Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Debate is back in Georgia, and so are the scare quotes

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Georgia’s legislative fights over gay rights vs. religious freedom have made headlines before.

In fact, I wrote a 2016 post headlined “Down in Georgia, here's what the news media's love of 'religious liberty' scare quotes tells you.”

I noted then that most major media insisted on scare quotes around "religious liberty" or "religious freedom.”

By the way, Dictionary.com defines scare quotes this way:

A pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.

Fast-forward to present day, and a similar bill is making news again in Atlanta. The differing treatments of that bill by The Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are interesting.

On the one hand, scare quotes still seem to be in vogue at AP, which has this headline:

'Religious liberties' bill renews a recurring Georgia debate

AP’s lede also relies on scare quotes:

ATLANTA (AP) — A ‘religious liberties’ bill that aims to add greater protections for personal beliefs has renewed a recurring debate in Georgia about discrimination and religious freedom.

Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone said Thursday his proposal was drafted to mirror the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“I believe that Georgians need to be fully protected under the First Amendment from not only federal law, but also state and local law,” Harbin said at a news conference.

But critics say the bill would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his election campaign last year to sign “nothing more, nothing less” than a mirror image of the federal law. His predecessor, GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, vetoed a similar bill passed by lawmakers three years ago amid threats by major companies to boycott Georgia if the measure became law.

Later in the story, scare quotes come into play again:

Lawmakers from the conservative flank of the Georgia GOP have sought another chance at passing “religious freedom” legislation since Deal vetoed a previous bill.

Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations in 2016 by vetoing a “religious freedom” bill that enumerated actions that “people of faith” would not have to perform for other people.

“I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia,” Deal said at the time.

Contrast that approach — which seems to suggest possible bias on the part of AP — with how the Journal-Constitution handled the same subject.

The Atlanta newspaper’s headline:

Georgia religious rights bill may need a ‘miracle’ to pass this year

A quick aside: Before reading the story, I wondered about the headline’s emphasis on the word “miracle.” After reading the piece, though, I found the headline extremely appropriate — and accurate — given a key quote by the bill’s sponsor.

Look for that quote here, and also notice how the Journal-Constitution handles the religious liberty/religious freedom terminology that so often draws scare quotes:

proposal to strengthen legal protections for religious Georgians stalled Monday when senators delayed a planned public hearing.

he prospects for the measure’s passage dimmed because Thursday is a deadline when bills typically need to win approval in at least one legislative chamber to become law. It’s still possible for legislation to be revived after the deadline.

“I’m going to find a way if I can and try to make it happen,” said state Sen. Marty Harbin, a Republican from Tyrone who introduced Senate Bill 221. “I believe in miracles, sir, and that’s what I’m going to try to do” to get the bill passed.

Harbin acknowledged that it might take until next year for the bill to move through the legislative process, but he said he hoped the bill can at least pass the state Senate this year.

Spoiler alert: The Atlanta paper avoids any scare quotes in its report.

In fact, the Journal-Constitution does a nice job of summarizing each side’s argument in a fair way, particularly given the concise nature of the story.

Since I don’t read the Atlanta paper regularly, I can’t say if this is typical of how that news organization handles this topic. But this particular story, in my humble opinion, deserves kudos.

Here’s hoping that AP and other news organizations still enamored with scare quotes might — just maybe — take note.

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