Stealing magnolias: Journalists join pro-gay groups against Mississippi's religious liberty law

Last week, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed its religious freedom law, much of the news about Mississippi has been about reprisals. Business groups have vowed to boycott the Magnolia State. Showbiz figure Ellen DeGeneres swats the state, crying oppression. And Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York has banned "nonessential travel" to Mississippi.

All with mainstream media help -- dare I say encouragement?

Reuters writes up the alliance of business leaders and pro-gay groups urging the state to repeal the new law. First the story sets up Governor Phil Bryant as the whipping boy:

Bryant hailed the statute, the latest in a series of state laws opposed by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, as designed to "protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions ... from discriminatory action by state government."
But top executives from General Electric Co., PepsiCo Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and five other major U.S. corporations, in an open letter, condemned the law as discriminatory. The letter was addressed to Bryant and the speaker of the Republican-controlled Mississippi House of Representatives.

The article is a near-textbook case of slurring by the numbers.

Partial quote in defense of the Mississippi law, with lots of quotes against -- check.

Sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty" bills, with none around "gay rights" -- check.

Ignoring religious leaders' viewpoints -- check.

The main pinch of moderation is when Reuters reports: "Still, nearly two-thirds of Mississippi voters supported the law, according to a poll highlighted on Tuesday by the Christian-based Family Research Council." But that's in the second-to-last paragraph.

Fox13 in Memphis was more neutral on Sunday, reporting simply that five more companies had signed the protest letter. But like Reuters -- and most other news organizations -- Fox doesn't ask reaction from any religious leaders. It's a bad habit that wouldn't be allowed in sports, business, politics or any other news beat.

Jumping into the act are entertainment media, including People and Entertainment Weekly, via the pronouncements of Ellen DeGeneres. She used her talk show last week to criticize the Mississippi law as "the definition of discrimination."

"Now, I'm not a political person, I'm really not. But this is not political, this is human rights," she says, according to both magazines. (Try to control the eyerolls.) She predictably equates the Mississippi law with "women's rights, gender pay gap, racism." And she reminds everyone just to love each other.

Neither magazine asks her any questions -- either because they agree with her, or because they parroted her comments from TV rather than pick up a phone.

Religious folks do get to talk in a report by Biloxi-based WLOX, which covered a church service on Sunday. But are you surprised that all the quotes are on the pro-gay side? Yep, it was a Metropolitan Community Church. And the service was a rally of like-minded church people from around the region, including Georgia.

"We know that Mississippi is better than this law," says the Rev. Nancy Wilson, global leader of MCC. "And we won’t let the governor and other people tell us what Mississippians really believe and value in our hearts and minds."

Others in the room agree, and the report ends. Apparently, the hearts and minds of Mississippians who support the new law don’t count.

But a publication can err even when quoting both sides. A react piece in the Sun-Herald in Gulfport, Mississippi seeks out a Baptist pastor and a retired minister of the United Church of Christ -- but not equally.

It's more than the fact that the Rev. Bruno Schroeder, the UCC minister, gets eight paragraphs to the Rev. Chris Ashley's seven. It's that Ashley gets these types of quotes:

"The Supreme Court did not say private schools, charities, businesses or individuals have to abandon their beliefs if they disagree," Ashley said. "There are a lot of government, state, local or whatever that are acting like because this has been passed by the Supreme Court you have to abandon your beliefs."

His liberal counterpart gets to say more substantive remarks like:

Schroeder worried supporters of the new law were misleading people by suggestions that all religious people favor it. He noted the United Church of Christ has ordained openly gay people for more than 50 years.
"All the religious people tend to get lumped in with conservative folks," he said. "There are a considerable number of clergy on the Coast who are in favor of LGBT issues and would stand up for their rights."

The Sun-Herald does one thing right, calling one man conservative and the other liberal; as you know, mainstream media often assume liberal is normative while conservative needs that warning flag. But the paper does one thing wrong also: sarcasm quotes around 'religious freedom' in the headline.

I never thought I'd hold up the London Daily Mail for good reporting, but credit where it's due. In a story yesterday, the paper says that La'Porsha Renae, a runner-up on American Idol, is taking heat for daring to say she doesn't "agree with the LGBT lifestyle."  

"They're people with feelings," Renae says. "Although all of us may not agree with that particular lifestyle for religious reasons, whatever the reason is, you still treat each other with respect."

That still lit up Twitter, where people said they were "disappointed" with her remark, that the LGBT life is not a choice, and that she can't respect gays and disagree with them.

The Daily Mail reports all that, and even allows Gov. Bryant of Mississippi to say the new law "does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws."

Better yet is CNN's sweeping, 1500-word backgrounder. Ignore the clickbait headline, "Why the onslaught of religious freedom laws?" -- the article itself is fair and factual.

CNN starts with "How did LGBT rights and religious freedom end up on a collision course?" Its answer starts with the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, then moves on to the legalization of same-sex marriage last year, then the contentious cases of Kim Davis, Hobby Lobby, the Colorado bakery owner, the so-called "bathroom laws," and religious objection laws like Mississippi's.

The report even brings up the referendum of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Ever notice how few media remember that one? Maybe because Houston's mayor subpoenaed five pastors' sermon notes to see if they preached about it? Among the few that brought it up this week was the Houston Chronicle, which reports that the five sent supportive letters to the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina.

In an excellent passage, a RFRA scholar explains why the law has kicked up little dust until lately:

Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia Law School who helped win passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said state RFRAs have been underenforced.
"But they have done some good in cases that do not involve culture war issues and that the press has mostly not covered," he said.
Some examples: cases involving Orthodox Jewish prisoners wanting kosher meals and churches barred from feeding the homeless.
Laycock added, "We tell our children we provide liberty and justice 'for all.' What we need to implement that promise are strong gay-rights laws, with strong religious exemptions for religious organizations and for individuals and very small businesses in religious contexts."

I wish I could hammer the last two sentences into a bronze plaque, then send it to every culture warrior. On. Both. Sides.

Another sadly shrewd remark:

"There is no political support for respecting the liberty of both sides," Laycock said.
"The Republicans don't want gay-rights laws. ... And the Democrats don't want religious exemptions. The earlier generation of gay-rights laws all have exemptions for churches and religious nonprofits, but it appears that gay-rights groups are no longer willing to agree to such exemptions."

Throughout, CNN provides links not only to past articles but to a summary of the RFRA law itself. Bookmark this story, and you'll save yourself a lot of googling as this national debate continues.

One more thing: Nowhere does CNN put sarcasm quotes around religious freedom, although the term appears five times. See, it can be done.

Thumb: Ellen DeGeneres in Los Angeles in 2011. Photo by Glenn Francis of, via Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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