Progress in WPost gay-marriage package

It’s been 12 months since the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage, so it’s no surprise that the Washington Post marked the anniversary with some bonus coverage of the issue. When I say “bonus coverage,” I mean that the editors published even more stories on gay rights than normally appear in a daily edition of the newspaper.

The surprise, in this case, is that the Metro-page package of news reports was intentionally framed in a way that allowed partisans on both sides of the issue almost equal space to share their points of view.

This was an attempt at what, in the classroom, I call “visual fairness,” with stories lined up side by side representing news developments on both sides of the issue. With the anniversary hook, the pro-gay-marriage camp got the nod when it came to selecting the large, emotional color photo that topped the package. The gay-rights piece focused on a fascinating and solid hard-news hook:

An unusual thing happened on the way to the altar in the District over the past 12 months.

At least as many same-sex couples as heterosexual couples — and possibly more — appear to have applied for marriage licenses since gay marriage was legalized in the city last March. The total number of applications more than doubled since the first same-sex couples lined up to get their licenses, from about 3,100 in the previous year to 6,600 during the past 12 months, said Leah H. Gurowitz, spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court, which issues the licenses.

Although the court does not differentiate between same-sex and heterosexual couples in its record-keeping, in previous years the number of applications varied by only 100 or less. So virtually all the increase is due to same-sex couples, Gurowitz said. Not everyone who got a marriage license lived in the District. Many couples came from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and other states farther afield.

Right next to this story was an update on the same-sex marriage wars in Maryland, which in large part will pivot on the votes of African-American politicians from Prince George’s County. I should state right up front that one of the authors of this piece is veteran Post reporter and videographer Hamil Harris, a long-time friend with whom I have shared more than a few podiums in journalism classrooms.

What’s the religion hook? The story focuses on a coalition of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders that is strongly opposing the bill to legalize same-sex marriage. And, as the story bluntly and accurately states:

Prince George’s, the nation’s most affluent and best-educated majority-black jurisdiction, is home to some of the largest and most influential churches in the nation.

The vast majority of the story focuses on the voices of these religious leaders, with some additional background material on the content of the bill itself and arguments used by the political camps on both sides. I am sure that many Post readers were stunned by the bluntness of the quotations from some of these prominent black pastors. Here is a sample:

Bishop Paul Wells of New Revival Kingdom Church of Capitol Heights said he welcomes all, regardless of ethnic origin, education, income level or sexuality. But his message is clear: Anything they are doing that conflicts with the Bible needs to stop.

“The Bible says [homosexuality] is an abomination before God,” he said. “God created the institution of marriage and made marriage between a man and a woman. People ask me all the time, ‘Would you marry a gay couple?’ Absolutely not. I make that perfectly clear. … I welcome those who are homosexual into the church the same way I welcome liars and fornicators. But the expectation is that the word of God will change them once they get in. … God gave us free will, and so you are either against God’s word or for God’s word. There is no in between.”

I terms of journalism, I do have one major concern with this report — it contains at least one major error of omission, as opposed to commission. The problem is in this background material:

The bill contains language making clear that religious organizations are not required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations. Supporters argue that other people’s religious beliefs shouldn’t prevent them from being married in the eyes of the government.

The problem is that anyone who has been following the church-state debates about gay marriage knows that it is a red herring to talk about “religious organizations” being “required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations.”

Other than a few extremists on the far right, the only people who are eager to discuss that issue are gay-rights supporters who insist that churches, synagogues and mosques and the believers who worship in them will not be affected by the legislation. However, this simplistic language has become part of background paragraphs in almost all Post coverage of this sprawling and complex issue.

A new report in the Baltimore Sun is much closer to the mark, since it includes materials describing the actual amendments that are being proposed — and defeated — to the pending legislation in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Once again, African-American Democrats are in the spotlight, in large part due to the views of their constituents — bluntly described, in one passage, as a large “base of churchgoing African-Americans.” At the moment, the ultimate outcome of the bill is too close to call.

However, the left — with support from the religious left — has managed to defeat a number of amendments, the content of which reveal the actual concerns being voiced by clergy and parents in doctrinally conservative religious groups. Readers will note the echoes of trends on the ground in Boston and in Washington, D.C.

The first would have allowed church groups and others that provide adoption services and foster care to turn away same-sex couples without fear of legal action. Supporters of the bill argued that current laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation clearly spell out what such groups may and may not do.

Another amendment would have allowed parents and teachers who do not support homosexual relationships to opt out of any curriculum on the topic. Bill supporters said that, too, is covered by current laws and regulations.

I know that these religious-liberty issues are not easy to cover in a few sentences. However, it does little good to keep writing stories stating that apples are protected in the bill, when the arguments that matter are about the legal status of oranges. Once again, reporters should listen to religious leaders and church-state activists on both sides of this hot-button topic.

Still, the coverage approach used by the Post in this case is a step forward, if the journalistic goal is allowing voices on both sides of the issue to be heard.

By the way, it goes without saying that your comments should address the journalism issues in these stories — not the actual issue of same-sex marriage.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Send the journalists a link to that Weekly Standard article about the upcoming collision between gay rights and free exercise of religion. It’s dated but still germane.

  • tmatt


    It’s in the piece — linked to the “in Boston” URL.

    But here it is again.

    The key, for journalists, is that this piece quotes voices in the gay legal community that represent different approaches on this issue. That’s info deeper than a yin vs. yang approach. The gay community isn’t totally united on what to do on the religious-liberty amendments, either.

  • tmatt

    Just spiked a couple of straw-man comments knocking my post for not calling for more coverage of support for the gay-marriage bill from liberal churches. That is a valid comment. That is also why MY ACTUAL POST praises the Washington Post package for doing the left and right package. The story on the lesbian couple included quite a bit of material about their lives, including a church link.

