That religious freedom law in Mississippi: Newspapers struggle to clarify basic issues

Of all the stories I've seen on Mississippi's new religious freedom law, the one in the Jackson Free Press is one of the few that remembers what the debate is really about: the First Amendment. Specifically, the Establishment Claus versus the Free Exercise Clause.

Not that the newspaper delivers totally on its promise to cover all bases. It stumbles and wanders and omits in places.  Here are the first two paragraphs:

JACKSON -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." How those words affect the language in House Bill 1523 could lead to a historic Establishment Clause ruling this week when U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves decides whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction to keep HB 1523 from becoming law on July 1.
Pastors, priests, advocates and other Mississippians named as plaintiffs in two lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of the bill claim that it advances a certain religious view, discriminates by favoring three particular beliefs and favors religion over non-religion, specifically targeting LGBT citizens.

It's a tantalizing start for anyone who still cares about religious rights, and how far the law should protect them. 

In a time when people can be fined and shamed for not photographing a wedding or not decorating a cake for one, legal matters can take a painfully personal tinge. And several states, from Florida to Indiana, have passed various versions of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to cope.

As the Free Press points out, HB 1523 brings in New York-based attorney Roberta Kaplan, who helped bring down Mississippi's law on same-sex marriage. The two argue that the pending state law "favors three particular religious beliefs over others." Those beliefs are that "marriage should be recognized between one man and one woman, sexual relations are reserved to that marriage and that gender is assigned at birth."

If anyone says in court that those beliefs are not strictly religion-based, the paper doesn't report it.

Because the first "witness" cited is Douglas NeJaime from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. He says that RFRA has been used increasingly by religious groups over the last five years, and that the HB 1523 itself is based on a model law written by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

A point for the Jackson paper for reporting an exchange after an attorney for Gov. Phil Bryant says the law is meant to "level the playing field":

Judge Reeves asked the defendants' attorneys if anything in HB 1523 protects a person who opposes opposite-sex marriage. Paul Barnes from the attorney general's office, said he had not considered that.
"Based on the text of the act, I'd say no," Barnes told the court.
Reeves also asked Barnes if he felt that those who supported the bill believed that their opposite-sex marriages were threatened by Obergefell. Barnes said yes, particularly those who hold those beliefs "disfavored" in Obergefell.

But the Free Press then wastes four paragraphs on a witness telling a story of someone else who said her daughter was called out by a public school teacher for having two mothers. This sounds less like journalism than gossip. Whatever its admissibility in court, does it belong in a news report?

What else did the state say? That the law doesn't make an end run around federal law, and that -- as the U.S. Supreme Court itself said in approving gay marriage -- "many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage."

Have you noticed who doesn't get quoted? How about those pastors and priests who oppose HB 1523? Here we are again with a newspaper talking about religious leaders, but not to any of them. This is a gavel-size ghost in a lengthy article.

The Wall Street Journal does quote a person of faith:

"I truly believe that people will take great license with [the law] and there will be a lot of abuses," said Susan Hrostowski, a 58-year-old plaintiff in one of four lawsuits. An Episcopal priest in Hattiesburg, Miss, she and her wife were among couples who won a ruling against the state ban on adoption by same sex couples in a separate case earlier this year.

The Journal doesn't say whether Hrostowski is one of the named plaintiffs, however. The paper also should have asked what kinds of abuses she fears. WSJ also gets a religious leader of sorts for the defense:

"American citizens should not be required to abandon their religious beliefs in engaging the world around us," said Abraham Hamilton, a public policy analyst with the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, which supports the Mississippi law.

But neither newspaper reports that Carlton Reeves, the district judge overseeing this case, has already struck down part of HB 1523. As the Associated Press says:

Mississippi clerks cannot cite their own religious beliefs to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, under a ruling a federal judge handed down Monday.
The effect of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves is that the state can't enforce part of a religious objections bill that was supposed to become law Friday.
Reeves is extending his previous order that overturned Mississippi's ban on same-sex marriage. He says circuit clerks are required to provide equal treatment for all couples, gay or straight. He also said that all 82 circuit clerks must be given formal notice of that requirement.

Even the WSJ story could have been clearer. Although it says that part of the law was overturned, it didn’t specify what's left. Surprisingly, the Daily Caller does better:

The bill’s advocates sought to protect wedding vendors such as florists or bakers who refused to service gay weddings as well as government employees like Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs. The judge’s Monday ruling keeps intact the other protections, like those for florists and bakers, but removes the protection for the Kim Davis-style clerks in Mississippi.

Undeniably, ongoing stories build up a crust of associated issues, rather like barnacles on a ship. Updates and testimonies and armies of attorneys can obscure the basic issues (often by design!). That makes a journalist's job even more important: clarifying, contexting, reminding us what a story is mainly about.

Thumb: Gavel photo by Jason Morrison via

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