Alliance Defending Freedom

As always, it would be helpful if news orgs were precise in gay rights vs. religious freedom stories

As always, it would be helpful if news orgs were precise in gay rights vs. religious freedom stories

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. And if you read GetReligion with any frequency, you no doubt have.

I’m talking about news organizations’ tendency to make broad, sweeping statements when reporting on cases involving gay rights vs. religious freedom.

It’s almost as if there’s only one side of the issue that journalists believe needs to be reflected. Given the century in which we live, you probably can guess which side that is.

My comments in this post are prompted by a Reuters story on major companies calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of LGBT workers.

The wire service’s summary up high:

(Reuters) - More than 200 U.S. companies, including Amazon (AMZN.O), Alphabet Inc’s Google (GOOGL.O), and Bank of America (BAC.N), on Tuesday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender workers.

The companies filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that bias against LGBT people is a form of unlawful sex discrimination, and said a ruling otherwise would harm businesses and workers.

The Supreme Court in April agreed to take up two discrimination cases by gay men and one by a transgender woman who was fired from her job as a funeral director when she told her boss she planned to transition from male to female.

The justices will hear oral arguments in October and likely issue a ruling by the end of next June.

Somehow, the story moves from discriminating against gay workers to the case of a Colorado baker who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding:

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Arguing in Anchorage: Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

Arguing in Anchorage:  Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

It’s been a very cold January in Alaska with temps in the -30s, -40s and even -50s in the central part of the state. It’s a tad warmer further to the south in Anchorage, but it’s still the kind of weather people can freeze to death in. That’s why homeless shelters are so important there.

But there’s something happening in Anchorage now that would give any director of a faith-based and feed-the-hungry shelter the willies. Imagine that your women’s only shelter includes a lot of women who’ve been raped or sexually molested in some way.

Then someone who is biologically a man — with an extensive criminal record — wants to share their sleeping space. And when the Associated Press rushes in to cover it, they concentrate not on the issues at hand but on how allegedly right-wing one of the legal organizations representing the shelter is. Read the following:

A conservative Christian law firm that has pushed religious issues in multiple states urged a U.S. judge on Friday to block Alaska’s largest city from requiring a faith-based women’s shelter to accept transgender women.

Alliance Defending Freedom has sued the city of Anchorage to stop it from applying a gender identity law to the Hope Center shelter, which denied entry to a transgender woman last year. The lawsuit says homeless shelters are exempt from the local law and that constitutional principles of privacy and religious freedom are at stake.

Alliance attorney Ryan Tucker said many women at the shelter are survivors of violence and allowing biological men would be highly traumatic for them. He told U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason that women have told shelter officials that if biological men are allowed to spend the night alongside them, "they would rather sleep in the woods," even in extreme cold like the city has experienced this week with temperatures hovering around zero.

The article appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, where (as I’m writing this) it has warmed up to 9 degrees. January nights are chilly up there.

Tucker said biological men are free to use the shelter during the day, adding there are other shelters in the city where men can sleep.

Ryan Stuart, an assistant municipal attorney, countered that the preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs was premature because an investigation by the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission had not been concluded, largely because of the shelter's noncooperation. The investigation is on hold.

We learn further down that this transgender woman tried to get admitted to this shelter in January 2018 and has been giving them grief ever since.

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Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well. Finally someone wrote a realistic, balanced piece about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington Post Magazine staff writer David Montgomery put together a (roughly) 6,700-word piece that asks whether the SPLC is what it pretends to be — the ultimate (and accurate) judges of hate in America.

It gave ample voice to several of the SPLC’s most prominent critics, including one mainstream evangelical Christian organization that narrowly missed being in a bloodbath because of being labeled a hate organization.

See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.” … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.” …

Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”

The piece then switches venues to Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, which began in 1971 as a legal aid group, then expanded in the 1980s to monitor Klan groups.

Then the SPLC began widening its definition of hate and extremism.

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New York Times shows how to do a religion-free report on campus First Amendment wars

New York Times shows how to do a religion-free report on campus First Amendment wars

Here is my journalism question for today: How does one cover the First Amendment debates that are rocking college campuses across the United States without running into religious issues and religious believers?

I realize that many issues at the heart of these debates are "secular" and "political." However, many of them are not -- especially when one focuses on the beliefs that drive the actions of morally and culturally conservative activists.

There are "secular" activists who oppose the current structure of American laws on abortion, including issues such as abortion linked to gender selection, Down syndrome, the viability of the unborn child, etc. In my experience, however, these debates almost always include religious believers from a variety of traditions.

Then there are issues linked to marriage, family, gender and sexuality. Once again, there are "secular" voices on the traditional, but they are usually outnumbered by various kinds of religious activists.

I could go on and on, but I'll settle for one other example: How many "secular" campus groups are being punished because they don't want to open leadership posts to students who reject some of the groups' core doctrines?

This leads me to a recent New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "In Name of Free Speech, States Crack Down on Campus Protests."

This is a very interesting story about a crucial issue. However, there is a gigantic hole in the middle of it. Here at GetReligion, we would say that it's haunted by a "religion ghost." In other words, read this entire news feature and look for any sign of religious issues or the activities of religious groups or individual believers.

Once again, we see a familiar principle: Politics is the only reality. If people are arguing about free speech, then this is a "political" debate -- period. The First Amendment? That's a statement about politics -- period. There are no connections between freedom of religion and free speech and freedom of association. Here is the Times overture:

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After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

It's the question that journalists have to be asking right now, along with the legal pros on both sides of future First Amendment clashes between sexual liberty and religious liberty. 

