Wind of change comes sweeping down the plain

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My home state of Oklahoma made big news Tuesday when a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The New York Times noted that the ruling occurred in the “heart of the Bible Belt,” while The Associated Press characterized Oklahoma as “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” (Religion angle, anyone?)

For the Tulsa World — whose banner headline today proclaimed “Gay marriage wins” — the ruling hit especially close to home, and not just because a Tulsa-based judge made the ruling. Two of the four plaintiffs are World editors, a connection that — to its credit — the Tulsa newspaper made clear in its story.

A friend of mine who works for the World remarked on his Facebook page that “it’s not often you walk into the newsroom and watch news happen in front of your face. Like national news kind of stuff.”

From The New York Times story:

“We’re jubilant, we’re over the moon,” said one of the plaintiffs, Sharon Baldwin, 45, who has lived with her partner and co-plaintiff, Mary Bishop, 52, for 17 years.

The two both work as editors at The Tulsa World newspaper and had just arrived at work on Tuesday afternoon when the city editor told them of the decision.

“We’re taking the day off,” Ms. Baldwin said.

In the major outlets, the first-day news coverage focused on the national ramifications of the decision, and rightly so. CNN described the ruling as “yet another victory for same-sex marriage supporters.” The Washington Post termed it “the latest in a string of recent court decisions that have challenged such prohibitions.”

But a few news organizations — including the AP — delved into the meat of U.S. District Judge Terence Kern’s 68-page ruling:

Kern said the ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause because it precludes same-sex couples from receiving an Oklahoma marriage license. In his 68-page ruling, Kern frequently referenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued last summer on gay marriage. He also took a shot at Oklahoma’s high divorce rate, noting that “excluding same-sex couples from marriage has done little to keep Oklahoma families together thus far.”

“Exclusion of just one class of citizens from receiving a marriage license based upon the perceived ‘threat’ they pose to the marital institution is, at bottom, an arbitrary exclusion based upon the majority’s disapproval of the defined class,” Kern wrote. “It is also insulting to same-sex couples, who are human beings capable of forming loving, committed, enduring relationships.”

At one time, Oklahoma ranked No. 2 in the nation in divorce — a fact that I explored in a 2002 series when I served as religion editor of The Oklahoman:

Experts cite the state’s low per-capita income – which ranks 43rd in the nation – and a tendency of Bible Belt couples to marry young as reasons many marriages fail.

Just last month, Christianity Today reported that Oklahoma’s taxpayer-funded effort to reduce divorce had failed. “More than a dozen years and $70 million still result in America’s third-highest divorce rate,” the magazine said.

From today’s front-page story in The Oklahoman:

After dissecting the arguments supporters voiced to justify the ban, Kern said that “moral disapproval of homosexuals as a class, or same-sex marriage as a practice, is not a permissible justification.”

Moreover, he said, protecting the sanctity of marriage wasn’t a valid reason for the ban, given Oklahoma’s high divorce rate of opposite-sex couples, and encouraging procreation wasn’t logical either since opposite-sex couples aren’t required to say they’ll produce offspring in order to get a marriage license.

But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there’s no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana’s recent Facts & Trends piece on “bad stats.”

What’s next? I’d love to see reporters interview Oklahoma religious leaders — on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate — in light of the judge’s comments.

Stay tuned.

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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.

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

    Just a reminder, folks: GetReligion is a journalism website. Please comment on journalism-related issues and media questions, not your views on same-sex marriage. Thanks!

    • Kodos

      If only the NYT would follow the same rules… :)

  • wlinden

    One of my pet peeves is characterizing a refusal to institute something which has never existed before as a “ban”. There are bans on polygamy. Not instituting something is not a “ban”.

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

      This is the text of the state question that Oklahoma voters approved in 2004:

      (a.) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. Neither this Constitution nor any other provision of law shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.

      (b.) A marriage between persons of the same gender performed in another state shall not be recognized as valid and binding in this state as of the date of the marriage.

      (c.) Any person knowingly issuing a marriage license in violation of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

      That sounds like a ban on same-sex marriage to me.

  • Darren Blair

    A friend of mine who works for the World remarked on his Facebook page that “it’s not often you walk into the newsroom and watch news happen in front of your face. Like national news kind of stuff.”

    IMHO, your friend should be grateful that this is the case.

    On April 26th of last year, a 20-year-old young man decided to get behind the wheel after consuming a mix of alcohol, marijuana, and Xanax. He was traveling at a high rate of speed down the highway when he lost control of his car and crashed into the retail strip next door to the main office of the newspaper that I write for. The young man was killed on impact, and the building itself was quickly engulfed in flames.

    Fortunately, the specific storefront he hit belonged to an insurance company. There was a hair salon a mere two doors down, and had the driver hit *that* then the impact and fire would have ignited, if not detonated, the various chemicals inside; I can’t even begin to imagine how badly this would have ended had that happened.

    I was in the office at the time (I help process the physical papers in addition to writing, and so was waiting for the truck to arrive with the day’s edition), and so had a front-row seat.

  • Cheryl Bacon

    What? Now Oklahoma is the belt (or heart) of the Bible Belt? I thought that was Abilene, or Waco, or . . . Such cliches from the New York Times and Washington Post are thinly veiled (and lazy) insults that say little about actual numbers of religious adherents in various locales, or what said adherents really believe outside the implied stereotype.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I’m surprised to not see any comparisons in the media between how the Supreme Court bulldozed away all abortion laws in one swoop and how the courts are now just doing it by piecework for gay “marriage.” In either case we have judicial dictatorship at work and representative government trashed (Is it any wonder so many people don’t bother to vote– the only votes that count are from the bench.) Going back to our republic’s early years the courts were rarely involved and it was apparently intended to be that way.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The only thing getting worse then the coverage of these rulings is the down right refusal of the judges to engage with the actual arguments of those in favor of man/woman marriage and their substitution of false arguments.
    It is not credible that the judge really does not see that the issue is about what form marriages need to take, and that they need to be a form that points towards procreation.
    The fact that the mainstream media will never give voice to these arguments leads to more vitriole than is necessary.


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