Here we go again, and again. From time to time, there are religion-news issues that create headlines day after day, for weeks or months at a time. This creates a problem for your GetReligionistas. Do we keep critiquing these stories, banging our heads on our keyboards as we see the same old mistakes and holes in the coverage?
One could argue that it's more important to note problems that keep showing up in the news than it is to note a mistake that happens once or twice. Surely it's significant when lighting keeps striking the same spot time after time?
Thus, here is an update to yesterday's Bobby Ross, Jr., post: "As Supreme Court bites into same-sex wedding cake dispute, how to tell good media coverage from bad." You may have noticed that Bobby's post was built on themes from previous GetReligion commentary about news coverage of various religious-liberty cases (linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act).
With the U.S. Supreme Court wading into the Masterpiece Cakeshop wars, I would like to flash back to a parable I wrote two years ago, in an attempt to help journalists think through several key issues linked to these stories. Here we go (again):
... There is a businessman in Indianapolis who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.
Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.
Note, in particular that:
It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.
OK, that's about sexuality. Maybe it would help to think back to an earlier religious-liberty fight.
Did Native Americans seek the right to use peyote (period) or did they seek the right to use peyote in a specific situation, a rite that had existed in the traditions of their faith for centuries?
Journalists, do you see the difference? As we keep stressing here at GetReligion, reporters and editors do not have to AGREE WITH this point of law, but it's crucial to know this distinction exists and that it will be a key part of debates in this new Supreme Court case.
So how does this play out in coverage? Let's look at the top of the current New York Times story. Read carefully:
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear an appeal from a Colorado baker with religious objections to same-sex marriage who had lost a discrimination case for refusing to create a cake to celebrate such a union.
The case will be a major test of a clash between laws that ban businesses open to the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation and claims of religious freedom. Around the nation, businesses like bakeries, florists and photography studios have said, so far with little success, that forcing them to serve gay couples violates their constitutional rights.
Read the second paragraph again. Has anyone claimed -- or shown evidence -- that baker Jack Phillips has refused to "serve gay couples" as a class of people, day after day, thus "discriminating based on sexual orientation"? Or has he refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding rite, a specific act linked to a specific doctrinal issue?
Both sides will be asked to present evidence for these clashing claims.
But think back to the peyote case. Were Native Americans seeking the right to ignore drug laws, in all times and in all cases? Or were they seeking one narrowly defined exemption?
For journalists, this should raise another question: Has any group of religious believers -- at any time or place -- attempted to argue that the established, ancient, doctrines taught by their religious tradition prevent them from doing business with gay people, as a class of customers? Has a court heard such a case? If you look at RFRA history, there is no indication that such an argument would work.
If that is the case, then why is that assumed to be the big issue in summary materials at the top of a New York Times story? Again, has anyone claimed that this baker has refused service to all gays and lesbians?
Now, here is the tension: Later in this same story, the Times team accurately covers the arguments presented by Phillips and his legal team. Read carefully:
David Cortman, one of Mr. Phillips’s lawyers, said the case concerned fundamental rights. “Every American should be free to choose which art they will create and which art they won’t create without fear of being unjustly punished by the government,” he said.
In 2015, a Colorado appeals court ruled against Mr. Phillips. “Masterpiece does not convey a message supporting same-sex marriages merely by abiding by the law and serving its customers equally,” the court said.
In a Supreme Court brief, Mr. Phillips’s lawyers said “he is happy to create other items for gay and lesbian clients.” But his faith requires him, they said, “to use his artistic talents to promote only messages that align with his religious beliefs.”
“Thus,” the brief said, “he declines lucrative business by not creating goods that contain alcohol or cakes celebrating Halloween and other messages his faith prohibits, such as racism, atheism, and any marriage not between one man and one woman.”
Now, that is what is at stake here, according to experts on one side of the debate. The problem is that the Times team has already stated the opposing legal point of view AS FACT in background materials at the top of the story.
One side says this story is about a cake that, in the eyes of the baker, has a specific doctrinal message. The other side says that refusing to bake that specific cake represents discrimination against all customers who are gays and lesbians. Or, again, as the Times team stated as fact:
Around the nation, businesses like bakeries, florists and photography studios have said ... that forcing them to serve gay couples violates their constitutional rights.
If this same couple walks into the Masterpiece Cakeshop and asks to buy boxes of cookies, pastries and generic cakes for a party, or even a wedding reception, would Phillips turn them away because he does not do business with gays and lesbians, as a class?
The baker says he would not do that.
The court will hear, I am sure, past evidence on whether or not he is telling the truth.
This is the issue that we are going to see over and over in mainstream media coverage of this case. Do journalists, in their background summaries of the facts, understand the clashing points of view? Or will journalists assume that one side is right and that Phillips is demanding a doctrinally based right to refuse to do business with gays and lesbians, as a class of people? Is there evidence that he has ever done that?
Please watch the video at the top of this post. How does this Denver TV report define the issue that is at stake? What does it assume as a starting point for these debates?
Now, for the opposing view point, watch this advocacy piece from the Phillips team (cut to the 2 minute mark).
Now, quickly, how did several other major news organizations do with their first reports on this new Supreme Court case? Here is the overture of the short Associated Press story:
DENVER (AP) -- A Colorado clash between gay rights and religion started as an angry Facebook posting about a wedding cake but now has big implications for anti-discrimination laws in 22 states.
Baker Jack Phillips is challenging a Colorado law that says he was wrong to have turned away a same-sex couple who wanted a cake to celebrate their 2012 wedding.
The justices said Monday they will consider Phillips' case, which could affect all states. Twenty-two states include sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws that bar discrimination in public accommodations.
Question: Would granting Phillips a narrow, RFRA-style exemption on the wedding-cake issue have any impact on laws that bar discrimination against gay people, as a class? Did granting Native Americans the right to use peyote in specific religious ceremonies (which have existed for centuries) undercut the enforcement of existing drug laws?
What about the Washington Post lede?
The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will consider whether a Denver baker acted lawfully in refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, setting up a major test next term weighing religious freedom against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Lower courts had ruled that Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, had violated Colorado’s public accommodations law, which prohibits refusing service to customers based on factors such as race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.
OK, same issues all over again. What is assumed as the framework for the case?
How about USA Today and, thus, the Gannett newspapers nationwide?
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to reopen the national debate over same-sex marriage.
Whoa. REALLY? Is anyone claiming that? Let's read on:
The court will hear a challenge from a Colorado baker who lost lower court battles over his refusal to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. Like a New Mexico photographer three years ago, the baker cited his religious beliefs.
The case will be scheduled for the 2017 term that begins in October and most likely will be heard later in the fall. The justices -- who upheld same-sex marriage nationwide in a landmark 2015 ruling -- apparently decided that laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation do not mean that merchants' obligations to same-sex couples are baked in the cake.
To be honest, I have no idea what that last sentence means.
Stay tuned. To say the least. If anyone sees examples of mainstream NEWS coverage, as opposed to op-ed page pieces, that accurate present the clash at the heart of this case (as opposed to framing the entire case in the arguments of one side) please let us know.
UPDATE: OK, it's clear the debates are starting.