Surprise! A same-sex marriage story that gets religion

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For the latest Christian Chronicle, I wrote a news story on judicial authorities in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington formally admonishing a superior court judge — also a Church of Christ elder — for voicing his preference not to perform same-sex marriages.

As part of that story, I cited the Wall Street Journal’s recent reportpraised by GetReligion — on wedding professionals in at least six states running headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

I quoted Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., on the religious liberty implications:

“In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, this is less likely to be a problem,” Windham told the Chronicle. “But in states where there are same-sex unions, then some Christian business owners might be at risk.

“This is a developing area of law, so it’s too early to tell how these cases are going to turn out,” added Windham, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia and a graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas. “I am hopeful that courts and state legislatures will strike a balance between marriage laws and religious freedom.”

In past GetReligion posts — here, here and here, for example — I’ve highlighted the tendency of some major media to produce one-sided stories on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

But today, I come not to bury to the Chicago Tribune but to praise it. A Tribune story written this week by two reporters, including Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman, focuses on the clash between Illinois’ gay marriage bill and religious liberty:

Illinois’ gay marriage bill that awaits the governor’s signature doesn’t force religious clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or compel churches to open their doors for ceremonies. But similar safeguards aren’t spelled out for pastry chefs, florists, photographers and other vendors who, based on religious convictions, might not want to share a gay couple’s wedding day.

The lack of broader exceptions worries some who fear an erosion of religious freedoms, even as supporters of the law say it will eliminate discrimination.

“We’re going to have to wait for lawsuits to arrive,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a socially conservative legal group.

Critics of the bill that positions Illinois to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage point out that, though it protects clergy and houses of worship, it doesn’t spell out exemptions for people and businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, might not want to do business with same-sex couples. The text of the bill makes clear that it doesn’t alter two related laws: the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don’t harm the welfare of society.

In addition to the problem faced by wedding vendors, opponents worry that the law could force some doctors, social workers and counselors to go against their personal beliefs by providing services to married same-sex couples, or have their licenses revoked.

The Tribune does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns of religious opponents of same-sex marriage and the legal issues at play.

And yes, the Chicago paper also presents the perspective of same-sex marriage supporters:

“The basic question is whether people should be able to rely on their religion as a basis for discriminating, and that’s true whether it’s about a civil union or an interracial marriage or a commitment ceremony,” said John Knight, a lawyer with the ACLU of Illinois who specializes in LGBT issues. “We think for the most part … people shouldn’t be able to rely on their religion as a basis for discriminating in their commercial businesses.”

It’s called journalism, folks. Kudos to the Tribune.

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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.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    What seems to be rapidly developing–and not much covered by the media–is how Freedom of religion as everyone’s individual right (like freedom of the press or speech or the right to bear arms) is slowly becoming only a right for clergy or for church institutions–especially in pro-gay marriage states
    Part of the problem is that this was basically the policy of the old Soviet Union with regard to religion–freedom of religion only within church walls and only for gov’t recognized clergy and groups.
    How ironic that Putin of Russia seems far more interested in what is happening to Christians in Syria than anyone in the West. That probably goes back to the days years ago when Russia was the protector and supporter of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East– a history situation I have seen only mentioned once in the media as a possible reason for Putin’s stance on Mid-East issues.

  • cvg

    This was an excellent article. As a non-journalist it really made me appreciate the value of honed skills. It was similar to listening to a science lecture from a top-shelf researcher vs. an amateur hack. Both may try to explain the same things, but one knows how to minimize erroneous connotations while the other swims in obfuscation.

    I liked how the very first paragraph highlighted the thesis of the article; whether the distinction between “share” and “officiate” is strong enough for religious exception law to overcome anti-discrimination law. That is a clear, concise question that doesn’t drag in un-necessary political agendas. Science spends tremendous time in properly framing questions. It seems real journalism does the same.

    The ACLU quote was fabulous. I love how Knight didn’t mince words. It makes me wonder what well-thought out questions were required to bring out such clarity. I doubt very much this quote emerged due to happenstance.

    This paragraph was also exceptional. It clearly states the range of what is and is not permissible.

    “The law clearly allows Loyola to deny same-sex couples from marrying at Madonna Della Strada because it is a place of worship. But the mansion, an event venue that the university rents to the public, might not qualify for the same religious protections.”

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

      Excellent analysis.

  • Kullervo

    It needs to be reiterated that legalizing same-sex marriage in and of itself does not create anti-discrimination law.

  • Thomas Nichols

    I wonder if the same laws prohibiting discrimination would apply if a wedding vendor refused to bake a wedding cake, for example, for a couple consisting of previously divorced heterosexuals, or a pair of Satanists, or someone actively engaging in some other behavior that was considered sinful by their standards? It’s a question that is seldom asked.


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