Shocker! Liberal clergy back gay rites! (updated)

What we have here is a totally predictable story, to an almost stunning degree. It’s almost a non-story, from the get go.

What has me confused, however, is whether or not The New York Times crew realizes that it is publishing a totally predictable story, a story in which there is not a single new or unpredictable element.

You see, there are quite a few signs in the story that the Times folks know that there is little or nothing new in this piece. Then, at other times, the world’s openly liberal newspaper of record — especially on religious and moral issues, saith former editor Bill Keller — seems to think that this story is important.

The key is the story’s Something Really Big Has Happened Lede, which only sounds big because the newspaper’s editors chose to omit a crucial fact.

More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.

“We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all,” the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. “Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.

“There can be no justification,” they continued, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.

Now let me be clear: This is a story. Years ago, it would have been an important one.

What I am arguing is that at this point it is a totally predictable story, for reasons that — to their credit — the Times persons make little effort to hide. The story notes, for example that “many” of the Christian and Jewish leaders who signed this liberal statement noted that “they had long supported same-sex marriage.”

So what does the lede fail to mention? This story does not cite a single clergyperson who, by signing this statement, was changing her or his position on this issue. In fact, the story does not list a single clergyperson whose stance represents a violation of her or his denomination’s stance on the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

In other words: Where is the news?

By the way, I would feel precisely the same about a Times story reporting that a large flock of Catholic, Orthodox, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and evangelical Protestant clergy had produced a statement documenting their opposition to same-sex marriage. The difference, of course, is that the Times would not print that story and certainly would not open that alleged news report with a Something Really Big Has Happened Lede.

Note the denominations that are backing this liberal proclamation:

“It’s not a religious right — it’s a civil right,” said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. “It’s a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it’s my duty.” Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.

The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement “as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation.”

“I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we’ve even been talking about marriage,” she said. “I’m thrilled to take this step.” …

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, “I’m a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important.”

“It doesn’t have to be a faith issue,” she said. “We understand our Scripture in a different way.”

Now, that quote from the female Episcopal priest raises an interesting question: Did any mainstream Muslim leaders actually sign this letter? Did any Muslims sign the letter, period?

The logical thing to do is to look online and fine the list. However, at the moment, all I can find is news reports about the letter, many of which — unlike the Times story — note another predictable element of this development, which is that most of the women and men who signed this statement are from the Chicago area.

I am several pages into a logical online search and I can’t find the actual list. Surely it is online? Or, perhaps, was the story in the Times meant to serve as the official announcement?

Help me find the list, please. Once we have found it, we can search the list for (a) Muslims, (b) Catholics who are not liberal nuns, (c) Orthodox Jews, (d) evangelical Protestants who are employed by major evangelical denominations, (e) Mormons linked to major Mormon organizations, (f) Anglicans who are not part of The Episcopal Church, etc., etc. In other words, let’s search the list for surprising names, the kinds of signatures that would represent a truly newsworthy development.

Again let me stress: We are talking about a journalism issue here, exactly the same journalism issue that would be raised, let’s say, by a Fox News report trumpeting an anti-gay-marriage statement released by a long list of religious leaders who are part of religious groups that support their various traditions’ ancient doctrines on sex and marriage. That statement wouldn’t be big news either.

UPDATE: Thank you to reader Joyce Garcia. Here’s the link to a .pdf of the list. The list is pretty much what I expected, including its reference to an “Orthodox” parish — a St. Thomas Mission that is actually part of a liberal splinter group. Check the list. Check it twice.

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Got news? White House vs. Little Sisters of the Poor

From coast to coast, the lawyers of religious groups and charities can almost quote the following legal language by heart. This is, of course, linked to the strange — from a church-state separation perspective — Health and Human Services mandate that attempts to create two different levels of religious liberty in the United States.

Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). …

To cut to the chase, this legal language appears to offer (Justice Anthony Kennedy, please call your answering service) religious liberty for activities inside sanctuary doors, involving believers, and religious liberty lite for forms of religious ministry that impact the public.

