Same-sex marriage and a conscience clash, via CNN

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, CNN’s “Belief Blog” features an excellent story by Godbeat pro Daniel Burke exploring the issue from the perspective of conservative Christians.

The headline:

Conservatives brace for ‘marriage revolution’

The story grabs readers’ attention by focusing on a civil rights vs. conscience clash in Washington state:

With its ivy-covered entrance and Teddy Bear bouquets, Arlene’s Flowers seems an unlikely spot to trigger a culture-war skirmish.

Until recently, the Richland, Washington, shop was better known for its artistic arrangements than its stance on same-sex marriage.

But in March, Barronelle Stutzman, the shop’s 68-year-old proprietress, refused to provide wedding flowers for a longtime customer who was marrying his partner. Washington state legalized same-sex marriage in December.

An ardent evangelical, Stutzman said she agonized over the decision but couldn’t support a wedding that her faith forbids.

“I was not discriminating at all,” she said. “I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson disagreed, and filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers. The ACLU also sued on behalf of the customer, Robert Ingersoll, who has said Stutzman’s refusal “really hurt, because it was someone I knew.”

After providing a closeup view of that single skirmish, the reporter backs up and paints a wide-angle portrait of the changing times and attitudes confronting social conservatives — from within and outside their own ranks. It’s all extremely interesting with credible (albeit fairly predictable) evangelical sources such as Albert Mohler, Russell Moore and Jonathan Merritt.

At the end, the story closes with the florist featured up top:

Online, Stutzman has been called a bigot, and worse.

She said she’s lost at least two weddings because of her refusal to provide services for the same-sex marriage.

Conservative activists say her case is the first of what will surely be many more, as gay marriage spreads across the country.

As she gets ready to face a judge, the silver-haired florist offered some advice for fellow evangelicals.

“Don’t give in. If you have to go down for Christ, what better person to go down for?”

As an evenhanded account of conservative Christian attitudes, the CNN story turns out fine. But here’s where it falls short: in providing any actual insight into the legal issues involved in the Washington state case.

In a separate story, The Associated Press reported:

The Washington state attorney general’s office sued the shop owner, Baronelle Stutzman, saying she violated consumer protection law by refusing service in March to longtime customers Freed and Robert Ingersoll.

Under state law, it’s illegal for businesses to refuse to sell goods, merchandise and services to any person because of their sexual orientation.

Stutzman says she has no problem with homosexual customers but won’t support gay weddings because of her religious beliefs.

In addition to the state, the ACLU sued Stutzman on behalf of the Kennewick, Wash., couple.

I wish CNN had delved a little deeper into the “freedom of conscience” issue. I’m no expert on the subject but wrote a 2011 Christianity Today story that listed a few examples of conscience questions:

Should a pharmacist be required to dispense the morning-after pill?

Should a cab driver be forced to transport passengers drinking alcohol?

Should an attorney be prohibited from rejecting a client whose beliefs conflict with her own?

That same story noted:

In a recent Heritage report titled “From Culture Wars to Conscience Wars,” (Thomas M.) Messner wrote: “Today, religious liberty and rights of conscience issues are more complicated than simply freedom from government interference in religious worship or teaching.”

In general, Messner said, “Increases in the level of government intrusion in the activities of private individuals and private entities carries with it … the potential to increase the number of conflicts between state-imposed duties … and religious liberty and right of conscience.”

More insight into the civil rights vs. conscience debate would have helped make an already good CNN story even better.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • JeffreyWeiss

    I will only note that no stories on this incredibly complex topic can cover all the bases. Even a doorstop-sized book would miss some. And few readers of material like this CNN.com post are looking for a book.

    As a matter of journalism, I approach such topics generally looking for the one bite I can swallow. If it’s possible to wave at other issues, I’ll try to do that. But this is the sort of subject where it is sometimes better to be a hedgehog — doing one thing well — than a fox — trying to cover too much territory. This *may* be even more true on a blog (which the CNN Belief page is one flavor of) than on other content platforms. (I’m open to counterarguments about differences in reader expectations on varying platforms, however.)

    Your questions are all good. And would fit well in another story or several.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Ah, an actual comment focused on journalism. :-) Thank you, Jeffrey.

      In general, I agree with the sentiments you’ve expressed, which is why my “criticisms” of the CNN story were relatively muted.

      A couple of thoughts:

      1. Even though this story was featured on the “Belief Blog,” it’s not a blog post per se (and probably was touted as well on CNN’s main news page). It’s the kind of trend story that you’d see on a front page of a newspaper or at the top of a wire service enterprise digest. I suspect that the CNN reporter and editor themselves would want to be held to a higher standard than a blog post on this piece of journalism.

      2. Using the bite-you-can-swallow analogy, I think that makes it even more crucial that the item you serve fits with the menu. If the story’s about red meat, you don’t want to lead and end with an anecdote about chicken. In this case, the story began and finished with a legal case involving freedom of conscience. If that’s a side issue to the main trend you’re addressing, then maybe there’s a better thread through which to weave the story.

      • JeffreyWeiss

        All part of the service…1:-{)> Full, if belated disclosure: As of this afternoon, between my first comment and now, I’m officially a contributor to what CNN *calls* the Belief Blog. (My first post went up a little while ago.) Daniel is co-editor of the thing, so I guess he knows what it’s supposed to be as well as anybody.

        It’s less blogg-y than some blogs I’ve contributed to, based on the posts. But I think it’s unlikely you’d see a New Yorker-length post there. But who knows? As a matter of journalism, we’re all trying to figure out what works on whatever platform we’re on.

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          Thanks for the disclosure. I’ll look forward to reading your, um, contributions to journalism.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is hard to see how you can claim someone is denying customers on “sexual orientation” when you admit they are longtime customers. This is clearly a case of not wanting to be involved in proactively endorsing a ceremony one objects to. Considering how much development goes into a wedding floral arrangement, it seems a violation of the 1st amendment for the government to compel a floral arrangement onto a person who does not want to do that. The government cannot compel speech, but it is trying to do so here.


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