Adoption law: In battle over gay rights vs. religious freedom, one side draws way more news ink


Here in my home state of Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin on Friday signed an adoption bill passed by the Legislature.

As happened in Texas last year, the Oklahoma bill became law after a fierce battle over sexual liberty (gay rights, in this case) vs. religious freedom. But guess which side's point of view drew the most media attention?

The headlines from major news organizations -- both nationally and in the Sooner State -- will help answer that question.

"Oklahoma Passes Adoption Law That L.G.B.T. Groups Call Discriminatory," declared The New York Times.

"Oklahoma governor signs adoption law opposed by LGBT groups," reported The Associated Press.

"Oklahoma's governor signs bill described by opponents as discriminatory," said The Oklahoman.

Did you see any patterns here? You get the idea: The emphasis is on gay-rights advocates upset over the law's passage, as opposed to religious groups -- including leaders of the state's Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics -- who pushed for its passage.

Is that fair, impartial journalism? Are voices on both sides being treated with respect?

At issue is whether faith-based adoption agencies can turn away same-sex couples and other prospective parents who don’t meet their religious criteria.

This was the breaking news alert that AP sent out on Twitter:

Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ky., responded:

Catholic radio host Stephen Herreid accused AP of "LGBT advocacy":

So were the stories mentioned as imbalanced as the headlines?

As always, a key issue is whether the stories make any attempt to understand the Religious Freedom Restoration Act distinctions between broad discrimination against a class of people and very, very narrow acts of conscience linked to longstanding religious doctrines and religious rites.

The press gets the difference when dealing with peyote rites among Native Americans. Not so much when dealing with traditional Christians who, in this case are involved in non-profit, doctrinally defined groups involved in a family ministry. The issue is whether the government will be granted the power to force religious groups to shut down, if they will not consent to changing their doctrines to those acceptable by the state.

Another key issue: Are there other adoption agencies in the state? Are any secular? Are any operated by liberal religious groups? Do LGBTQ people literally have no other options?

Quickly, let's review the adoption stories mentioned earlier:

1. The New York Times eventually gets around to a single quote from supporters of the law, but mainly, its story focuses on the criticism:

Oklahoma is the eighth state to pass an adoption agency law like this, said Denise Brogan-Kator, the chief policy officer for the Family Equality Council. “Behind these bills lies an underlying message: We don’t want L.G.B.T.Q. people raising children,” she said.
Allie Shinn, the director of external affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union chapter of Oklahoma, said the law’s “only purpose is to shortsightedly advance the careers of politicians who are more interested in exploiting a culture of fear and hysteria than they are in effectively governing.”
Supporters of the law included Catholic leaders like the archbishop of Oklahoma City, Paul S. Coakley, and the bishop of Tulsa, David A. Konderla. In a joint statement on Friday, they said, “The new law will bring more adoption services to the state and allow crucial faith-based agencies to continue their decades-long tradition of caring for Oklahoma’s most vulnerable children.”
But Ms. Brogan-Kator said the problem had always been a lack of parents, not a lack of agencies, so the law ultimately hurts children by placing unnecessary limits on the homes available to them.

The idea that such laws will mean fewer adoptions is a frequent talking point of the gay-rights side. However, in investigating that question for Religion News Service earlier this year, I found that no hard data exist to support or refute that claim.

From that RNS story:

Passage of Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 1140 would “result in a disastrous reduction in adoption and foster placements and put 9,000 young people -- currently in the system -- in jeopardy,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, as the LGBT advocacy organization launched a statewide media campaign this month against the bill.
The numbers may not be there to back him up.
“I don’t know of any empirical evidence on the topic,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
“In general, any barriers to adoption are likely to decrease numbers of homes for kids in need,” Bartholet added in an email. “But, of course, it’s possible that religious agencies would shut down rather than put their religious principles aside.”

2. The AP story is more balanced than its headline, although it's weird to me that the story never got around to quoting Fallin on why she signed the bill.

3. The Oklahoman's story is much more balanced than its headline and gives Fallin ample space to explain her decision, while quoting supporters and opponents.

It's strange to me that neither the Times nor AP nor The Oklahoman mentions the Baptist support for the law, given that Southern Baptist represent the state's largest religious group. Maybe it's a matter of resources, and reporters don't pick up the phone anymore -- they just depend on whoever sends them a statement. If that's the case, it's a sad state of affairs.

Finally, I'll mention that The Washington Post put a different twist on the story, noting that Fallin also vetoed a bill Friday that would have allowed Oklahomans to carry weapons without licenses.

The Post's headline:

The moral of the story? I'm not entirely sure, unless maybe it's that whoever is upset gets the most ink.

I'd welcome your thoughts, either in the comments section or by tweeting us at @GetReligion.

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