As I noted, via direct quotation, in a recent Scripps Howard News Service column:

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. The faith we profess, including its moral teachings, impels us to reach out — just as Jesus did — to those in need and to help build a more just and peaceful society.”

Now this precise conflict has hit the headlines in an amazing and symbolic case that simply has to end up in a high court, sooner rather than later, unless White House lawyers jump in and make changes.

The problem is that this story is making headlines, at this point, in Catholic and alternative, “conservative” news sources. Once again, we are in that strange era in which the defense of old-fashioned liberal values is suddenly “conservative.”

In this case, we are dealing with a news story — period. Here it is at LifeSiteNews.com, with material drawn from, ironically, the rather funky libertarian conservative Daily Caller.

The Obama administration’s HHS mandate may force the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor to cease their U.S. operations, according to Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, the religious order’s communications director.

The Little Sisters currently provide group homes and daily care for the elderly poor in 30 U.S. cities.

Sister Constance told The Daily Caller that the Little Sisters may not qualify for a religious exemption from ObamaCare’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-causing drugs free of charge to female workers.

“We are not exempt from the [ObamaCare] mandate because we neither serve nor employ a predominantly Catholic population,” Constance said. ”We hire employees and serve/house the elderly regardless of race and religion, so that makes us ineligible for the exemption being granted churches.”

Catholic teaching forbids contraception, sterilization and abortion, but President Obama’s health-care overhaul law requires employers to offer services that cause all three to their employees without a co-pay. Failure to comply will result in fines of $100 a day per employee — even for religious orders like the Little Sisters whose members have taken vows of poverty.

“[I]t could be a serious threat to our mission in the U.S.,” said Sister Constance, “because we would never be able to afford to pay the fines involved. We have difficulty making ends meet just on a regular basis; we have no extra funding that would cover these fines.”

My point, in this post, is not to debate the HHS mandate itself. However, it is clear that, as currently worded, the Little Sisters of the Poor do not qualify for protection — for the same reason that the sisters walking in the footsteps of Mother Teresa do not qualify.

My point here is journalistic: Is this an interesting news story?

I would argue that it would be hard to imagine a more symbolic showdown than, literally, The United States vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor. That, friends and neighbors, is quite a headline. The fines hitting the various branches of this poverty-based religious order would, literally, be millions of dollars a year.

But this would never happen, right?

As it turns out, the Little Sisters of the Poor have previously been forced to leave other countries because of religious-liberty disputes.

“[A]s Little Sisters of the Poor, we are not strangers to religious intolerance,” Sister Constance wrote in a June 2012 essay for The Tablet, a Brooklyn-based Catholic newspaper. “Our foundress was born at the height of the French Revolution and established our congregation in its aftermath.”

“Our sisters have been forced to leave numerous countries, including China, Myanmar and Hungary, because of religious intolerance,” she wrote. “We pray that the United States will not be added to this list.”

Got news? Not yet.

Help your GetReligionistas look for the headlines in the mainstream press. This is a poignant news story, right?

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Pod people: Same-sex marriage on the march

On this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed Dave Brubeck’s sacred music and religious life — and how substantive discussion of same were missing from many obituaries about the jazz great. We also discussed the general cheerleading of coverage dealing with same-sex marriage.

The hook for that was the stories leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision about whether to hear the rulings related to California’s Proposition 8 decision. On Friday, as tmatt noted, the court announced it would take up that case, as well as the one related to federal benefits for same-sex couples.

In a post about this tenor of coverage from last week, I wrote

I can’t help but think that the same media that has written for approaching a full decade on one U.S. Senator’s thoughts on a gay-related court case might have a tad more interest in the particulars of an important court ruling with implications for religious exercise, gender roles and kinship. But maybe that’s just me.

There’s still time for the court to say it’s going to take up one of the cases. Let us know if you see any coverage that deviates from the expected narrative.

