Shotgun approach: Articles on Mississippi lawsuits are short, loud and messy

The progressive crusade to Clean Up the Bigoted Bible Belt revisits Mississippi this week. And as always, some professionals in the mainstream media are taking a shotgun approach -- blasting all matters of religious objections, for everyone in every situation, paying no attention to the fine details.

First, Reuters reported on the American Civil Liberties Union, filing for an injunction against Mississippi's new Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, which allows religious objections to same-sex marriage.  

Then the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported on the Campaign for Southern Equality, which is trying to reopen a lawsuit against the same law. The organization in 2014 got the U.S. District Court to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage.

Both articles make the issues as murky as water in a Mississippi bayou.

Let's start with the hometown newspaper:

Tuesday's lawsuit is the second filed in two days over the divisive bill. Monday, the ACLU filed a suit against the state department of health to declare the bill unconstitutional.
Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the provision in HB 1523 that allows Mississippi public officials to seek to "recuse" themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples based on certain "sincerely held" religious beliefs, according to a press release issued Tuesday by the organization.

At least that part is clear, though stained with sarcasm quotes. Does the newspaper think people don't know what recusal is? Is it trying to throw doubt onto every claim of sincerely held belief? And is it so surprising that a law can be divisive?

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the Campaign for Southern Equality calls HB 1523 unconstitutional, creating inequality before the law. The group wants state officials to report and explain any proposed recusal, so that gay marriages won't be delayed or impeded.

Why didn’t the newspaper link to HB 1523, as it did on April 15? Readers would have found this part interesting:

Any person making such recusal shall provide prior written notice to the State Registrar of Vital Records who shall keep a record of such recusal, and the state government shall not take any discriminatory action against that person wholly or partially on the basis of such recusal. The person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.

Sounds like the very things the Campaign for Southern Equality wants. The paper should have looked into that.

Nor does the Clarion-Ledger report any official responses to the lawsuit. That's a major hole when the suit names Gov. Phil Bryant, Attorney General Jim Hood and Barbara Dunn, circuit court clerk for Hinds County. Even the out-of-state found time to put Bryant on camera.

Reuters, which focuses on the ACLU lawsuit, does even worse:

The lawsuit, filed Monday (May 9), seeks a court injunction to stop the law from taking effect on July 1. The ACLU said the measure discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and is unconstitutional after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriage.
The ACLU of Mississippi is suing on behalf of state residents Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, a gay couple engaged to be married.
"At a time when we’re supposed to be excited as a couple engaged to be married, this law permits discrimination against us simply because of who we are," they said in a statement released by the ACLU.

The Reuters piece isn’t all bad. It gives some say to the governor:

"The ACLU continues its mission of trying to use the federal court system to push its liberal agenda," Bryant said in a statement responding to the lawsuit. "Instead of cherry-picking causes popular with the radical left, the ACLU should allocate its resources defending all civil liberties."

But it doesn't answer the accusation of unconstitutionality. And this sentence doesn't click: "In a media release, the ACLU said that Mississippi law could impact people in sexual relationships outside of a heterosexual marriage." Like how? We could guess that it's saying a religious person could hypothetically refuse to serve noncelibate single people. But we shouldn't have to guess.

Ummm, but what does the law say? Even if Reuters didn’t see the Clarion-Ledger link, would it be that hard to Google the text of the law? I don’t think so.

And would it be too hard to remind readers that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal law on which most of these laws are based, makes a difference between systematic discrimination -- say, a business with a history of turning away gays -- and rare, occasional objections based on conscience, which stem from religious beliefs (doctrines linked to established religious traditions, not those made up by an individual)? This is a set of facts, as tmatt said last year, which news media seldom acknowledge.

And once again, the articles ignore one of the main groups mentioned in the law: religious people. Do you think pastors, priests, rabbis, deacons or theologians might have opinions on this story? To put it another way: Could you imagine a report on race relations that ignored black leaders and thinkers?

A final thought: The Reuters article plays up Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, the engaged gay couple, in an obvious attempt at sympathy. But have the two encountered any actual delay or impediment to their wedding? Or does Reuters assume they’ve suffered discrimination purely because they're suing over the issue?

Shotguns are not known for precise aim.

Photo credit: sebr via (CC BY-NC-SA).


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