LATimes shreds old-school language in religious liberty story

The following information cannot be examined too many times during the media storm that has followed the so-called Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Back in 1993, early in the right-wing reign of terror led by the Clinton White House, the U.S. Senate voted 97-3 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The “nay” votes were cast by two Democrats and one Republican, each hailing from somewhere on the political right. Taking a stand in favor of a traditional, “liberal” approach to religious freedom — no scare quotes needed back then — was not controversial.

I urge journalists covering First Amendment issues today to study this graphic from that now-distant age.

This must be contrasted with the 56-43 vote the other day — a mere four votes shy of cloture — to bring a bill to the floor that would have, for all practical purposes, reversed the Hobby Lobby decision.

What has happened in the past two decades? What turned religious liberty into “religious liberty”?

This is one of the most compelling political questions of our day. This mystery is one reason that I have, in recent years, been asking the following question: What should journalists call a person who waffles on free speech, waffles on freedom of association and waffles on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

This brings me to the top of a new Los Angeles Times story that perfectly demonstrates the degree to which standard political labels are being mangled in our culture’s current meltdown on sex and religion. The lede:

The Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby decision has thrust a once-little-known boutique law firm into the center of a growing conservative movement to make faith-based exemptions as potent a legal tool as free speech has been for liberals.

I do not doubt that the court’s decision was “controversial.” That’s why I think it is so important for journalists to ponder the mystery of the massive shift that has taken place on the American left in the past two decades.

I do, however, doubt that only conservatives are still interested in defending the terrain defined by RFRA. There have been a number of recent events here in the Washington, D.C., area (click here for info on one at the Newseum) that have demonstrated that some old-school liberals — including strong defenders of gay rights — are worried about current trends in American political life and in journalism that, quite frankly, threaten one of our nation’s first freedoms.

Now, read the next paragraph and it’s litany of highly debatable statements:

The tiny Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was the legal power behind the high court’s decision last month to extend religious rights to corporations for the first time. Before that, the Washington firm’s attorneys successfully defended a church school’s religious right to be exempted from federal antidiscrimination rules and, in another case, even persuaded the progressive U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to keep “under God” in school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Let’s look at one piece of that paragraph, the statement that the Becket team “defended a church school’s religious right to be exempted from federal antidiscrimination rules.”

There is another way to state that information, especially in light of the high court’s 9-0 vote in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School case. One could say that Becket was defending a church and its school’s First Amendment right — in keeping with the separation of church and state — to hire ministers and personnel consistent with the doctrines of that church. In other words, religious ministries are — under the freedom of association — in charge of determining their own doctrines, as opposed to the actions of hostile critics or even the state.

Read the whole Times report and I think you will see that, consistently, the newspaper stands traditional American political language on its head. Up is down and down is up. The central question emerges: Does the First Amendment, liberally interpreted, still apply to members of traditional religious groups?

Once again, here is my question: What should journalists call people who waffle on free speech, waffle on freedom of association and waffle on religious liberty?

Help me out, reporters and editors. What is the best, the most accurate, term for journalists to use when describing this emerging political stance on First Amendment issues?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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