Reader The Old Bill responded:

Yes, Mollie, it’s you. You think a reporter should report on what is happening, not what he feels should be happening. The press treats a complete change in what marriage has always been as something that has but one side. Anyone who might question this is, as the judge said, irrational and “on the wrong side of history.”

What is reported depends a lot on what is assumed.

I saw no deviation from that standard narrative this weekend in the early reports on the SCOTUS decision. The terminology of one side of the debate has been more or less adopted by the mainstream media. It’s not uncommon to see the phrase “marriage equality” used — outside of quotes, much less scare quotes — in mainstream reports. While those opposed to changes in marriage law say that “same-sex marriage” is an ontological impossibility — akin to saying “square circles” and calling for “shape equality” — the media usually fail to mention this perspective or put it at the end of a story in quotes from the token opposition.

There just hasn’t been any coverage of the substance of arguments against changing marriage law, much less a discussion of the consequences of same, outside of some one-sided enthusiasm. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know if you follow this, no matter your personal views on marriage law. So in the New York Times article announcing the SCOTUS decision, we learn in the fourth paragraph:

The court’s move comes against the backdrop of a rapid shift in public attitudes about same-sex marriage, with recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans support allowing such unions. After the elections last month, the number of states authorizing same-sex marriage increased by half, to nine.

This paragraph comes right after a paragraph saying that the court is to decide whether one of the cases is constitutional, an interesting juxtaposition of popularity and principle. In the 15th paragraph, we get this brief, anodyne quote from someone opposed to changing marriage law:

Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the court should address the broader question but say no. “What’s at stake,” he said, “is whether the Constitution demands a redefinition of marriage and whether states can even vote on this issue.”

Just interesting.

Also interesting was that the only other next-day story from the New York Times was reported by five reporters and was outspokenly only about one side of the debate. The headline is “Worry Tempers Joy Over Gay Marriage’s Moment in Court.”

The entire article is just quote after quote after quote after quote of  people who, like those in the New York Times newsroom, all think the same thing about what the definition of marriage should be. And that’s fine, I guess, but isn’t it weird to not have an article about those people on the other side of the debate?

Do they have worry and joy, too? Do their views matter at all? Why can’t we talk about them in news articles? Why the complete lock-down on just talking to them and hearing from them and learning what they think about this step?

If you have five reporters covering that story, maybe you could peel one or two off to talk to a real-live supporter of traditional marriage laws. Or is it, as the Times public editor put it in her column criticizing the paper for failing to cover the Bradley Manning hearings, “Such decisions seem to say: ‘It’s news when we say it’s news.’”

That’s a lot of power for a paper to hold, but it should be used wisely. There’s nothing to fear from simply hearing from multiple sides of a given issue. Perhaps there’s even much to gain from such a journalistic approach.

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On same-sex marriage: What is the chief justice thinking?

People who study the dynamics of this U.S. Supreme Court have, from the get-go, assumed two or three things about Chief Justice John Roberts.

First of all, he is a very cautious man, one who is very worried about the prestige of the court and the perception that it is above politics. This is not a man who wants to decide bitter, divisive, hot-button, explosive issues with 5-4 votes.

Roberts does not want to create judicial earthquakes. This is not a jurist who wants to blaze dangerous trails long before it is clear that the American public is ready to walk them. The last thing he wants is another Roe v. Wade, followed by decades of bitterness and civic strife.

Seen from this perspective, the Obamacare decision appeared to be an exception to the rules. While many conservatives called him a traitor, others noted that Roberts did that cautious thing that he does — he backed a narrow decision that made it harder to accuse the court of playing politics. After all, what is unusual about the federal government creating a new form of taxation that affects the whole population?

With that in mind, folks here inside the DC Beltway are asking a rather obvious question about the stunning news that the Supremes are going to address the nation’s hottest and most divisive issues — same-sex marriage and, perhaps, even whether sexual orientation can considered a condition leading to special, protected status for civil-rights claims, similar to race, gender, age, religion, etc. The court has, in the past, avoided a definitive statement on that issue, even in Romer v. Evans.

