Plotting about “religious liberty”

Some news organizations are working in their editorials and opinion pieces (if not elsewhere) — to downplay, denigrate or outright dismiss the religious liberty concerns some Americans have expressed recently. And yet, particularly when it comes to a new federal mandate requiring some religious organizations to violate their doctrines or face strict fines and penalties, people keep expressing these concerns.

We’ve noted how some media types are somewhat reticent to cover that side of the story, for whatever reasons. Other media types opine in support of the mandate or against those expressing their vehement objections with the mandate. Others have focused on covering one side of the story — those advocating in support of the mandate.

We’ll keep looking at coverage — or noting the lack of coverage — as this issue works its way through courts and polling places. It’s complicated, and I’m sure we’ll see more media coverage of the religious liberty concerns as the months progress and courts begin looking at the cases. I’m hopeful like that.

I attended a portion of a Washington, D.C., gathering focused on the issue of religious freedom and was curious how it would be covered. While there were certainly folks from Catholic and Christian outlets there, I didn’t see too many mainstream reporters. Not that I recognize all of these reporters by sight, of course. Perhaps the best coverage was done by C-Span, which covered the conference in its entirety. If you are interested in these issues, you can watch the entire conference here, broken up into its five sessions.

I was somewhat surprised that the Washington Post didn’t send a reporter across town to cover the event, particularly considering the New York Times sent a reporter down. Correct me if I’m wrong but the Washington Post instead ran with a Religion News Service report, which was fine for the most part.

There was the curiosity with the headline:

Activists gather to plot defense of ‘religious liberty’

Why are we scare quoting those words? And it’s not the Washington Post that originated the scare quotes (uh, this time). It’s on the RNS site, too. Someone really needs to explain to me the scare quote philosophy behind this, since we see it somewhat frequently. Nobody seems to scare quote any other word in this issue. It reads like “we want to mock your concerns” so if that’s not the intent, I’d just suggest stopping the scare quotes ASAP.

Here’s the top of the piece:

WASHINGTON — U.S. Catholic bishops have used the Obama administration’s contraception mandate as Exhibit A in their high-stakes defense of “religious freedom.” But it’s not just the bishops who are fuming, and it’s not only over contraception.

Like-minded religionists of several denominations — including Southern Baptist leader Richard Land and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori — gathered in Washington Thursday (May 24) to organize a response to what they see as the sorry state of religious freedom in America today.

“We must all be willing to stand up and tell the government ‘no,’” said Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Secularists don’t like people of faith because the ultimate authority for us is not the state. The ultimate authority is God.”

So there you go. More scare quotes. Some interesting language (“used”?). A bizarre choice of quote. I mean, even if Land is eminently quotable, that is not a good quote to summarize the general mood or content of the event (which, to be fair, is clarified later).

We learn who sponsored the summit, some of the groups who attended, and that the rhetoric was less confrontational than Land’s. Indeed, we’re told, calls for civility from various denominations were heard. Then we get numbers from Public Religion Research Institute (you’ll be shocked — shocked! — to hear that PRRI’s March poll showed that religious liberty is not a concern in the country). We learn that speakers discussed other religious liberty concerns, too.

The conference was very interesting and included a wide variety of speakers and perspectives. One of those was William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who generally suggested that the current flap over religious liberty wasn’t a big deal, since there have been major disputes over many of these issues before in history. When he spoke, I wondered whether reporters would lead with his quotes. (And yes, my other guess was that they’d lead with Land.) In this story, his words are put at the end:

William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, rejected the general consensus that religious rights had devolved to a critical point, and called for a “sense of proportion” even as he disagrees with the original contraception mandate introduced by the Obama administration.

In the United States, Galston argued, it’s inevitable that religious rights will occasionally collide with the government’s responsibility to protect citizen welfare. “This is not a fatal disease,” he said. “It is a chronic condition we are called upon to manage.”