Now what?

To be blunt, was the 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (.pdf) a signal (a) to religious believers of all stripes that it's open season, in terms of rejecting LGBTQ customers or (b) to blue-zip-code politicians that they are free to stomp on the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers, only while using cool, calm legal logic rather than the heated prose used in Colorado?

As always, the key lines to parse were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Here is the essential material, as quoted by USA Today:

Kennedy acknowledged that business owners generally cannot deny equal access to goods and services under a neutral public accommodations law. Otherwise, he said, "a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws."

"The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts," Kennedy said. "These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

It's interesting that Baptist Press, when focusing on the same bottom line, made a strong effort to note the degree to which Kennedy once again affirmed LGBTQ rights:

"Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth," Kennedy said. "For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression."

He wrote, "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

So reporters, what phrases jump out at you, as you look to the future of this story?

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In same-sex wedding cake case, Supreme Court rules for Colorado baker — but who wins in future?

In same-sex wedding cake case, Supreme Court rules for Colorado baker — but who wins in future?

News broke this morning that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a "narrow" ruling in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips in the long-awaited Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.

Wait a minute: The vote was 7-2. How exactly is that "narrow?"

Thus began some of the early discussion as folks on all sides sought to analyze the ramifications of the high court ruling.

As the day progressed, The Associated Press offered more context on the initial description of a "narrow" ruling, using adjectives such as "modest" and "limited" to characterize the decision:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday for a Colorado baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in a limited decision that leaves for another day the larger issue of whether a business can invoke religious objections to refuse service to gay and lesbian people.

The justices’ decision turned on what the court described as anti-religious bias on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled against baker Jack Phillips. The justices voted 7-2 that the commission violated Phillips’ rights under the First Amendment.

The case had been eagerly anticipated as, variously, a potentially strong statement about the rights of LGBT people or the court’s first ruling carving out exceptions to an anti-discrimination law. In the end, the decision was modest enough to attract the votes of liberal and conservative justices on a subject that had the potential for sharp division.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion that the larger issue “must await further elaboration” in the courts. Appeals in similar cases are pending, including one at the Supreme Court from a florist who didn’t want to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

The New York Times, meanwhile, referred to the "narrow grounds" of the ruling, which the Times said came in "a closely watched case pitting gay rights against claims of religious freedom." 

On social media, advocates and experts scrambled to assess which side really won:

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Three questions about AP's story on conservative Christian attorneys gaining influence under Trump

Three questions about AP's story on conservative Christian attorneys gaining influence under Trump

As happens with Associated Press stories, the wire service's report headlined "Conservative Christian attorneys gain influence under Trump" is getting prominent play nationally.

I first read the piece in the print edition of today's Houston Chronicle.

Moreover, it's on the New York Times website and in hundreds of papers across the nation.

The subject matter — the rise of a Texas-based law firm that pursues religious liberty cases —  definitely interests me.

But AP's implementation of that storyline makes for a frustrating read.

Just the first three paragraphs raise my hackles:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lawyers who espouse a conservative Christian agenda have found plenty of opportunities in Texas, suing on behalf of Bible-quoting cheerleaders and defending a third-grader who wanted to hand out Christmas cards that read in part “Jesus is the Christ!”

But for the First Liberty law firm, the last few years have been especially rewarding: Their attorneys have moved into powerful taxpayer-funded jobs at the Texas attorney general’s office and advised President Donald Trump, who nominated a current and a former First Liberty lawyer to lifetime appointments on federal courts. Another attorney went to the Department of Health and Human Services as a senior adviser on religious freedom.

It’s a remarkable rise for a modest-sized law firm near Dallas with 46 employees, and it mirrors the climb of similar firms that have quietly shifted from trying to influence government to becoming part of it. The ascent of the firms has helped propel a wave of anti-LGBT legislation and so-called religious-freedom laws in statehouses nationwide.

After reading this story, here are three journalistic questions:

1. What is the "conservative Christian agenda" espoused by the First Liberty Institute?

AP reports that agenda as a fact but never provides evidence to back it up.

The firm's website describes its mission as protecting religious liberty. In AP's view, is that characterization synonymous with "a conservative Christian agenda?" 

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

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:

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Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?

Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?

It probably comes as no surprise that this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on key ingredients in the Masterpiece Cakeshop debates at the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is one case in which it really helps to spend time reading the transcript (click here for the .pdf). I loved Julia Duin's description of these court arguments, earlier this week, as, "a knife fight between 10 participants (nine justices and the hapless attorney before them)." Host Todd Wilken added that, in this setting, the action took place in a kind of polite, legalistic slow motion.

Hint: It's interesting to scan the document looking for key words and phrases. For example, try "tolerance." And if you search for "doctrine" you will find all kinds of references -- but in this case the word refers to doctrines established by the high court. That's rather chilling.

My pre-game post focused on several issues that I thought would be crucial in media coverage. For example, tt appears the justices accepted that baker Jack Phillips was, in fact, being asked to create one of his unique, artistically designed cakes, with content linked to a same-sex wedding -- as opposed to an all-purpose wedding cake (which he offered the couple).

What about the cases in which the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that liberal bakers did not have to produce products that violated their beliefs? I truly expected journalists to include some information about the court's discussions of that. Many did not.

So what happened on that issue? First, before we look at one interesting chunk of the transcript, please allow me to flash back to a parable that I created in 2015 to illustrate this question. Here it is again:

... Let's say that there is a businessman ... 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.

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