So the question many are asking: Why would the ever-cautious Roberts want to take on same-sex marriage at this point in the judicial game? Or look at that question from another point of view: Why would liberals on the high court want to take on this issue at this point, at the START of a second Barack Obama term? They know that their hand will only grow stronger in the next four years.

Thus, in recent weeks, most mainstream press coverage — while seeming to yearn for a clear gay-rights victory — has focused so much attention on the voices of liberal experts who were not sure that the timing was right for, well, a judicial earthquake. With all of that in mind, take a look at this Washington Post report, which begins by stating:

The Supreme Court put itself at the center of the nation’s debate over whether gay couples have the same fundamental right to marry as heterosexuals, agreeing Friday to review state and federal efforts to preserve a traditional definition of husband and wife.

In agreeing to hear cases from California and New York, the court raised the possibility of a groundbreaking constitutional decision on whether the right to marry may be limited because of sexual orientation. At the same time, the justices also will have the ability to issue narrower rulings on a subject that continues to divide the American public.

The cases will probably be heard in historic sessions at the court in late March, with decisions to come when the justices finish their work at the end of June.

As you would expect, a key part of this Post story focuses on the pivotal justice on the court — which would be Anthony M. Kennedy, a Republican who leans conservative on most economic issues and to the left on most cultural issues. Is it time for another landmark opinion that proves Kennedy is not one of THOSE Catholics?

The strategic implication is clear and has been for months: Will Roberts be able to prevent another 5-4 earthquake, with Kennedy providing more sweeping prose like the following in his Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, the famous meaning-of-the-universe passage which he then referenced in the landmark gay-rights case Lawrence v. Texas:

These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

Thus, the Post notes:

Central to the outcome of the term’s signature cases will be Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who normally sides with the court’s conservatives but has written some of the court’s most important cases upholding gay rights. For instance, he wrote the Romer decision that the 9th Circuit used as the template for overturning Prop 8.

But some gay rights activists have worried about asking Kennedy and the court to move too far too quickly on what would be a sea change in the way Americans view marriage.

I was not surprised that, in this early Post story on this explosive topic, there was absolutely zero attention given to religious-liberty concerns. Those discussions will come later, when it will be all but impossible for mainstream newsrooms to avoid them — since religious doctrines and traditions were at the heart of the debates about DOMA and Proposition 8.

But here is what did surprise me about this story. Did I miss something or is one very important name — John Roberts — missing from this report? What will we learn about Roberts and his role in the court taking on this hot-button issue at this particular moment in time?

Trust me. People from coast to coast will want to know the answer to that one. Does Roberts have a plan to protect his beloved court?

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Should churches, left or right, serve as polling places?

Anyone who knows anything about the at times dangerous dance between politics and religion in modern America knows that:

* Religious groups and their leaders are allowed to make public stands on political, moral and cultural issues, but are not supposed to endorse, by name, specific candidates.

* A small number of very conservative pastors have, in recent years, attempted to fight church-state laws on that front and have created quite a few headlines while doing so.

* Following long-standing traditions, many African-American church leaders continue to either openly endorse candidates — President Barack Obama in particular, in the past two elections — and continue to make very few headlines while doing so.

The news team at The American Independent recently produced a story on a related topic that forced members of this non-profit operation to walk into this minefield. GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked, to know that they produced a story that contained lots of solid information on the issue of whether churches should serve as polling places, but managed to focus only on possible abuses on only one side of the religious-and-political spectrum.

Thus, readers are told:

On Election Day in South Saint Paul, residents showed up at St. John Vianney Catholic Church to vote and were greeted with a banner outside the polling place entrance that read, “Strengthen Marriage, Don’t Redefine It.”

Minnesota was voting on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and the Catholic Church had been the most vocal proponent of the ballot measure. At a separate West St. Paul polling place, a voter noticed a prayer, written by Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, that urged Catholics to defend God’s plan for marriage — between one man and one woman.

