With The New Yorker, you can have your cake and gain insight into flowers and same-sex weddings, too

If you've followed the religious liberty headlines of recent years, you're familiar with Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., and Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers, in Richland, Wash.

The New Yorker has a piece out this week that references both:

Now, if you're a regular GetReligion reader, you may wonder: Is The New Yorker even news? After all, our journalism-focused website avoids critiquing advocacy reporting and opinion pieces. The answer is that sometimes The New Yorker is news, and other times it isn't.

In this case, it is.

And it's good news. I'm not talking about the subject matter, mind you. I'm referring to the fairness and quality of the journalism.

In a Twitter post, LGBT Map described The New Yorker story as a "helpful overview of the high stakes in this case" (meaning, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case). And the president of Come Reason Ministries characterized it as "a fairly well balanced summary of the legal questions surrounding cake bakers & gay weddings." I agree with both of those tweets.

I'll highlight three things that struck me about this story, which contemplates whether the U.S. Supreme Court might take up the case of either Phillips or Stutzman:

1. The piece makes clear early — and with clarity — that Phillips' problem was not with serving gay customers per se but with participating in a same-sex wedding.

That's an important distinction that news reports frequently miss or ignore.

The story's opening:

In July, 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, a small bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, to order a cake for their upcoming wedding reception. The owner, Jack Phillips, told them that he would happily provide baked goods for them for other occasions, but he would not create a cake for this event, citing his general policy, based on his religious convictions, against participating in same-sex marriages. In that very brief conversation—it lasted about twenty seconds, both sides agree—there surfaced a legal conflict between small-business proprietors with strongly held religious beliefs and the rights of gay Americans.
On Monday morning, the Supreme Court put off, for a second time, the decision whether to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the core of the issue is unlikely to remain unresolved for long. The case is just one of a number of disputes in which small-business owners have refused to provide their usual services—cakes, flowers, photography, or marriage venues—to same-sex couples for their weddings, notwithstanding state or local laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The venders, usually sole proprietors, have argued that same-sex marriage offends their religious convictions, and that the anti-discrimination laws therefore violate their First Amendment rights, either by compelling them to engage in speech they don’t agree with—forcing them, in their attorneys’ words, to “honor,” “celebrate,” or “participate in” a same-sex marriage—or by interfering with their “free exercise of religion.”

2. The report quotes both sides and delves below the surface to illustrate the complexities of the cases.

Again, much mainstream media coverage fails to do that.

This section of the story, for example, is informative and intelligently written:

The anti-discrimination laws “are not forcing you to say anything,” James Esseks, an attorney for the couple in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the director of the A.C.L.U.’s L.G.B.T.-rights project, said in an interview. “You can say to whomever, ‘I think gay people shouldn’t be able to get married. It’s a sin.’ You just can’t turn people away because of who they are.”
The particulars of these cases, however, suggest that they are more complicated than that, William Eskridge, Jr., a constitutional-law professor at Yale Law School, said in an interview. Eskridge acknowledged being torn, inasmuch as he describes himself as both “openly gay and openly religious.”
“It’s a very hard question,” he said. “Doctrinally, it could go either way.” Eskridge has been active in gay-rights litigation for twenty-five years—he filed a marriage-equality case for a client in Washington, D.C., back in 1990—but he also believes that the legitimate rights of religious minorities have been neglected by judges.
“Fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons—it’s a big chunk of America,” he told me. “Decent people. They feel they are under siege by government. Many have no problem with gay customers. They just don’t want to participate in the choreography of gay weddings.”

3. The New Yorker does not put scare quotes around "religious freedom" or "religious liberty."

Again, that's a refreshing — and journalistically responsible — approach.

Even more surprising, The New Yorker doesn't use those terms — with or without scare quotes — at all. Instead, the publication simply describes the issues at stake without mentioning religious liberty or religious freedom.

I'm not sure that approach would work in every case, but it does in this one. 


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