Neutral or slanted coverage: Texas newspaper reports on pastors group's lawsuit over LGBT hiring

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Last year, I praised an Austin American-Statesman story for its fair, evenhanded coverage of religious leaders on both sides of a fight over transgender bathrooms.

That story mentioned the U.S. Pastor Council, which favored limiting the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

The same group figures in a recent story by the same newspaper. But this time, reader Thomas Szyszkiewicz, the Catholic media pro who shared the link with GetReligion, questioned the American-Statesman’s lede.

Here is that lede:

A conservative Christian organization has sued the city of Austin in federal court in hopes of overturning a nondiscrimination ordinance that offers employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council argued that the ordinance is unconstitutional and invalid because it does not include a religious exemption for 25 member churches in Austin that refuse to hire gay or transgender people as employees or clergy.

Szyszkiewicz’s comments:

Am I reading too much into it or am I right in thinking that it could have been written in a more neutral way? Or that at least a second sentence or phrase could have been added to make clear that they're trying to protect their religious liberty?

My thoughts: Yes, it probably could have been more neutral. Maybe something like this:

A conservative Christian organization has sued the city of Austin in federal court, arguing that the city’s gay-friendly nondiscrimination ordinance violates the religious freedom of its member churches.

At the same time, I’ve seen much more slanted coverage of cases pitting gay rights vs. the First Amendment. That’s sad, but true.

Keep reading, and — to its credit — the Austin paper gives readers some of the details they need to know:

“These member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance,” said the lawsuit, filed over the weekend in Austin federal court. “They will not consider practicing homosexuals or transgendered people for any type of church employment (or position in the clergy).”

Unless an exemption is included to honor the sincere religious beliefs of such churches, Austin should be blocked from enforcing its employment nondiscrimination ordinance for violating the free exercise of religion by subjecting member churches to fines and other penalties, the lawsuit argued.

“Any law that purports to regulate church hiring decisions inflicts injury in fact by restricting the church’s autonomy,” the lawsuit said.

The American-Statesman also attempts to quote sources on both sides, although the failure of the pastors group’s lawyer to return a call from the paper makes the piece appear more slanted. That, of course, is nothing the news organization can control.

While the newspaper tried to reach the lawyer, it would have helped if reporters had tried to reach other people on the religious liberty side of this dispute.

For example, I do wish the story had given some examples of the “25 member churches” referenced and sought comments from some of those pastors. The piece is pretty vague without identifying any of the specific congregations involved in the lawsuit. There is all kinds of potential there to find comments and insights. Why not make a few calls?

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