Photos of the signs were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.

In Minnesota, campaign materials must be 100 feet or more away from a building that is serving as a polling place. In both instances, the state statute was violated. The Archdiocese called the incidents an oversight, and the signs came down by midday on Election Day.

Incidents like these have caused advocates for separation of church and state to urge elections officials to end the practice of using churches as polling places, or at the very least, beef up enforcement of polling place rules when churches are used.

The article also contains valid information about polling-place tensions linked to a same-sex marriage vote in North Carolina. Churches in Colorado, Missouri and Ohio also left a few small pro-life materials in place, as well. In one Virginia church, conservative voting guides were not removed from church distribution points close to the polls.

Any church-state expert would say that this basic issue — should churches, on the left or right, be used as polling places — is a valid hook for news coverage. There are some horror stories out there.

But here, once again, is the key: There are horror stories on the political left and on the political right.

Why did this report, produced by a non-profit news source, only focus on complaints coming from the political and cultural left, targeting the religious and cultural right?

Just asking. Really strange, sadly, or maybe not.

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And now, ironic Episcopal PR from South Florida

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I wish there was some way, legally and technically, that I could have GetReligion readers take a look at the following two stories about the advent of same-sex union rites in the Episcopal Church without readers being able to tell which one is from a mainstream newsroom and which one is from the denomination’s own information source.

Guess which one makes a more concerted effort to wrestle with and to report on the views of Episcopalians who disagree with this doctrinal revolution in their church?

Well, not this one:

Gay couples who seek spiritual affirmation of their relationships can now sanctify their unions with special blessings at South Florida’s Episcopal churches.

Priests in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida have been given permission to perform a distinct rite, different from the marriage between a man and a woman. Called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” the ceremony, to be introduced this month, was approved by national convention delegates over the summer.

South Florida’s Episcopal priests had been performing a locally approved liturgy for the past two years for couples who have been married in other states, Bishop Leo Frade said. Florida law does not recognize same-sex marriages. Frade said none of the priests in the 77-church diocese, which covers six South Florida counties, have told him they are morally opposed to the blessings.

This story contains the usual flaws in the Anglican timeline on these issues, with the conflicts (sigh) and schisms beginning at the usual point — the gay bishop reaching his throne in the tiny diocese in New Hampshire. The state of broken Communion inside the American body, and its fallout overseas, actually began years earlier.

Hey, church history is complex? Who expects accuracy on such matters in mainstream newspapers. Right?

The more significant flaw is linked to the fact that — despite the fact that not a single priest in South Florida objects to this evolution — there are other Episcopal dioceses in the state that oppose the rite and consider sex outside of traditional marriage to be a sin. GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that this mainstream report only talks to people on one side of this issue, a hot-button issue that continues to cause cracks in the Anglican Communion here in North America and, obviously, around the world.

Other voices? We don’t need no stinkin’ other voices!

Obviously, a report from the actual Episcopal News Service is going to represent the viewpoint of the denomination’s hierarchy. The Episcopal Church is, at the level of the hierarchy, an overwhelmingly liberal body on issues of doctrine and liturgy and this story shows that.

That is to be expected, in a denominational, advocacy, news source. However, this low-key and thorough story does note:

The blessing liturgy is authorized only with the permission of the diocesan bishop, and clergy can decline to preside at a blessing ceremony. Resolution A049 specified that bishops, particularly in dioceses located in civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, could provide a “generous pastoral response” and that bishops could adapt the liturgical materials to meet church members’ needs.

In the months since General Convention approved use of the liturgy, bishops throughout the church have issued pastoral letters outlining the policies for their dioceses.

This implies, of course, that some bishops are outlining options other than enthusiastic acceptance. Thus, those other voices are part of the national story and, to some degree, this ENS report.

The issue, in the South Florida coverage, is whether (a) there really are ZERO traditional Anglicans left in that liberal dioceses with whom to discuss this very newsworthy development or (b) whether a newspaper that portrays itself as a regional newspaper needs to take into account, in any way, the fact that what is a de facto sacrament in Miami remains a sin and even a heresy in Orlando.

