did produce a roundup of the bills or laws in 33 states, with a paragraph for each. The sweeping new law in Mississippi, for instance, shields -- take a deep breath -- "religious organizations that decline to host marriages, employ people or facilitate adoption or foster care based on a religious belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, sex outside marriage is wrong or that sexual identity is determined by a person's anatomy at birth."

Newspapers should run that story alongside news items, like the Missouri story, to give readers some perspective. Unfortunately, many don’t -- like the Charlotte Observer, which ran both AP articles online, but not together.

Now, back to the minister quoted here. Which church does Phil Hopper pastor? What denomination does it belong to? Could a single pastoral voice represent all wings of Christianity -- including, say, Catholics, Baptists, United Methodists, Eastern Orthodox?

All branches of the faith may believe in Jesus. But they all don’t believe equally in the right of government to guard or regulate the practice of religious doctrine. As I've said in previous columns, a specialist in religion writing likely would have thought of all that.

So the story is a step in the right direction. But keep stepping, AP.

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