One of the questions your GetReligionistas hear the most from friends of this blog, as well as critics, is this: Do you ever get tired of having to write about the same journalism issues over and over and over?
Yes, this can be tiring. It's frustrating to watch reporters, especially at major news organizations, leave the same religion-shaped (or First Amendment-shaped) holes in their news stories and longer features about important issues and events.
But we keeping doing what we do. We remain pro-journalism. We remain committed to the basics of old-school reporting and editing, holding out for values such as accuracy, balance and fairness.
So, as you would imagine, this post is about a familiar topic. First, here is a flashback to a recent Julia Duin post that spotted an important hole in several news reports about SB1146, a bill in California that would shake the church-state ground under all of the state's private schools. At the time Julia wrote this post -- "Christian colleges on chopping block: Why are California newspapers ignoring the story?" -- mainstream news organizations were simply missing the story -- period.
But there was a specific, and oh so familiar, problem in a report from The Sacramento Bee:
... The Bee does not add that students have a choice whether or not to attend these private schools. In most cases they sign documents in which they affirm the school's stands on doctrinal issues, including those linked to sexual behavior. Here at GetReligion, we’ve brought up again and again the fact that religious schools tend to have something called covenants whereby the students who attend them and those who teach and work at them agree to live according to the doctrines affirmed by that institution.
Let me stress that this is true for private schools on the cultural and religious left, as well as the right. Vanderbilt University, for example, made headlines with its efforts to restrict the First Amendment rights of conservative Christian groups and students on its campus -- in effect making a liberal take of sexuality a part of its established doctrines. Traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., could either accept these doctrines or transfer somewhere else.
In other words, these private schools -- left and right -- are voluntary associations and have the right to defend the doctrines on which they are built.
So what about the new Associated Press report about SB1146, a story that appeared in newspapers and on websites from coast to coast? What happened to the "covenant" hole this time around? Read carefully at the top of the story and you can tell that the AP team knew that this issue exists:
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The conflict between religious freedom and gay rights has a new battleground -- California's religious colleges and universities.
A bill moving through the Legislature would remove a longstanding exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious institutions, potentially exposing the schools to civil rights lawsuits from students and employees.
Some schools call the measure, SB1146, an attack on their free exercise of religion and say the exemption allows them to craft campus policies in line with their faith. Currently, religious institutions can assign housing based on sex, not gender identity, and discipline students for violating moral codes of conduct, which can include anti-transgender or strict sexuality provisions.
Note the references to "moral codes of conduct" and the crafting of "campus policies in line with their faith."
However, the story never explains that these are private schools and, to be blunt, students don't have to attend them. The proposed law, in effect, says that students do not have to honor the doctrinal commitments contained in the documents that they sign when they choose to attend a private school. This is the Vanderbilt case, in reverse.
Supporters of the new bill are quoted, of course, as they should be:
Its author, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, argues that students who attend religious colleges or universities should have the same rights and protections as students who attend other schools.
"Opponents of LGBT equality have been using the pretext of exercise of religion to justify discrimination," said Rick Zbur, executive director of the advocacy group Equality California.
Hey AP team, here is a follow-up question or two: Is it the bill's goal to end America's history of defending the rights of voluntary associations, including those that defend the religious faiths that brought them into existence? Also, can liberal private schools now be sued when they discriminate against traditional religious groups and individuals (as in the famous Yale University case long ago involving Orthodox Jews and co-ed dorms)?
The AP story on SB1146 answers many key questions and does allow religious believers to protest these limits on religious liberty. However, the crucial information about students choosing to attend these private schools (or not) is missing -- once again. For example:
Anthony Villarreal, 25, a former track and cross country athlete at William Jessup, is among those who say they would have benefited if the law were in place. He says the university dismissed him in 2013 after learning that he lived with his boyfriend.
The university maintains Villarreal violated a policy prohibiting violent behavior after being arrested and charged with domestic violence. Villarreal acknowledges he was arrested after a domestic violence call involving the home he shared with his boyfriend, but he says charges were never filed.
Villarreal now works three jobs to pay off student loans for an education he has yet to finish. It's too late for him to sue, but he supports the legislation.
"It isn't out to attack Christian universities or wipe them off the face of the planet," he said. "They shouldn't have the legal right or entitlement to discriminate against anyone."
So what is the obvious question in that case?
Did Villarreal sign a doctrinal covenant when he choose to attend William Jessup? Were the contents of this document made clear to him? Did someone tell him that he was exempt from the policies contained in the document that he voluntarily signed? Is he seeking the right, in other words, to sue a private, voluntary association for enforcing the beliefs that he agreed to honor -- signing on the bottom line -- when he enrolled?
Journalists, of course, do not have to agree with these doctrines and policies at private religious schools on the left or the right. But they do need to understand the basic facts in these stories and accurately address them in their news stories.
Just saying. Again.