I think that placement is exactly right. To be honest, I found Galston’s comments some of the most interesting from his panel. In large part that’s because the media have done such a poor job of covering this issue that we haven’t seen good responses to some of the claims being made by those vehemently opposing the mandate. By “good” responses, I mean those that take the issue seriously and understand the claims being made and come to a different issue (rather than rude dismissals or mockery).

The lack of coverage means that we’re not seeing enough coverage of criticisms of some of the claims being made about whether free birth control is a good idea — economically, bureaucratically or health wise — but we’re also not seeing good coverage of criticism of the claims being made by those focused on the religious liberty angle. Instead we just see coverage that imagines everyone is either on the side that support the idea of forcing employers to cover free birth control for “women’s rights” reasons or that they’re on the side that worries about the mandate for religious liberty concerns. There are many other perspectives in this fight, too. I hope to see more coverage of them all.

Earlier I mentioned that Catholic outlets covered the event. You may find their coverage more substantive than what can be found elsewhere.

Religious freedom stamp via Sylvana Rega / Shutterstock.com

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    “Secularists don’t like people of faith…”

    I can’t find anything in the coverage you pointed out where anyone challenged Land on that. Did anyone do so? It would seem to be a reasonable thing to include if it happened…

  • kyle

    “Religionists,” for pity’s sake.

  • http://www.spiritsnextmove.net/ Joe Perez

    Mollie,

    You had some excellent suggestions near the end for possible article topics, but it’s hard to take your complaining about scare quotes seriously when you are simultaneously putting “women’s rights” in the same punctuation. Don’t you see any contradiction or tension or anything?

    I don’t fault the newspapers for putting scare marks around some claims regarding religious liberty that are particularly specious. You seem to forget that by contrast this helps the reader understand that when the scare marks are absent there is a *real* issue of religious liberty at stake, one that pretty much everyone (not just the far right) agrees need to be protected.

    Would you have objected to the headline

    Activists gather to plot defense of ‘sodomy right’ ?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ray,

    I was at the event, as I mentioned, and I completely missed Land saying that. If someone responded to it, I missed that as well. He is very quotable, however. I thought people would quote the portion where he claims the media are misrepresenting the issue.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Joe,

    Did you think I scare quoted “good,” above, too?

    As for what you say about why you don’t object to the scare quotes, however, you have absolutely nailed it.

    The reason why it’s problematic is because reporters are deciding to give their political opinion — that the claims are specious.

    And that is *precisely* why other people object to the same scare quotes.

    That is so far beyond the vocation of reporting as to be silly.

    If they want to critique the claims or write op-eds — such as the ones we saw prior to the Supreme Court discussions on the individual mandate — that the claims are specious, go for it. But leave it out of the straight news reporting.

    In part I think they should leave it out because it signals to the reader that the reporter is hopelessly biased in covering the story. Why shoot your wad on such a needless thing, you know?

  • Sean

    The definition of the phrase “religious liberty” is precisely one of the terms that is at stake in this debate (freedom of institutions vis-a-vis the state vs. freedom of individuals vis-a-vis institutions). To use the phrase without putting it in quotation marks (or, I guess, scare quotes) while reporting one side’s views is to imply that their definition of religious liberty is more correct than another.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    SEAN:

    Say what? Since when have American courts not considered religious institutions to be protected as part of religious liberty? I mean, there is that whole CHURCH thing in Church-State law.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sean,

    The same thing could be said about “contraception.” Have you seen any story scare quote that word?

  • Sean

    OK, first, to Mollie: it would probably be good to see stories that do that. It would make for a useful discussion. Also, I’m not 100% clear on the difference between quotation marks and scare quotes. I mean, yes, I know the difference, but there’s a fine line, no?

