As Supreme Court bites into same-sex wedding cake dispute, how to tell good media coverage from bad

What a busy day on the religion front for the U.S. Supreme Court!

Here's how Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post religion writer and former GetReligionista, put it in a public post on her Facebook page:

In case you missed it, the high court sided with a church in an important religious liberty case, it allowed Donald J. Trump's travel ban to take effect, and it will hear a case involving a wedding cake baker.

Oh, is that all?

Seriously, I won't attempt to cover all three of those major stories in one post. I'll save the Trinity Lutheran case and the refugee travel decision for another day. But I will take a quick bite of wedding cake and hit a few high points on media coverage of Colorado baker Jack Phillips.

Actually, on second thought, why don't I just keep it simple and stick to one high point? Because it's one that so many news organizations have such a difficult time grasping. And yes, it's one that will be extremely familiar to regular readers of GetReligion.

I'm talking about the specific way that journalists choose to frame the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (and similar religious liberty disputes, such as the one involving Barronelle Stutzman, the sole owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Wash.).

See if you notice a difference — however subtle — between the following two ledes today.

First, from the Los Angeles Times:

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the Christian owner of a Colorado bakery who refused to create and design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
The high-profile case, which pits conservative religious beliefs against gay rights, could decide whether business owners may cite their religious views as a reason for refusing to serve gay and lesbian couples.
The case will be heard in the fall, and it could have a wide effect in states that prohibit discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation.

Second, from CNN:

Washington (CNN) The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a religious liberty case concerning a Colorado cake artist who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding reception, claiming that to do so violated his religious liberty under the Constitution.
The Court will take up the case, Masterpiece v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in its next term, which starts in October.

Here's the distinction that religious liberty advocates would make: The first lede reports that the baker is refusing to serve a gay couple, as opposed to declining to lend his artistic or creative talents to endorsing a same-sex wedding ceremony. The second lede, on the other hand, more precisely characterizes the position of the baker.

We have, of course, made similar points before in posts with titles such as "Culture war of cakes: Associated Press story on gay rights, religious freedom less than perfect" and "Journalistic story baking? Via World magazine, Colorado man denies requesting 'God hates gays' cake." We've found some stories much better than others, as we noted in "Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Have your cake and read both sides of the story, too" and "Icing on the cake: This time, Associated Press more properly frames same-sex wedding dispute." Also, there was "With The New Yorker, you can have your cake and gain insight into flowers and same-sex weddings, too."

Just last week, GetReligion questioned the wording of a national poll related to this same framing issue:

Journalists who want to be fair to all sides would do well to redouble efforts to frame this important national debate — which is sure to heat up with the Supreme Court taking the case — in the most precise terms possible.

I've shared this note multiple times before, but Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Phillips, made this case in a 2015 note to a Los Angeles Times reporter:

There is a fundamental difference between “denying service to same-sex couples” (wording of the poll) and the actual issue — punishment of citizens who resist government compelled speech and expression mandates. Buying generic products and basic services is not the same thing as asking someone to create artistic works or expression to promote or celebrate an event. The question on the table is not whether a person should be denied the former class of marketplace transactions (they shouldn’t be), but if the government should have the power to threaten citizens for choosing to not communicate a creative message or participate in an event that violates their conscience. A government that has the power to tell you what you can’t say is bad enough. A government that tells you what you must say in order to avoid ruin is terrifying. ...
The clients ADF represents have served all people over the years they have been in business. Of note, Barronelle Stutzman, the floral artist in Washington, served for many years and befriended the man who ultimately sued her for the mere act of giving him a list of other florists who would be willing to help him celebrate his ceremony. So the idea that she “refused service based on sexual orientation” is ludicrous. She referred Rob Ingersoll because she is conscience-bound to live her life and mind her business in a way that honors Biblical teaching on marriage. The First Amendment has always protected that freedom. The insistence that recently-enacted local laws and ordinances trump constitutionally-affirmed liberty is upside down. The First Amendment is the preeminent civil right law of our nation. The Johnny-come-lately local laws and ordinances must yield when they conflict with the precious promise of liberty America was founded to fulfill. For Barronelle, that promise hangs by a thread. Not only is she facing the loss of these freedoms, but she could lose her family business, her home, and her life savings.

My GetReligion colleague Julia Duin boiled it down more succinctly in a post last year:

What gets lost in the shuffle is this: People are refusing to take part in creating a type of message, linked to a specific kind of rite, not refusing all commerce with a type of person.


It's a simple point but an extremely crucial one.

Dear GetReligion readers, please stay tuned for more analysis of news coverage of this case and the other religion-related headlines emerging from the high court.

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