On Hobby Lobby, explain that ‘deeply held religious belief’

You got so close, Philadelphia Inquirer.

You got so close to a fair, enlightening news story on a Democratic senator who says he opposes abortion but rejects the religious concerns raised by Hobby Lobby in its recent U.S. Supreme Court win.

But here’s where you fell way short: in providing crucial details concerning the actual religious objections involved. Your story seems to get politics. Religion? Not so much.

The Inquirer report, of course, was published before a Democratic bill to reverse the high court’s Hobby Lobby ruling failed in the Senate Wednesday.

Let’s start at the top:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, an antiabortion Democrat, plans to vote Wednesday for a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision and force most businesses to offer employees the full range of contraceptive coverage, even if the owners raise religious objections.

The Pennsylvanian is siding with fellow Democrats – who argue that they are protecting women’s right to decide their own health care – and against many religious groups and Republicans, who say the court ruling protected religious liberties.

Casey, who is Catholic, said Tuesday in an Inquirer interview that he draws a distinction between abortion – which he still opposes – and contraception, which he has long supported and which he believes can reduce the number of abortions.

“The health-care service that’s at issue here is contraception, which means prior to conception,” Casey said.

But abortion has been a central part of the Hobby Lobby firestorm, which has also touched on health care, religious freedom, individual rights, and election-year politics.

OK, fair enough. Casey believes that the contraception involved here “means prior to conception.” But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Don’t expect an answer anytime soon in this story.

More from Casey:

Casey on Tuesday became the first antiabortion Democrat to cosponsor the bill, aimed at reversing the Supreme Court decision allowing business owners to exclude certain contraception options from their employee health packages. Some business owners said certain types of contraception could amount to abortion, an idea disputed by many doctors and scientists.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat, always have been, always will be,” Casey said. He later added: “I’ll go with the scientists on what contraception is, rather than a religious viewpoint of what science is.”

But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Oops. I already asked that. Still no answer.

Deep in the story, the Inquirer finally gets around to that question — but answers it only vaguely:

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Getting a feel for the whole elephant in that Mississippi law

You know that ancient story about the blind men groping their way around an elephant? Well, sometimes the men are also unaware of each other — even here at GetReligion.

Last weekend I saw an AP story about the reaction to Mississippi’s new religious freedom law. Gay businessmen and their friends took such offense, they started putting up blue window stickers in protest — even though the law said nothing about homosexuality.

“Wow, this’ll be fun to carve apart,” I thought, not realizing that Bobby Ross Jr. had already done so. The article I read was a repost of the one he saw.

Yet our reviews offer different views on the partial blindness in Mississippi — and how the AP didn’t help clear things up before quoting the protesters.

First off, a favorite complaint of mine: balance. The AP cites three sources on the gay side, one from the opposition. And that one is an out-of-stater: Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based American Family Association. Nor, as Bobby and I both note, does the reporting (or editing) explain why gays fear a law that doesn’t mention them.

As the article says, it’s a close mirror of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Clinton in 1993. Gays and their straight friends are simply taking pre-emptive action:

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.

The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason.

Granted, the lede tries to limit the article to the blue-sticker campaign. I wonder if that was to avoid having to cite all sides for the sake of a simpler story? Well, it doesn’t give us a complete view of public reaction to the law. It’s a better gauge of the AP’s reaction.

And the reaction, of course, of gay merchants in Mississippi:

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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:
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