    To tmatt (and also to Mollie’s OP): it seems that you are in complete agreement with the Bishops’ and “like minded religionists’” definition of religious liberty. But not everyone is! People who are uneasy with the reaction to the mandate worry about Catholic employers “imposing” their religious views on employees, thereby infringing upon employees’ “religious liberty.” You may (even correctly!) think they’re wrong — but that is a live position! That fact alone means that the definition of the phrase religious liberty is debated and worthy of contextualization, which is what quotation marks do.

  • kyle

    … [I]t seems that you are in complete agreement with the Bishops’ and “like minded religionists’” definition of religious liberty. But not everyone is! People who are uneasy with the reaction to the mandate worry about Catholic employers “imposing” their religious views on employees, thereby infringing upon employees’ “religious liberty.” You may (even correctly!) think they’re wrong — but that is a live position! That fact alone means that the definition of the phrase religious liberty is debated and worthy of contextualization, which is what quotation marks do.

    Simply stated, no, that isn’t what they do. They cast doubt on the particular usage. They do not occupy a neutral space.

    If a reporter wished to provide context for the debate over religious liberty here — and oh, would that they did! — the way to do that would be to actually report the debate. That’s precisely what, generally speaking, is being avoided like the plague in mainstream news reporting.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sean,

    In all seriousness, I’m not entirely sure I understand the difference between quotation marks and scare quotes. I’ve joked that this must be what you learn in J-school (which I didn’t attend).

    But I actually don’t think you’re right about this being a dispute over the *definition* of religious liberty, per se. I mean, to take the example above, Galston and the rest of the crowd probably have very similar or same definitions of religious liberty but different understandings of its importance or of the precedent that this type of mandate would set as it relates to other religious liberty issues.

    That’s why I enjoyed this seminar so much (and thought this report on it was pretty good). People were all discussing religious liberty but had different takes on this mandate’s importance and other issues.

    I think my big beef with the scare quotes/quotes issue is that there is a lot of baggage with them with very little pay off, if any.

  • Martha

    Sean, if they were simply using quotation marks, I think we’d all be happy. If a headline on a news story said “International group meets to discuss ‘alien alliances’” and it was about a UFO cult having a conference on their meetings with little green men, Greys and various others and the headline was quoting what the head of the organisation said in his talk about why aliens are visiting Earth, that would be well and good.

    But to give you an example of what is sauce for the goose not being sauce for the gander: you said “The definition of the phrase “religious liberty” is precisely one of the terms that is at stake in this debate” and that’s a good point. There are many topics where the definition of what exactly is at stake is at the heart of the question; I’m going to go for the big one, abortion rights.

    For me (I won’t speak for anyone else) that should always be in quotation marks as (a) I don’t believe abortion is a right and (b) there are competing rights in this debate but we only get to hear one side.

    “The Washington Post” had no difficulty in deciding whether or not it should use quotation marks in this headline – “Republicans, Democrats trade barbs over police action at abortion-rights rally”

    So it’s not an “abortion-rights” rally, but it is “religious liberty” defence plotting.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    First, here is a useful resource on the lawsuit and background info from the Becket Fund. There’s an interactive map and copies of the legal papers filed. It should be a bookmark for any religion/legal reporter. The Becket Fund of course is not neutral on the issue, but they have gathered lots of resources. http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/

    Regarding those scare quotes, I find them objectionable because they are often ambiguous and, as Mollie points out, loaded. The difficulty here is that religious liberty is a real thing, according to the Constitution and what little I know of relevant cases at law, unlike the example given by a commenter about sodomy rights, which has no existing, explicit Constitutional or legal framework. The question politically is what religious liberty consists in.

    Insofar as the conference was about a real thing and not about a putative thing or just the HHS mandate, it would seem the scare quotes in this case are inappropriate.

    However I am also having a hard time seeing how they can ever be appropriate in this case. I can’t see how putting religious liberty into scare quotes does not call into question for the reader the very existence of religious liberty. Perhaps what media mean by scare quotes is “these people claim it’s a matter of religious liberty” and not “these people believe in a fantasy called religious liberty.” But it is not clear from the scare quotes alone, so it is reasonable to suspect the latter.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    AuthenticBioethics –

    unlike the example given by a commenter about sodomy rights, which has no existing, explicit Constitutional or legal framework.

