Got news? So what’s RFRA got to do with Arizona?

For the past 20 years or so, while watching more and more debates over the First Amendment sneak into the headlines, I have been asking myself 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 don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not not “liberal.”

Of course you can also turn this equation around and ask: What will mainstream journalists call a person who is strong on free speech, strong on freedom of association and strong on religious liberty?

The answer, based on the news coverage I have seen in the past year or so is this: It appears that such a person is now either a “conservative” or a very, very old member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In other words, folks, up is down and down is up in the public square right now. After all, the fierce defense of the First Amendment used to be the very essence of American liberalism. And now?

Note the language at the top of this Washington Post A1 story, a piece that in the current atmosphere is almost radically tolerant of traditional religious believers in a variety of ancient faiths:

Conservative activists said Thursday that they will continue to press for additional legal protections for private businesses that deny service to gay men and lesbians, saying that a defeat in Arizona this week is only a minor setback and that religious-liberty legislation is the best way to stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed legislation on Wednesday that would have provided a wide variety of religious exemptions to Arizona businesses, after major business groups, prominent Republicans and gay rights advocates argued that it would amount to discrimination.

Many conservatives said they will continue working to convince voters and judges that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion are motivated by faith rather than bigotry.

“The fight has to be over what the First Amendment is,” said John C. Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, adding that his side needs to convince the public that conservatives are not trying to deny the rights of other Americans.

Note, of course, the framing in the lede. Is the question here whether this legislation was a way to “stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights” or a way to protect the consciences of religious believers who want courts, in the wake of gay-rights victories, to be able to hear their appeals when state agencies of private citizens attempted to force them to commit acts that violated established doctrines central to their faith?

The desire to protect religious believers, and institutions, was — as recently as the Clinton White House — an issue on which a wide coalition of traditional liberals and conservatives could find strong agreement. We are talking, of course, about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which President Bill Clinton proudly signed in 1993.

Now in recent coverage, journalists have faced a challenge in a highly-charged atmosphere. On one side the Arizona story were activists who saw SB1062 as anti-gay legislation. On the other side were those who saw it as an attempt to clarify and even narrow the language in Arizona’s own RFRA law.

For journalists, the goal was to accurately and fairly cover the viewpoints of people on both sides of this debate, articulate, informed activists and scholars who represented both of these points of view. Right?

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