'Scare quotes' are back in the PR-esque coverage of Mississippi religious liberty bill

The "scare quotes" are back.

Once again we face a familiar journalistic question: Is it possible to do news coverage of religious liberty debates linked to gay-rights issues in a way that accurately represents views on both sides and even -- imagine this -- quotes informed, qualified experts on both sides?

Also, flashing back to my Kentucky post from the other day, is the goal of these legal debates to promote the rights of gay couples who seek marriage licenses (and other services) or to punish traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who believe that it would violate their consciences to be involved in same-sex union events?

With that in mind, let's walk carefully through the top of this recent USA Today network story about recent events in Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss. -- U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued ... a permanent injunction barring Mississippi from denying same-sex marriage licenses, meaning no circuit clerk or staff member clerk can deny a gay couple a marriage license even if the state's "religious freedom" bill is in effect.

OK, so right now the state of Mississippi is preventing gay couples from obtaining marriage licenses. Did I read that correctly?

But the second half of the sentence addresses something completely different -- which is a bill to protect the First Amendment rights of individual clerks and staff members. Note the statement that "NO circuit clerk" can deny a license. The implication is that there are many clerks and staffers who are willing to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the judge is making sure that EVERYONE has to take part in the same-sex marriage process.

So it would appear that the state of Mississippi is not currently "denying same-sex licenses" as stated in the lede. Correct? (Please see this James Davis post on this legislation, from earlier in the week.)

Let's read on.

HB 1523, which goes into effect July 1, provides circuit clerks and deputy clerks with the right to recuse themselves from providing a marriage license to same-sex couples if it is against their religious belief. However, the law outlined the steps that must be taken and said the clerks had to provide a way or information on how same-sex couples could get a marriage license.

Once again, this information seems to clash with the lede. This paragraph notes that the law in question actually REQUIRES clerks -- an example of conflict-of-interest guidelines -- to provide same-sex couples with a way to obtain marriage licenses from other state officials. So in what sense does this law, as stated in the lede, deny same-sex marriage licenses?

What we need here are two sets of quotes, explaining both sides of this debate.

As you would expect, the story does include material -- as it should -- from the Campaign for Southern Equality and other supporters of same-sex marriage. Readers get to hear their view of this law (but not their view of this conflict-of-interest section of the law that makes same-sex marriages possible, no matter what).

Now, we need to hear from church-state legal experts on the other side. We need to hear them offer their take on how the law works in practice, including that crucial conflict-of-interest clause that requires all clerks to help same-sex couples to obtain licenses, even if an individual clerk believes that she or he cannot provide the license without violating the established, historic doctrines of a faith group.

Do readers get that information? Do they hear a qualified voice explaining the law, from the point of view of those who supported it? (By the way, did this bill draw support from Democrats as well as Republicans?)

No, readers only get to hear from a politician.

"If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice their religion, then all Mississippians are denied their 1st Amendment rights,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday. “I hope the state’s attorneys will quickly appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of all Mississippians.”

Also, try to square the language in this story's lede with this information provided later in the story:

... Attorney for the state Paul Barnes said no same-sex couple has been denied a marriage license in Mississippi since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.

So journalists: Is it accurate for a news story to report that the purpose of this religious freedom bill is to deny same-sex couples the ability to get married in the state of Mississippi? Or is it accurate to say that the bill requires all clerks to help same-sex couples obtain licenses, even if individual clerks or state officials believe that they cannot hand over or sign the licenses themselves, without violating their religious beliefs?

Thus, this USA Today network story contains enough information for careful readers to learn that Mississippi is, in this legislation, trying to do two things: (1) Protect the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers and (2) make it possible, in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing gay marriage, for same-sex couples to obtain licenses.

But what if readers don't make it past the lede? Once again, it stated:

JACKSON, Miss. -- U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued ... a permanent injunction barring Mississippi from denying same-sex marriage licenses, meaning no circuit clerk or staff member clerk can deny a gay couple a marriage license even if the state's "religious freedom" bill is in effect.

The bottom line: Is Mississippi "denying same-sex marriage licenses" under this religious liberty bill?

Believe it or not, there are worse stories out there on this issue. Check out this Washington Post "Style" report, which functions as a public-relations piece for the gay-rights side of the debate.

This story also includes this loaded paragraph. Read it carefully. Where is this information coming from? To whom is it attributed? According to the Post (and unnamed sources), the religious freedom bill:

... sought to protect Mississippians who had three specific religious beliefs: That marriage was between one man and one woman, that sex is reserved for heterosexual married couples and that gender is determined at birth. Court clerks would be allowed to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples by asserting a religious offense. A single mother could be fired from her job. Any private business owner could refuse service to anyone they perceived to be gay by citing the above religious beliefs.
Local, national and international outrage ensued.

Is this information accurate? What do experts on both sides of this law say, when explaining how it would apply in practice?

For example, that famous florist in the Pacific Northwest (see previous Bobby Ross Jr., post) who was taken down by the state of Washington, never claimed the right to deny services to all gay customers. The evidence showed that she had plenty of gay customers and LGBT staff in her store, as well. The dispute centered on whether she would led her skills, against the tenets of her faith, to a gay wedding.

What would tolerance look like, for believers on both sides of this dispute?

Let me end with a parable that I created in an earlier post:

... Let's say that there is a businessman ... who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.
Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.
Whose religious rights are being violated? ...
This is, of course, a highly specific parable -- full of the unique details that tend to show up in church-state law and, often, in cases linked to laws built on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) language. It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.

Let me stress, as always, that journalists do not have to agree with the beliefs of the traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others that they cover in these cases. However, journalists need to show a willingness to listen to voices on both sides and then quote them accurately. It's even good to show respect for people on both sides.

Is it possible for journalists to do this?

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