    Well, it does have case law, at least.

  • Sean

    Fair enough, and thanks, Mollie, for the kind and measured response. Maybe “definition” isn’t correct; perhaps the debate isn’t over a definition, strictly speaking, but over which aspects are to emphasized and in which contexts.

    The more I think about it, Mollie’s previous comment (12:05 pm, mentioning that “contraception” should be put in quotation marks) is really suggestive. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the issue in terms of competing frames (he says “contraception,” she says “religious liberty”), we should interrogate each of the two terms. I think it’s absolutely necessary and appropriate to contextualize uses of the phrase “religious liberty”; likewise, the competing understandings of “contraception” need to be aired. This news story seems to be doing the former (though possibly in a clumsy way), though not yet the latter. That might lead us to some pretty interesting places.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    I’ll pile on, Whether or not the debate is about “religious liberty” is a key matter of controversy. The quotes — not scare quotes, whatever those might be, but plain ol’ quotation marks on your keyboard — are a reflection of that.

    I’m thinking about whether “free contraception coverage” should get the same treatment. Defining “religious liberty” includes deep debates about what exactly constitutes both religion and liberty in an American legal and moral context. But “free contraception coverage” is not a phrase about which there is debate over what it means. The debate is whether to require it or not. Opponents say that “religious liberty” is why it should not be required, yes? Hence the quotes.

    The debate about abortion rights has something in common with that: One side says there should be ‘em (and offers various reasons). The other side says there should not be (and offers various reasons). The debate is not over the terminology, but over the appropriateness. The two sides do have their rhetorical branding efforts — “choice” vs “life.” But the phrase “abortion rights” tilts to neither side on that.

    Back when I was writing a lot about it, our style was to describe the two sides as “abortion rights supporters” and “abortion rights opponents.” Which was clunky but both fair and correct, I thought. Dead-tree headlines are always tough because of space issues, but the WaPo could have called it an abortion-rights supporters rally.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    Have you not read all of the opinion pieces questioning whether free contraception coverage is free (in multiple senses of the word) or whether it’s limited to contraception? There’s probably much more debate on those words than religious liberty. Yet only one side gets the scare-quote/quote-quote treatment.

    I mean, do we scare-quote/quote-quote “civil liberties”? I don’t see it in stories, I don’t think. Obviously there couldn’t be more debate on what constitutes civil liberties.

    There’s just not much benefit to these quotes and a huge downside. I’d encourage them to either be dropped immediately or to see much more consistency in when they’re used.

    Otherwise, it just reeks of bias, even if it’s unintentional. (It’s a universal problem that we’re really good at seeing how the other side’s terms are questionable while ours are brilliant and objective and completely without debate among reasonable people.)

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Ray Ingles, yes. One case, apparently, finding however not that there is a right to sodomy per se, but that the law in TX against it was a violation of privacy and liberty to consent to that sort of thing. Up until that one case, all case law was against the very notion of sodomy rights, and it is not clear that the term is even supported by the case. I’m no lawyer but was aware of the TX case, but since it wasn’t about “humans have a right to sodomy” but rather “the state doesn’t have justification to outlaw particular forms of consensual sexual behavior,” I didn’t think it applied. The Supreme Court decision is not irreversible. In contrast, of course, the jurisprudence regarding religious liberty, with the term or a synonym explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, is very abundant. One could argue that “sodomy rights” is an invented term of a legal concept not specifically defined, whereas “religious liberty” is well established in the very foundations of this nation. It’s a major reason why many people settled here.

  • kyle

    The debate about abortion rights has something in common with that: One side says there should be ‘em (and offers various reasons). The other side says there should not be (and offers various reasons). The debate is not over the terminology, but over the appropriateness. The two sides do have their rhetorical branding efforts — “choice” vs “life.” But the phrase “abortion rights” tilts to neither side on that.

    There’s an (I’m sure unintentional) equivocation on the word “rights” in your position. You are speaking here as a matter of positive (civil) law. However, the term has a much deeper meaning both in an American and in a religious context: the natural law sense of the term. It was famously articulated in the most famous of American documents in thi way: that people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the view of some Americans, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. being one of them, laws that violate this natural law are “no law at all.” And so in the abortion debate, for more than a few people on both sides of the debate it very much is a debate over whether a right to abortion in this natural law sense exists at all.

    In this natural law context, a reporter talking in terms of people favoring or opposing “abortion rights” is implicitly taking sides on that question of whether such a right exists. This represents a huge rhetorical advantage for those who favor legal abortion, because again in the minds of many Americans, the kinds of rights we’re talking about are not merely things granted by the positive law, like I have a right to drive 70 on this highway, but the kinds of rights endowed by a Creator, like a right to conscience or a right to life or a right not to be a slave.

  • kyle

    I’ll pile on, Whether or not the debate is about “religious liberty” is a key matter of controversy. The quotes — not scare quotes, whatever those might be, but plain ol’ quotation marks on your keyboard — are a reflection of that.

    Scare quotes is not a made up thing, it’s a real thing. The Wiki article on it explains some of the uses and gives some references. (My CMS is older but still mentions the concept, although not by name.)

    The way it is being used here is manifestly not just a quotation mark. It’s not just being indicated that someone spoke the words “religious liberty.” It is clearly being used to indicate that it’s a non-standard use of the term.

    There is, indeed, a debate going on everywhere but in the news copy about what religious liberty means in this context. Instead of using punctuation that suggests the reporter is using the term ironically or casting down on one side of the debate, it would be wonderful if they would start breaking down for readers exactly what the bishops mean by religious liberty and how it applies in this case and exactly how the president and proponents of the HHS mandate (and other controversial policies) mean by religious liberty and how they are applying that definition in this case. That would be especially important for reporters to do given that the Administration not so long ago lost a religious liberty case 9-0 (being voted against even by the president’s own appointees) that was widely seen as an extreme position on religious liberty. It would be terrific for reporters to give their readers and viewers a richer and deeper sense of the parameters of that debate.

    Unfortunately, that’s not what reporters are doing at all. But be that as it may, lazily throwing some irony punctuation around a few words is not going to carry the weight of failing to do it.

  • kyle

    A few other references on scare quotes:

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scare%20quotes

    http://thenewsmanual.net/Manuals%20Volume%201/volume1_08.htm

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/scare+quotes

    And for a bonus, here’s a publication rejoicing that the Washington Times was changing its style to cease using scare quotes in the term “gay ‘marriage.’”

    Again, what’s clear from these references is that scare quoting is not even remotely neutral in the eyes of an educated reader. It’s not merely a way of saying, “There’s a debate about this.” It’s a way of saying, “This is a dubious use of the term.”

  • Martha

    Jeffrey, I’ll bite on this one.

    1. “But “free contraception coverage” is not a phrase about which there is debate over what it means.”

    Oh yes, there is. To take the big one first, what does “free” mean in the context of the mandate? The insurance companies will cover the cost – how? If they don’t directly write into policies “X amount of dollars for birth-control prescriptions and surgical sterilisations”, then how will they cover the cost of providing this insurance: Option A – go out into the garden and pluck a basketful of dollars from the money tree, or Option B – raise premiums in general?

    Franciscan University of Steubenville and Ave Maria University of Florida have both dropped their student health insurance plans, not alone because of the ‘contraceptive mandate’ but also because of the hike in premiums: “President James Towey tells WINK News, they had to change their policy after they learned students premiums would increase more than 65 percent because of provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

    Also, what is a “contraceptive”? The ‘morning-after’ or ‘emergency contraception’ pills are covered under this mandate, and there is controversy over whether some brands act as abortifacients (preventing implantation of the zygote or causing an implanted zygote to be miscarried)rather than contraceptives (preventing ovulation), not to mention the action of devices such as IUDs. Okay, this is getting into technicalities about does pregnancy begin at conception or at implantation, but there is debate about it.