The journalistic question: Why did the mainstream news report adopt a more blatant form of advocacy journalism than the denominational voice?

Now, that’s what you’d call ironic.

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Pod people: Can the MSM find centrists in gay-rights wars?

As a journalist, there are few things that I find more interesting than listening to the views of liberal thinkers who ask questions that make liberals nervous, or upset, and conservative thinkers who ask questions that make their fellow conservatives nervous, or upset.

As a rule, I am pro-sweaty palms when it comes time to cover heated debates in the public square.

Thus, I have long been fascinated with the following passage in an essay at The Advocate by the gay commentator Jonathan Rauch. This is a rather long section of the piece, in which he discusses strategies in support of gay marriage, yet taking religious liberty concerns into account:

Two important strategic changes would go a long way toward doing that. First, accept legal exceptions that let religious organizations discriminate against gays whenever their doing so imposes a cost we can live with. Second, dial back the accusations of “bigot” and “hater.”

In the gay community, taking any kind of nonabsolutist attitude toward discrimination is controversial, to say the least—largely because we carry in our heads the paradigm of racial discrimination. In today’s America, though, the racial model is overkill for gays. Injustice persists, unquestionably, but the opposition is dying on its feet and discrimination is in decline. And, unlike white supremacism, disapproval of homosexuality is still intrinsic to orthodox doctrines of all three major religions. That will change and is already changing (younger evangelicals are much more accepting of same-sex relations than are their parents), but for now it is a fact we must live with.

Before we shrug and reply, “So what if it’s religious? It’s still bigotry, it’s still intolerable,” we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment. If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder.

Rauch wrote that in 2010 and I have wanted to write a column about that essay ever since.

Here was a prominent gay voice advocating a strategy for compromise that would (a) make it more likely for the gay-rights cause to survive a U.S. Supreme Court test and (b) one that undercut some of the arguments made by the more radical voices on the cultural right, simply by conceding that religious-liberty concerns are real in these debates. He is calling for gay-marriage, or civil gay unions, with conscience clauses strong enough to protect religious organizations, very broadly defined, and the rights of individual religious believers. In effect, he is saying to the cultural left, “We are winning. We must not botch this.”

So I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column on this topic, focusing on the potential for compromises that protect religious liberty. The column was also inspired by the recent blue-sky remarks by Catholic conservative George Weigel, in which he suggested that it might be time for the Catholic Church — yes, and by implication religious traditionalists in other flocks, be they Jewish, Muslim, Protestant or whatever — to get out of the business of signing off on civil marriages, period.

All of this ended up being the hook for this past week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to that.

Meanwhile, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher responded with the sad, but realistic note, that recent events have made Rauch’s commentary even less mainstream, on the left, than it was when he wrote it.

Yes, there is a religion-news, mainstream journalism hook in what Dreher has to say.

Rauch is right, but he’s not as right today as he was in 2010, when he wrote that piece for The Advocate. By which I mean that I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a liability to gay rights supporters to be seen as religious liberty opponents as it once was. That’s in part because the mainstream media have not explored the inherent clash between gay rights and religious liberty, and conservatives opposed to gay marriage have for some reason chosen not to make much of an issue of it.

It is certainly true that the loudest voices on the cultural right have been just as reluctant to talk about compromise as the liberal voices involved in all of these shouting matches.

So what’s up with the rest of my Scripps Howard column? In this case, I think — to set the stage for the podcast — the best thing I can do is run the second half of my piece, which focuses on the views of a conservative who is studying the compromises and then on the views of another pro-gay marriage thinker who also sees the reality of the coming high-court showdown on religious liberty.

So here goes, opening with the viewpoint of Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, that Weigel’s strategy is powerfully symbolic, but beside the point.

Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government’s definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

“The other question, ” he said, “is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. … We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises.”

