Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Ever since the 1980s, I have been telling editors and journalists that conflicts about religious liberty were going cause some of the biggest news stories on the American horizon.

Anyone who has been reading GetReligion since 2004 knows that I've been saying that, over and over. Amen If you listen to this week's "Crossroads" podcast, looking ahead into 2017, you're going to hear more about that. No apologies.

The roots of this concern run back to my graduate-school work in Baylor University's church-state studies program, where -- in 1977-78 -- we could hear the early rumblings of what would become Bob Jones University vs. United States case.

Why is that important? Do you remember this crucial moment in the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell debates about same-sex marriage?

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is, it is going to be an issue.

That's why religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling, in his recent pair of memos looking ahead to 2017, stressed that religious-liberty cases -- linked to LGBTQ issues, again -- would remain on the front burner for major American newsrooms. Click here and then here for those two Ostling posts.

You can see the same themes again, over and over, in the recent "Acts of Faith" year-beginner piece at The Washington Post by religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey (yes, a former member of the GetReligion team). The headline: "Here’s what we think will be the major religion stories of 2017." Here is the overture:

The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.
Several hot-button issues -- including immigration, abortion, poverty, health care, gay rights and education -- will put religion near the center of public life and debate.
But the issue that could especially flare up? In a Trump administration, “religious freedom” is expected to either flourish -- or come under attack -- depending on who defines religious freedom.

Immigration? Think religious-liberty battles over churches involved in "sanctuary city" movements to protect illegal aliens. Think religious-liberty disputes here in America about Islam and refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Abortion and other life issues? That speaks for itself, especially when linked to the battles over deconstructing Obamacare. And how about religious-liberty battles over the rights of medical personnel in Catholic hospitals?

LGBTQ rights? Education? Do we really need to detail the religious-liberty fights there?

All of this -- surprise, surprise -- leads straight to the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House. Does anyone really know what Donald Trump will do? I sure don't.

Here are two key passages in Bailey's piece:

In a divided, angry America, religious freedom is frequently seen through the lens of the “culture wars,” says Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum. Once Donald Trump is inaugurated, many religious conservatives will seek to rollback culture war advances made by President Obama, including on abortion rights and LGBT rights.
“For some, religious claims for exemptions and accommodations are a form of bigotry,” Haynes said. “For others, minority religious groups -- especially Muslims -- are an existential threat to American traditions and values.”

Later there is this:

The concept of religious freedom as protected under the First Amendment has become polarizing, but Haynes said it has one definition: Liberty of conscience for people of all faiths or of no faith. “This should mean taking claims of conscience seriously and providing accommodations whenever possible,” Haynes said. “And it should also mean standing up for the rights of others, including those with whom we deeply disagree.”

Actually, journalists should realize that this is a good working definition of another important word in a truly liberal society -- "tolerance."

Journalists also need to remember that the "culture wars" are also being fought along other fronts, in addition to matters of government. I think it's crucial for religion-beat pros to keep there eyes on what is happening at major corporations and, especially, in higher education.

For example, what happens if the "shaming" movement attacking doctrinally defined religious colleges and universities gets on a roll?

What happens if several strategic private (stress PRIVATE, not state) professional institutions -- think schools of law and medicine at Harvard and Yale -- begin refusing all applications from conservative religious schools? Never forget that liberal private schools can have doctrinal statements and covenants, just like traditional religious private schools. What could national political leaders do about that, I mean, other than sending out nasty tweets?

Keep your eyes on sports trends, as well. Why? Consider this current USA Today headline: "Texas bathroom bill on the radar of the NCAA, Big 12." Do you think the culture warriors at ESPN would play a role in that kind of discussion? Oh, don't forget that the NCAA, the Big 12 and ESPN are non-government institutions as well. They are "private" institutions.

Let me offer one more quick insight into this week's podcast. I remain convinced that the real story here -- when we talk about religious liberty issues -- is whether it's possible for cultural leaders on the left (that would include editors at most elite newsrooms) to consider that it's possible, or even acceptable, to seek compromises.

What am I talking about? Well, let's flash back to an earlier GetReligion piece about news coverage of a certain county clerk in Kentucky. This is long, but essential:

At the height of early Kim Davis mania -- when her brief time behind bars was dominating headlines and even evening news shows -- I had an interesting email dialogue with a mainstream news reporter. I was arguing, here at GetReligion, that reporters were ignoring two crucial facts in this story.
Fact 1: From the beginning, Davis and her legal team were open to a compromise that would allow other local and state officials to sign marriage licenses. This would mean removing the slot on the license form requiring the signature of the county clerk.
Fact 2. From the beginning, there were Democrats, as well as Republicans, in the state legislature who backed this compromise -- which would recognize the religious liberty rights of clerks, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
The problem was my use of the positive word "compromise." I was working under what some considered the false impression that a political course of action represented "compromise" if it (a) granted each side their primary goal (same-sex marriage on one side, freedom of religious conscience on the other) and (b) was backed by a broad, centrist coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
My reporter friend's logic was simple: Elite journalists were not going to consider this a "compromise" if Davis was happy with it. 

In other words, compromises are losses for the left and represent threats to all that is good and holy, from the perspective of many editors and reporters. The goal is to defeat people who in any way want to follow, in real life, thousands of years of ancient doctrines taught by various major faiths on sex and marriage.

There is no room for compromise, even if that leaves major LGBTQ victories in place. Allow a Catholic florist to avoid contributing her art and talents to a gay wedding and, before you know it, Rachel Maddow is locked up in some kind of "camp."

So there. Is compromise possible?

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy