The New York Times does its 'religious liberty' thing, with zero input from voices in middle

Back in 2004, the public editor of The New York Times wrote a famous column with a very famous headline, which said: "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"

GetReligion readers with long memories will recall that Daniel Okrent followed that headline with this lede: "Of course it is."

That column contained lots of memorable quotations and it remains must reading. However, here is one passage that was especially controversial at the time and it remains controversial to this day.

... (F)or those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it's disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.

Okrent was, let me stress, not talking about the great Gray Lady's editorial page. He wasn't talking about op-ed pieces or even first-person features in the newspaper's magazine. The public editor -- a post recently shut down by Times management -- was trying to describe the urban, blue-zip-code tunnel vision that often slants the newspaper's hard-news coverage, especially on issues of culture, morality and religion.

Thus, I do not know what Okrent would have said about the "Fashion and Style" essay that ran in 2013, written by Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters, with this headline: "The Gayest Place in America?" The lede:

WASHINGTON -- My earliest sense of what it meant to be gay in the nation’s capital came more than a decade ago when I was a summer intern. I was a few blocks from Union Station when a congressman walked by and gave the reporters I was standing with a big, floppy wave hello.

That's fair game for first-person analysis writing. However, I do think that, if Okrent time-traveled to the present, he would raise a question or two about the hard-news Times feature by Peters that dominated my email over the Thanksgiving weekend. The provocative headline: "Fighting Gay Rights and Abortion With the First Amendment."

The subject of this A1 story was the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious-liberty group that has become a major voice in cases at the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere. Here is the thesis statement, high in the report:

The First Amendment has become the most powerful weapon of social conservatives fighting to limit the separation of church and state and to roll back laws on same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
Few groups have done more to advance this body of legal thinking than the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has more than 3,000 lawyers working on behalf of its causes around the world and brought in $51.5 million in revenue for the 2015-16 tax year, more than the American Civil Liberties Union.

Here is the question I heard over and over this past weekend, from readers as well as a few journalists (and former journalists): Can you imagine editors at The New York Times assigning an evangelical (or Catholic, said one) pro-lifer to report and write a major feature about the work of Planned Parenthood?

This is, of course, a question that leads to familiar and valid discussions of intellectual and cultural diversity in America's most powerful newsroom, a subject discussed at length in the must-read 2005 Times self-study entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." Click here for a discussion of that report, which came soon after a major ethics scandal that shook the newspaper's management.

However, I think it's appropriate to ask this related question: How many evangelical (or Catholic) pro-lifers have the kind of hard-core news experience that gets someone hired in an elite newsroom? As I keep saying about the antipathy many conservatives bring to these discussions: "Journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not by those who hate it."

So what can we say about this new Times report, which essentially argues that decades of what used to be called First Amendment liberalism is now a threat to the newspaper's editorial stance on the Sexual Revolution?

It's a long piece, so please read it. Here is the passage that I think best summarizes my concerns.

If there is a battle somewhere to restrict protections for gay men, lesbians or transgender people, chances are the alliance is there fighting it. The alliance has defended the owners of a wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who did not want to perform same-sex ceremonies. It has tried to stop a Charlotte, N.C., law that gave transgender people the right to use the bathroom of their choice. It backed the failed attempt by the Arizona legislature in 2014 to allow businesses to cite religious freedom in turning away same-sex couples.
“We think that in a free society people who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman shouldn’t be coerced by the government to promote a different view of marriage,” said Jeremy Tedesco, a senior counsel and vice president of United States advocacy for the group, which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We have to figure out how to live in a society with pluralistic and diverse views.”
But civil liberties groups and gay rights advocates say that Alliance Defending Freedom’s arguments about religious liberty and free expression mask another motivation: a deep-seated belief that gay people are immoral and that no one should be forced to recognize them as ordinary members of society.

As you can see, the article does include a few quotes from ADF spokespersons, as well as references to the group's public-relations materials.

The key, however, is the phrase stating that "civil liberties groups and gay rights advocates" argue that ADF's work is rooted in "a deep-seated belief that gay people are immoral and that no one should be forced to recognize them as ordinary members of society."

This Times piece features the voices of a wide variety of insiders and experts who back that radical, or even illiberal, view of traditional religious believers and their various faiths. In response, readers get to hear from ADF staffers and that is that.

My question: Are ALL "civil liberties groups" of one mind on how the U.S. Supreme Court might resolve clashes between established First Amendment protections for the "free exercise of religion" (as well as free speech) and today's emerging laws on sexual liberty? There are no exceptions on the left or, in some cases, even among gay activists? No voices for compromise?

What is missing from that factual summary -- without attribution -- is any recognition that there are people on the old-school First Amendment left who support gay rights, and gay marriage, but who also back conscience clauses (and in some cases conflict of interest laws) that protect Jews, Christians, Muslims and other believers seeking to following centuries of traditional religious teachings linked to very specific doctrines and rites.

In other words, the editors of the Times seem to believe that there is the Religious Right, then there is the tolerant left (defined by the newspaper's editorial views) -- with no one in between. There is no chance for lawmakers to find policies that defend basic LGBTQ rights, while also allowing millions of religious believers to honor (in cases directly linked to religious doctrine and conscience) the teachings of their faith in word and deed.

The bottom line: There are voices out there in the middle, legal minds who want to see compromise? Yes, there are. They used to be quite common.

Editors at the Times might suggest that a diverse team of reporters try contacting them, seeking a new set of insights and information.

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