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the “inculcation of religious values” as their primary purpose, primarily employ “persons who share … religious tenets” and primarily serve those “who share … religious tenets.”

Critics insist this protects mere “freedom of worship,” not the First Amendment’s wider “free exercise of religion.”

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter (.pdf here) to the governor of New Hampshire.

“I support same-sex marriage,” he stressed. Nevertheless, the “net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

“Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. … Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive.”

So what journalistic issues should we discuss here, since your GetReligionistas strive (and often fail) to prevent folks in the comments pages from yelling at each other about the political and religious issues at the heart of these issues?

In this case, I will simply ask two two-part questions: Have you seen, in mainstream news coverage, the centrist, compromise-friendly viewpoints of people like Rauch, Laycock and others (because they are out there) and, if so, where did you see them? If you have not seen their viewpoints represented in mainstream coverage, then why is that and is that void good, in the long run, for public discourse on these crucial issues?

Enjoy the podcast.

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Unbridled yearning for same-sex marriage

One of the big stories last week was whether the Supreme Court would hear cases regarding marriage law. The court hasn’t said it will hear a marriage law case. But the coverage leading up to that was most telling.

The person who sent along this Los Angeles Times story remarked that he’d never read a story with so much “yearning” in it:

Supreme Court decides this week whether to rule on gay marriage

Timing will be at issue as the justices confer. In the past, the court has been faulted for waiting too long or moving too quickly on recognizing constitutional rights.

You can begin to get the picture in the headline. Apparently the court’s decision has already been made. It’s just a question of whether they will wait too long or move too quickly — or hit it just right in the middle — when they “recognize” same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Isn’t that remarkable?

I’m always struck by how shallow the coverage of this rather foundational issue is. The issue in newsrooms today isn’t about what the definition of marriage is or what it should be. Newsrooms are not about exploring consequences of changing marriage law, unintended or otherwise. Newsrooms are not about shining light on anything that might in any way cast doubt on whether marriage law should be changed to include same-sex couples.

They’re about providing cheerleading coverage in favor of changing marriage law and negative coverage of those opposed to changing marriage law.

To be fair, many reporters have flat out admitted that they’re not interested in doing journalism regarding marriage law so much as activism. That candor is appreciated. (More here, here, here, here.) But I do wish we had some brave journalists who would rather do journalism than pat themselves on the back about how awesome they are to all agree about changing marriage law. The one-note coverage is, I’m sure, fun and self-affirming within the newsroom, but much less fun to be subjected to as a news consumer. And I’m entirely skeptical about the overall benefit to civil society of journalists treating marriage law in such a manner.

The piece is fine, I guess, if you’re down with the yearning and accept the premise that the court has already deliberated and decided the case. The reporter is a long-time Supreme Court beat guy so maybe he knows something we don’t.

There was one line that made me think of something:

A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 as discriminatory and irrational.

I’m one of those nerds who likes to read court decisions for fun. That decision is a treasure trove of interesting information and well worth a read. For instance, as noted in the story above, the judge says that marriage as traditionally defined is irrational! If you can’t write years’ worth of stories about that, I’m surprised. He decreed that traditional marriage is “an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage.  That time has passed.” In other places, he says that children don’t need mothers. They’re unnecessary to the well-being of the child. (Ditto for fathers, natch, all that matters is two adults, of any sex.) He devoted several pages of the to identifying religion as a prime source of anti-gay animus, listing examples from the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention, and noting that 84 percent of weekly churchgoers voted in favor of Prop 8.

It’s amazing stuff, here. And yet there were precious few stories about many of these angles. Particularly few when it came to reflective pieces more than a day or two after the ruling.

I can’t help but think that the same media that has written for approaching a full decade on one U.S. Senator’s thoughts on a gay-related court case might have a tad more interest in the particulars of an important court ruling with implications for religious exercise, gender roles and kinship. But maybe that’s just me.

There’s still time for the court to say it’s going to take up one of the cases. Let us know if you see any coverage that deviates from the expected narrative.

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