AP sticks it to Mississippi religious freedom law

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Earlier this month, I wrote a post titled “Via AP, a tasty piece on a same-sex wedding cake.”

In that post, I praised an Associated Press story out of Colorado that did an exceptional job of reporting on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

That story excelled because the AP focused on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — while fairly representing both sides. Both the tone and presentation of that report seemed journalistically neutral.

Contrast that with an AP story out of Mississippi that hit the national wire today.

With the headline “Business window stickers protest Mississippi law,” this report drips with favoritism for one side — and dare I say comes across as advocacy journalism? — from the very beginning:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In conservative Mississippi, some business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion.

Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs — for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

Hundreds of businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

The sticker campaign started this month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Ah, the dreaded unnamed critics.

Are these critics responsible for the description of the law as “vaguely written,” or is that the AP’s opinion? And, is it journalistically proper to state “vaguely written” as a fact, given that supporters such as the Alliance Defending Freedom disagree?:

 
I asked Greg to clarify his concern with the story. Here’s what he said in an email:

The truth is that after 20 years and more than 300 RFRA cases, state and federal, no one has ever asserted a RFRA defense for refusing a generic commodity transaction or ejecting someone from a store or a restaurant. So, the sticker makers are essentially protesting an imaginary law, and it’s unfortunate that AP is promoting a false narrative about these religious freedom laws.

More from the AP story:

The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason. While it does not specifically mention gays or lesbians, “People are going to take it as permission, if you will, to discriminate against people they don’t necessarily agree with or like,” said Jackson hair salon owner Eddie Outlaw, 42, who went out of state to marry his husband.

“We have a long and well-documented history of discrimination in this state,” Outlaw said. “To think there won’t be any discrimination is laughable.”

From there, the AP provides rather stilted, official-type quotes from the governor and the president of the Family Research Council, both of whom support the “vaguely written” law. Obligatory inclusion of supporters reflected? Check.

Next, let’s get back to what’s really happening and quote more business owners/opponents who obviously are standing up for true freedom, justice and the American way. At least that’s how the story comes across to me. Be sure to read it and correct me if I’m wrong.

Sarcasm aside, what’s missing?

Well, for one thing, the story mentions that the law was backed by the state’s Pentecostals and Southern Baptists?  Yet the AP doesn’t bother to seek their input on the sticker campaign or the claims that the law intends to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The story ends by getting in digs at both Arizona and religious conservatives:

She said when the Mississippi House and Senate passed the bill on April 1, she heard from a friend who told her: “‘Oh, my God. We’re going to be Arizona.’”

Arizona is among the states that has had its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the books for years. It drew national attention earlier this year with a bill that would have altered the existing law by allowing businesses to refuse service to gays. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill after companies said it would hurt the state.

An early version of the Mississippi bill was similar to the one vetoed in Arizona. The final version, however, had been changed to only specify that government could not put a burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason. Portions that would’ve allowed private businesses to refuse service were removed.

While the Mississippi law angers him, Outlaw said he sees it as backlash from religious conservatives who are resisting equal treatment for gays and lesbians, including the right to marry. “The rational part of me realizes this is just the death rattle of the old way of life.”

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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.

    A reminder that comments must be focused on journalism and media coverage. This is not the place to debate the rightness or wrongness of the law.

  • Dbom

    “death rattle of the old media”

    Fixed it!

  • Daniel Merriman

    Rhetta Grimsley Johnson, a columnist who I have liked a lot over the years, penned a column that our local paper ran on Aptil 20 that took a similar fact free, emotionally charged approach. I sent a letter to the editor and pointed out that Illinois, our President’s home state, had an identical statute on its books. Why, I asked, was the Illinois legislature’s action not equally heinous? So far my letter has not been published. I would note that my local paper does subscribe to the Associated Press, but they have not run the story about the Colorado bakery.
    The meme is now set in stone: People that have religious objections to gay marriage and live in the south are no different than the murderers of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. You expect too much if you think that the media will do anything but serve as a megaphone.


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