    The second post piece was about Prince George’s County and the Maryland issue — not DC.

    Please read the post, folks. Check the URLs.

  • mattk

    Pet peeve: In the Baltimore Sun article I saw the words “legislation”, “bill”, and “amendments”. Don’t any of them have numbers or names? Who wrote them? Who is sponsoring them? Bugs me to death. Lets say I want to call my elected representative and urge action, how does this article help me? All it tells me is that there is a bill and some amendments but doesn’t tell me any ofthe details that might be useful.

  • Lily

    One thing I found disappointing was that I did not see where anyone was addressing the fact that this was being legislated rather than voted on by the citizens in the state and the problems with legislating this issue.

    For example: states, when given the opportunity to repeal same-sex marriage law, have taken the initial steps to do so. In Maine (a traditionally liberal state), voters by popular referendum repealed a same-sex marriage law in 2009. In Iowa, voters removed all three Supreme Court judges on the ballot who issued same-sex marriage by judicial fiat. A constitutional marriage amendment to undo the damage easily passed through the Iowa House, but has been stalled in the Senate to date.

  • Lily

    If the following quotation from the article, “Banned in Boston” is correct and the current events in the UK against Christians are true, then the concerns of the Christians are not a “red herring” about what the future may hold for them if gay marriage is passed:

    To Feldblum the emerging conflicts between free exercise of religion and sexual liberty are real: “When we pass a law that says you may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, we are burdening those who have an alternative moral assessment of gay men and lesbians.” Most of the time, the need to protect the dignity of gay people will justify burdening religious belief, she argues. But that does not make it right to pretend these burdens do not exist in the first place, or that the religious people the law is burdening don’t matter.

    “You have to stop, think, and justify the burden each time,” says Feldblum. She pauses. “Respect doesn’t mean that the religious person should prevail in the right to discriminate–it just means demonstrating a respectful awareness of the religious position.”

    Feldblum believes this sincerely and with passion, and clearly (as she reminds me) against the vast majority of opinion of her own community. And yet when push comes to shove, when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, she admits, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

    She pauses over cases like the one at Tufts University, one of many current legal battles in which a Christian group is fighting for the right to limit its leaders to people who subscribe to its particular vision of Christianity. She’s uncertain about Catholic Charities of Boston, too: “I do not know the details of that case,” she told me. “I do believe a state should be permitted to withhold tax exempt status, as in the Bob Jones case, from a group that is clearly contrary to the state’s policy. But to go further and say to a group that it is not permitted to engage in a particular type of work, such as adoptions, unless it also does adoptions for gay couples, that’s a heavier hand from the state. And I would hope we could have a dialogue about this and not just accusations of bad faith from either side.”

    But the bottom line for Feldblum is: “Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”

  • tmatt


    You misread the post. I said that it was a red herring to claim that the state would force churches, synagogues, etc. to perform same-sex marriages. I have never heard real debates about forced sacraments.

    The Post article said:

    The bill contains language making clear that religious organizations are not required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations.

    Thus I wrote:

    The problem is that anyone who has been following the church-state debates about gay marriage knows that it is a red herring to talk about “religious organizations” being “required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations.”

    The Standard article actually discusses some of the issues addressed in the failed Maryland amendments. No red herrings there.

  • Lily

    Please understand that I’m not trying to be ornery. I’m not sure I misunderstood the statement. It may be that I am coming out of left field on this because I follow the news in the UK and how the changes there are affecting the Church and Christians. The UK is further ahead of the US in making changes and if they are a canary in the coal mine, I do not think it is a red herring, but one of valid concern.

    There have been numerous stories covering a number of events from both the professional news organizations and Christian organization the last months in the UK. Here is an excerpt from a news story I received today:

    Last month the Equalities Office revealed that it will “formally look” at redefining marriage so that homosexual couples can get the same certificate as married people.

    The Government will also consult on plans to allow civil partnerships to be registered in churches for the first time.

    Another snip:

    He warned: “Today in British Columbia, a fundamentalist Mormon polygamist is defending himself on bigamy charges by arguing that the bigamy law is discriminatory. It is quite possible that he will win, in which case Canada will have legalised same-sex marriage and polygamy.

    Last snip:

    Mr Addison added: “The problem with both the suggested changes is that, in the present era of human rights and anti-discrimination laws, once something is allowed it can become illegal to refuse to provide it.

    “If churches, synagogues, mosques and so on are allowed to perform same-sex marriage or civil partnerships they could easily find themselves being sued for discrimination if they refuse to perform them.

    “Any legislation would, no doubt, say that no religious group would be obliged to perform same-sex ceremonies but any such guarantees could be legally challenged.”

    Source:The Christian Institute

  • tmatt


    No, you still don’t understand the point that I am making about the Post and Sun pieces. I connected the red herring tag only to the issue of forced celebration of same-sex rites IN churches, synagogues, etc., in the USA. I have not heard a single competent voice on left or right raise that issue on this side of the pond. That hasn’t even been raised in Canada.

    You did have the scary case in Canada where a Catholic priest was sent to a human-rights tribunal for daring to defend his church’s doctrine in a church bulletin.

  • BJ Mora

    Spike alert, Terry:

    In an unrelated matter, the Federal government has ruled that health care practitioners, with the exceptions of abortion and sterilzation, can no longer exercise their conscience in providing health care

    The first article is from the Washington Post; the second is an opinion post from Dr. Albert Mohler’s blog; he’s the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

    So there is precedent even in the last month for the state overriding one’s conscience (possibly).

  • Dave

    BJ, your links concern birth control/abortion matters, not gay marriage.