    2. “But the phrase “abortion rights” tilts to neither side on that.”

    Oh yes, it does. If something is a right, then it is possessed by a human being by virtue of (a) the humanity of the entity and (b) it is not conferred upon that person at the will of others, so a deprivation of that right is a crime and a harm to the person being deprived.

    Saying that abortion is a “right” means that there is a right side and a wrong side in the debate, and that the side which is in the right is the side agitating for, well, rights. The right to human liberty means that even when slavery was legal, it was still wrong and unjustifiable, and those were bad laws. Nobody would consider the phrase “human rights” in a headline about “Allegations of recent human rights abuses in China” to be a neutral descriptor tilting to neither side of the debate.

    Perhaps they should start writing about “Allegations of recent ‘human rights’ abuses” instead?

  • Martha

    Oh yeah, Jeffrey, I forgot to mention this: at the very start, the contraceptive coverage wasn’t “free”; it was going to be mandated that all employers had to provide this coverage in their health plans, the only exemptions would be on conscience grounds for religious entities, and the Department of Health and Human Services would be the one deciding what did and did not constitute a religious entity.

    The “free coverage” bit was the compromise, which totally missed the point: it was the government saying “Okay, you don’t want to pay for contraception? We’ll make it free!” and the bishops saying “It’s not about money, it’s about forcing us under law to do stuff we think is immoral.”

    That’s where the “religious liberty” part comes in. Or the “war against women”, if you want to take the other side.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DEAN:

    All I said was that the history of church-state law is rooted in cases that involve institutions, as well as individuals.

    That’s simply a fact. The current disputes clearly involve the rights of institutions as well as individuals who hold religious convictions.

    Thus, as the White House has said, there are religious liberty implications.

    I’ll say it again — it’s called church-state law for a reason.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    The lack of coverage means that we’re not seeing enough coverage of criticisms of some of the claims being made about whether free birth control is a good idea — economically, bureaucratically or health wise…

    The problem I see here is that the press quickly cast this as a battle between the Obama administration and religious groups. Which totally ignores the origins of the policy. Which origin is in the National Institute of Health, NIH. The NIH was asked to come up with a global list of preventative measures that would help in managing health costs and out-comes. The NIH produced a large number of policy reccomendations, of which only the ones on female reproductive health are controversial.

    I would like to see solid coverage of just what the program involves, how the individual items were selected and what justifies each and every one. One factoid that emerged in the beginning, and then disapeared, was that the birth control part would eliminate something like two thirds of all abortions. I think coverage of that alone would help clarify the debate.

    And then I would like to see responses from religious figures to the health care arguments. On the lines of those who object to blood transfusions and vaccines. Instead of this personal slugfest the media is serving up.

    BTW, people who call themselves libertarians should recognize that insurance is not about who pays for what as much as it is about the management and reduction of risk. So, the question should be, does the birth control program reduce the overall risk exposure of the general population and the risk factors for those participating? While this is knowable, knowing involves understanding actuarial process, a very advanced form of statistics, which the press is very poor at doing.

  • Julia

    There are famous cases in the early 20th century about Catholics’ right to have their own religious schools, which some states were trying to ban. I wonder why these cases are not mentioned in the context of the government deciding that schools (and hospitals etc.) are not religious institutions that get an exemption.

    Check out this Supreme Court case, decided on due process 14th amendment grounds; but Justice Kennedy, among other, thinks it could have been decided on 1st Amendment grounds.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierce_v._Society_of_Sisters

  • Bill

    Dalea wrote #25,

    BTW, people who call themselves libertarians should recognize that insurance is not about who pays for what as much as it is about the management and reduction of risk.

