For new 'bathroom law,' Charlotte Observer masks an opinion piece as a news story

The Charlotte Observer is straying again -- allowing opinion-driven pieces to wander into its news sections. This time it's on House Bill 2, a North Carolina law that took effect March 23.  

The law excludes sexual orientation from anti-discrimination laws, including municipal ordinances. It also declares that people must use school and governmental bathrooms that correspond to their biological gender, whatever their claims of gender identity.

You can see how that would upset LGBT groups, as well as companies that want to project an egalitarian image. But that doesn't mean the Observer should tilt a news story to favor them.

We'll start with the "Duhh" headline: "NC Gov. Pat McCrory says it’s unfair to compare HB2, religious freedom bills. Critics disagree." By definition, critics always disagree.

The Observer then quotes McCrory's interview on NBC's Meet the Press, but only as a setup for a sermon to repeal the law:

In defending House Bill 2, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has said the controversial legislation has been unfairly compared with "religious freedom" legislation that is now law in Mississippi, and nearly passed in Georgia and Arizona.
McCrory has said HB2 isn’t perfect, but he has cast it as more benign than the religious freedom legislation introduced in other states.
"This was not a religious freedom bill," McCrory said on "Meet the Press" Sunday. "We have not had any religious freedom bill introduced in the state of North Carolina. One reason is because I’m governor."
But some say HB2 does more to limit the rights of LGBT people.

Let's also note those sarcasm quotes around "religious freedom," which has become a favorite dash of hypocritical propaganda in mainstream media. Hypocritical, because such articles never treat the phrase "LGBT rights" or "transgender rights" with the same skepticism. Propaganda, because they seldom use any neutral phrase such as religious exemption -- a suggestion made earlier this month by Prof. Mark Silk of Trinity College.

McCrory also argues a number of other things on Meet the Press. Among them: The transgender issue has arisen in the last three months; North Carolina's legal stance is similar to 29 other states; he's trying to balance the rights of LGBT people and others; and some companies demand LGBT protection in the U.S., then deal with nations that have no such protections.

None of that got into the lengthy Observer article, although it ran three days after Meet the Press aired. And if the newspaper asked for its own interview with McCrory, it doesn't say so.

Then the story makes its case against HB2. It quotes a state senator and a Rutgers University professor who say the law is more sweeping for not requiring a religious defense against serving gays.  And a think tanker says that even in Georgia -- where Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious exemption bill -- there is no state-level LGBT shield law, although some cities like Atlanta have passed their own.

But while seeking sources as distant as New Jersey-based Rutgers, the Observer ignores a poll by WRAL, the ABC affiliate in its own state capital of Raleigh. The April 13 poll found that 56 percent of North Carolina voters agreed with the bathroom portion of HB2.

In arguing religious roots of HB2, the article offers a brief history lesson:

The concept of "religious freedom" legislation is rooted in a bipartisan congressional bill from 1993.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to protect Native American religions, most notably giving them access to land for religious ceremonies, and allowing them to use items banned by federal law, such as peyote.
The intent of religious freedom legislation has evolved since then. The goal more recently has been to protect Christian businesses from being required to do something that conflicts with their owners’ religious beliefs, such as providing birth control or serving a gay wedding.
Supporters of newer religious freedom bills, such as one in Indiana, said their laws are mirroring the original 1993 legislation, which was sponsored by Democrats.

Astonishingly, though, the newspaper doesn't bother to spell out what the law actually says. RFRA says that government "should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification." Even then, government must proceed in the "least restrictive way."

In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't impose RFRA on states. That's why numerous states have passed, or tried to pass, their own versions.

By the end of its 1,000 words, the Observer article still leaves several questions hanging. One is: How prevalent are such "transgender rights" abuses (see how quote marks make it look?) around North Carolina? Although anecdotes don’t prove a trend, it's worth noting that a transgender university student filed a lawsuit last month against HB2. And this past Tuesday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled in favor of a transgender teen. Neither of those facts are in the Observer story.

Other questions:

* How does McCrory answer the criticisms in the article?

* How do other defenders of HB2 answer them?

* And if HB2 really is about religious rights, how do pastors and other religious leaders answer?

Even when quoting a source on the same side as McCrory -- the only one among the four sources in this article -- the Observer doesn't have him address any of those questions. It only has him saying:

In Charlotte, council member Ed Driggs voted against the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance twice, in 2015 and again in 2016 when it passed.
At the time, he said he had concerns about protecting people’s deeply held religious beliefs, among other concerns.
On Wednesday Driggs said the state might want to have a conversation about religious freedom, but he said he didn’t think it needs to be a priority. HB2’s prohibition on local governments from establishing their own nondiscrimination policies has probably made it unnecessary, he said.

Apparently, Driggs is only here to shore up the case that HB2 is really religion-based. But he doesn't even get to give his opinion on that law, let alone clear up the above questions.

But then, why bother to ask? After all, this is merely a misplaced op-ed piece.

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