Religious freedom vs. gay discrimination in Arizona

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Here we go again.

In Arizona, a religious freedom bill has riled gay rights supporters, as The Associated Press puts it. Or, as a Los Angeles Times headline describes it, gay rights activists are in an uproar over the “religious freedom” (scare quotes courtesy of the Times) measure headed to Gov. Jan Brewer.

In Phoenix, readers of The Arizona Republic woke up to this banner front-page headline this morning:

Religion bill OK’d, on way to Brewer

The subhead:

Measure pits freedom against discrimination

The Republic’s big type certainly plays the story down the middle, avoiding the seeming bias of some national media reports.

But what about the local newspaper’s story itself?

Let’s start at the top:

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.

House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.

The bill, which was introduced last month and has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage. Discussion of the bill went viral on social media during the House floor debate Thursday.

Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

So, the bill is controversial. It’s conservative. It’s concerning to gay rights advocates.

Is it just me, or does the Republic story — unlike the headline and subhead — seem tilted up high?

In the fifth paragraph, the Phoenix newspaper finally gets around to explaining the position of the supporters:

Proponents argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.

After that rough start, however, the Republic actually does an excellent job of highlighting the debate — pro and con — on the bill:

Proponents say the bill would, for example, protect a wedding photographer who declined to take photos of a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony due to the photographer’s religious beliefs.

“We are trying to protect people’s religious liberties,” said Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park. “We don’t want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if you are a small-business owner.”

But opponents say it could also protect a corporation that refused to hire anyone who wasn’t Christian and could block members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community from access to nearly any business or service.

“The message that’s interpreted is: ‘We want you to work here, but we are not going to go out of our way to protect you, to protect your rights, to protect your family,’ ” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix. ”God forbid should someone come to the Super Bowl and come to a restaurant that is not going to allow them in.”

Moreover, the paper presents specific details on the legislation and provides relevant context on similar discussions nationwide (such as those previously highlighted by GetReligion in Oregon and Kansas).

Journalistic balance doesn’t necessarily equate to quoting an equal number of supporters and opponents, but it often does. In this case, the Republic does just that: Readers hear directly from four lawmakers who supported the bill and four who did not, along with a Center for Arizona Policy legal counsel who touts the bill and an American Civil Liberties Union program director skeptical of it.

By my rough count, the Republic had 227 words of direct quotes from proponents and 220 words of direct quotes from opponents. That’s pretty even, right?

Stay tuned for more coverage as the bill makes its way to the governor’s desk.

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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.

  • Darren Blair

    “But opponents say it could also protect a corporation that refused to hire anyone who wasn’t Christian”

    This statement here could be used as a springboard for a follow-up article.

    Federal employment law says that religion is a protected class, and so employers cannot fire or refuse to hire anyone on the basis of religion unless they’ve got a darn good reason for doing so.

    If the reporter gets a chance, they could try and get with a lawyer or a judge to get opinions of what might happen if a company *does* try to use the law to justify not hiring non-Christians.

  • radiofreerome

    It would be a better article if it explored the last major relevant Supreme Court decision, Romer v Evans, to discuss the likelihood that this law will stand.

    • fredx2

      You are correct, but this bill would be substantially different than the law in Romer. In Romer, the law passed in Colorado would have operated to negate any local discrimination laws that favored gay people. In other words, the Romer law was solely aimed at gay people.
      Here, the proposed law is not aimed at gay people. It is a mini-RFRA statute, which says that in any situation, a business owner can operate his business in accord with his religious beliefs, unless the state has a very compelling interest why he cannot. The state may not force him to violate his religious conscience.
      What such a law does is put both parties interests into the balance, and keeps our First Freedom – freedom of religion – at the forefront as the founding fathers intended. The First amendment protects Free Exercise of religion. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the free exercise [of religion].
      Although the cake baker situation is one of the reasons for the statute, it is not the only reason as in Romer. The HHS mandate also has been used to try and force the governments preferred beliefs on religious people.

      • radiofreerome

        I don’t see what your comment has to do with journalism. It seems to be an editorial expression about the law itself. As such, it should be deleted. :-) (Forgot the smiley face earlier.)

        • Cha5678

          It addresses why the article review of Romer would not be relevant to the case. A discussion of Romer would mislead the reader into thinking it applies to the state’s law. See the connection now?

  • radiofreerome

    By the way, the video to which you’ve linked is extremely biased.

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

      I just watched the video again. Seems pretty down the middle to me.

      • radiofreerome

        Most of commentary supports the anti-gay side. The anti-gay baker gets first and last word and more face time.

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

          I didn’t take it as first and last word so much as the reporter using a storytelling technique. But I see your point.

        • Jettboy

          In today’s world, that isn’t extremely biased. Its fair and balanced in a sea of pro-gay liberal reporting. Don’t like the coverage? Go to every other existing video.

          • radiofreerome

            “Its fair and balanced…”

            You forgot the trademark symbol. (Rolls eyes.)

  • Julia B

    And, again, we see the transmogrification of a perfectly good word, this time “discrimination”, into a bad word. What is being left out of the discussion these days is the modifier “illegal” when talking about discrimination. It used to be a positive trait to have discriminating taste or judgment. People discriminate all day long every day in their activities. It’s the criteria used in such discriminating that is the subject here, not the act of discriminating itself.

    • radiofreerome

      I agree. A better term of a law like this would be “segregation.” After all, the reach of the law will extend beyond protection the endangered Christian wedding photography and baking industries to allow hotels and gas stations to put out their “no fags allowed” signs and have the state enforce this. Precisely because Arizona is a sparsely populated state with an arid, dangerous country side, it will be trivial to make a commerce clause argument against this law.

      Having lived in the South as racial segregation was being abolished, I have a basis for comparison. The blacks, at least, could go to the side door to buy food at restaurants. What will the gays do under the mercies of God’s gentle people?

      • Cha5678

        How does the law allow for the gas station or lunch counter to do so? Under what protection of the freedom of exercise would the gas station be allowed to do so?

  • fredx2

    Love that word “controversial”. Never see it, except in connection with something the media does not like. Is gay marriage “controversial”? You bet. But I never see gay marriage described as “controversial” in the media. “Controversial gay marriage bill up for vote in Senate” Nope, never saw such a thing. “Controversial gay marriage issue before Court” Nope, never saw it.
    Hmmm.

  • Kathleen

    What’s the difference between forcing someone to participate in a gay wedding (as a photographer) and forcing someone to kneel down and worship your golden calf?

  • Cha5678

    Gay. Religion. Only one is a protected class under federal and Arizona laws against discrimination. Only one is being granted privilege by the political class where the two supposedly conflict. But never mind the law, the legislative process, the role of federalism. Let’s get us some pitchforks, write up our propaganda and fundamentally transform the republic into mob progressive rule.

    • radiofreerome

      Since the Windsor case, gays are a protected class entitled to heightened scrutiny. Deal.

      • Cha5678

        That is so far from what Windsor claimed. Your interpretation has not been confirmed by the Court.


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