    Libertarians would argue that forcing people to buy insurance against their wills is tyranny, as is forcing employers to buy their employees’ insurance for things they find morally repugnant.

    The coverage has been one-sided because the press generally believes there is but one side. The NYT editorial from Monday put it:

    Thirteen Roman Catholic dioceses and some Catholic-related groups scattered lawsuits across a dozen federal courts last week claiming that President Obama was violating their religious freedom by including contraceptives in basic health care coverage for female employees. It was a dramatic stunt, full of indignation but built on air.

    Yes, I know it’s an editorial. But the coverage reflects the contempt.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    BTW, people who call themselves libertarians should recognize

    This is the equivalent of “scare quotes”. We do not read about “people who call themselves progressives” or “people who call themselves Democrats” or “what their supporters call abortion rights”. Get the idea now?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    AuthenticBioethics – This isn’t the place to get into a detailed debate about the 9th amendment and so forth; I simply wanted to point out that there’s a bit more legal framework around the issue than you seemed to imply.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Sigh. One side says that women have the right to an abortion. The other side says that women do not have the right to an abortion. How exactly one writes objectively about that legal debate without the use of the word “rights” is beyond me. Are there abortion rights or not? How does it tilt to ask the question?

    To agree that there are rights — whether endowed by a creator or granted by secular legal authority — does not assume that every claim to identify a right is correct.

    As for “free contraception.” Hm. I will back off my earlier position. I agree that there remains more controversy about that phrase. I’d put it in quotes.

    As for “scare quotes.” I only have one set of quote marks on my keyboard. How do you know when they’re supposed to be scary? I will gently suggest that some of the instances in which some people are reading irony is projection of assumed hostility that may not actually exist.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    Think of it this way — some people believe that all humans, regardless of age, have the right to life. Other people think that some humans don’t have the right to life.

    How to phrase this debate without using the word “life” is beyond me. Are there rights to life or not? How does it tilt to ask the question?

  • kyle

    As for “scare quotes.” I only have one set of quote marks on my keyboard. How do you know when they’re supposed to be scary? I will gently suggest that some of the instances in which some people are reading irony is projection of assumed hostility that may not actually exist.

    You have only one apostrophe key on your keyboard. How do you know when you are using it as an apostrophe and when you are using it as a single quotation mark or to indicate feet in a measurement of length? Obviously by the context.

    Did you read the links I provided? They explain what scare quotes are quite clearly. Webster’s Dictionary says: ” quotation marks used to express especially skepticism or derision concerning the use of the enclosed word or phrase.” Or as you put it yourself, “Whether or not the debate is about ‘religious liberty’ is a key matter of controversy. The quotes … are a reflection of that.”

    I’m sure it cannot really be the case that you don’t know the difference between this and using quotations marks in the standard way in news copy, which is merely to indicate a direct quotation.

    If someone were being a jerk to you and, in describing you, he put the word “journalist” in scare quotes, would you not understand that the writer meant to cast doubt on your skill as a journalist? (For the record, I am not intending to do that to you with this example — only to give you a more personal example to help clarify.)

  • kyle

    Jeffrey, it occurs to me that if you are being consistent in your defense of using quotation marks in this way and in your defense of the “abortion rights” language now in widespread use, you should be advocating that the word “rights” be put in quotation marks. After all, key to the abortion debate is the question of whether such rights exist at all. It’s a controverted use of the word “rights.”

    Same thing with the marriage debate. Proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously believe there is such a thing as same-sex marriage, while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility, an oxymoron, i.e. that the definition of marriage not only should not be changed in this way but objectively cannot be changed in this way, that attempts to marry two people of the same sex amount to pretending but not effecting such a thing. So there again, the quotation style that was (I gather) used by the Washington Times, of putting the word “marriage” in quotation marks when referring to the controverted usage, would be a good, neutral way for a reporter to signify to readers that there is controversy over the usage. Right?