Big New Jersey religious-liberty case: Did you hear who backed efforts to build a new mosque?

So, did you hear about that major victory for religious-liberty activists the other day?

In this case, the reference to "religious liberty" in that first statement is not framed in scare quotes for a simple reason. This particular case did not have anything to do with debates about the Sexual Revolution clashing with ancient religious doctrines and traditions.

This important case involved a win for Muslims in Somerset County, N.J., who have been fighting their suburban powers in defense of their right to build themselves a mosque.

This is where things get interesting. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge had the U.S. Department of Justice on its side, but also received help from a broad coalition of religious-liberty activists. This was a rare sighting of the old left-right coalition that used to stand together back in the heady days in the 1990s, when Democrats and Republicans all embraced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (click here for GetReligion links on that).

Kudos to The Atlantic for spotting this important angle of a major story:

An uncommonly wide range of religious groups came to the Society’s support -- from groups that lean left, like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Sikh Coalition, to more conservative groups, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Such unequal treatment of the mosque in this case represents a potential threat to the free exercise rights of each of the amici represented here,” the 18 supportive groups wrote, “and is an affront to our nation’s commitment to religious liberty for all.”

Alas, it was hard to find evidence in other mainstream news coverage showing that journalists knew that key religious conservatives, as well as liberals, were celebrating this victory for supporters of this New Jersey mosque and, thus, a victory for religious liberty. 

Consider The New York Times coverage, for example: "Settlements With New Jersey Suburb Clear Way for Proposed Mosque." Here is the overture, with many interesting details about the flexibility demonstrated by these Muslim believers:

A proposed mosque that had been blocked by officials in a New Jersey suburb will now be allowed to move forward after settlements were reached ... in lawsuits that accused the township of discriminating against Muslims.
Officials in the suburb, Bernards Township in Somerset County, voted last week to agree to the settlements, which will require the township to pay a little more than $3 million.
The township will also have to back down on some of its previous requirements -- including a request for more than twice the number of parking spaces originally planned -- which were cited in the lawsuits as complications created to stymie the mosque’s construction. In addition, township officials will have to participate in diversity and inclusion training.
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, a Muslim organization in an unincorporated neighborhood in the township, bought a four-acre plot in 2011 in an area where zoning permitted houses of worship. It developed plans to build a mosque of more than 4,000 square feet, with a prayer room large enough for 150 people. The group said it tailored its plans so that the mosque would blend into the neighborhood, forgoing a dome and designing its minarets to look like chimneys and be shorter than the steeples of churches in town.
But after four years, and dozens of public meetings, the township’s planning board denied the application, citing reasons such as storm water management and potential disruption to neighbors.

The story then notes an important fact, that the Justice Department accused local government leaders of violating a crucial federal law on religious liberty -- the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The Times team also noted many other crucial, and horrible, details. As in:

The mosque proposal set off an uproar in the community, with public meetings crowded with angry residents. Anti-Muslim sentiments circulated on fliers and in social media posts. The Islamic Society’s mailbox was smashed, and a vandal later covered the society’s initials on the mailbox, I.S.B.R., with “ISIS.”

So who else was involved in this important case? Who fought to help these Muslims? The Times answer: Government lawyers and anonymous "legal experts."

The key: This was not a story about religious liberty and its defenders.

Readers saw the same basic approach at The Washington Post, which opened its short report with this summary:

The worshipers waited four years and 39 public hearings for the official denial: Muslims in their small New Jersey town would not be allowed to build a mosque.
The 2015 decision made by the planning board in Bernards Township, N.J., a majority-white suburb of 26,000 people, came after significant public opposition to the mosque that thrust the community into the national spotlight and spurred religious discrimination lawsuits from the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the Department of Justice.

The exception to this rule was the short reporter published by Religion News Service, which featured a quote from a major group of religious-liberty activists.

“Our Constitution guarantees every religious congregation equal treatment under the law,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a law firm that filed an amicus brief in support of the Islamic Society. “Every religion is a minority in some part of the country. If one religious group can be denied equal treatment because of hostility to their faith, then all religious groups are at risk.”

The interesting thing about this (appropriate) quote is that -- for once -- Becket is not identified as one of the nation's top conservative organizations on First Amendment issues. Right now, Becket is best known as the main legal force defending the religious-liberty rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

As a rule, your GetReligionistas applaud when reporters avoid simple, shallow labels such as "conservative" and "liberal" and focus on what individuals and groups believe and do.

However, I have mixed feelings about the fact that RNS left readers in the dark this time, in terms of offering information about the complex coalition that backed this Islamic Society. It would have been good, in a few words, to have cited the involvement of both religious liberals and conservatives in this case.

In particular, it's interesting to note that Baptists of various stripes stood together this time. Does anyone remember this memorable moment at the 2016 national gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention?

So here is the interesting journalism question, this time around: Did journalists at the Times and the Post -- just to name to major mainstream newsrooms -- realize that they were covering a religious-liberty case? That leads to the other reporting issue: Did they spot the important coalition that formed to back these believers who were trying to build a new house of worship?

Just asking.

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