Flowers, cakes and objections to same-sex weddings

In two recent posts — here and here — I critiqued media coverage of proposed religious exemptions for florists, bakers, photographers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last month, I examined news reports on a federal judge striking down the ban on same-sex marriage in my home state of Oklahoma.

In Sunday’s Tulsa World, those subject areas came together in a front-page story:

Oklahoma may soon join a growing number of states where same-sex marriage laws and religious liberty concerns are on a collision course.

A federal judge’s ruling last month that Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional raises questions that eventually will need to be addressed by lawmakers and judges.

If the ruling is upheld, will a church that rents its facilities to the public for weddings be allowed to turn down a gay or lesbian wedding?

Can a photographer be fined for refusing to photograph a wedding over which he or she has religiously founded moral objections?

Can a bakery decline to make a wedding cake for such services?

These are not hypothetical questions.

In New Mexico, wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin was fined $6,000 for refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

In Colorado, Jack Phillips, a baker who would not bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony because it violated his religious principles, was ordered by a judge to bake the cake. And in Washington, a similar case against a florist is pending.

For those who have followed this issue closely, the World treads pretty basic ground (see the Wall Street Journal’s report on the subject from last fall). Still, I give the Tulsa newspaper credit for tackling this important angle.

And while some news stories have treated the religious concerns with seeming contempt, the World leans perhaps too far the other direction — quoting a number of exemption proponents before including an opposing voice:

These types of cases generally are based not on the legal status of gay marriage but on nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Tulsa and Oklahoma do not have such laws, but some people remain concerned.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, if you crack open that door,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, whose office will represent the defendant in the Oklahoma case, Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith, who issues marriage licenses.

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist  Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the religious liberty concerns are “justified by virtue of what’s happening across America.”

“Whether florists, caterers, or photographers, what we’re seeing is that any Christian who owns a business that provides material or artistic goods for weddings is liable for prosecution under state nondiscrimination law.

“What’s at stake is whether an individual will be coerced into  providing services for a practice that Christianity considers sinful,” he said.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the lead attorney in the New Mexico photography case, agreed that the threat to religious liberty is real.

“This is a genuine concern. There have been a number of cases nationally,” he said.

But after reading the entire 1,400-plus words, this story left me with one of those empty feelings you get after eating rice cakes for breakfast (not that I’ve ever tried that, but you get the point).

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Wind of change comes sweeping down the plain

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My home state of Oklahoma made big news Tuesday when a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The New York Times noted that the ruling occurred in the “heart of the Bible Belt,” while The Associated Press characterized Oklahoma as “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” (Religion angle, anyone?)

For the Tulsa World — whose banner headline today proclaimed “Gay marriage wins” — the ruling hit especially close to home, and not just because a Tulsa-based judge made the ruling. Two of the four plaintiffs are World editors, a connection that — to its credit — the Tulsa newspaper made clear in its story.

A friend of mine who works for the World remarked on his Facebook page that “it’s not often you walk into the newsroom and watch news happen in front of your face. Like national news kind of stuff.”

From The New York Times story:

“We’re jubilant, we’re over the moon,” said one of the plaintiffs, Sharon Baldwin, 45, who has lived with her partner and co-plaintiff, Mary Bishop, 52, for 17 years.

The two both work as editors at The Tulsa World newspaper and had just arrived at work on Tuesday afternoon when the city editor told them of the decision.

“We’re taking the day off,” Ms. Baldwin said.

In the major outlets, the first-day news coverage focused on the national ramifications of the decision, and rightly so. CNN described the ruling as “yet another victory for same-sex marriage supporters.” The Washington Post termed it “the latest in a string of recent court decisions that have challenged such prohibitions.”

But a few news organizations — including the AP — delved into the meat of U.S. District Judge Terence Kern’s 68-page ruling:

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Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

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When Bible Belt atheists go to church

A church service for atheists?


Here in my home own state of Oklahoma, that’s the basis for a religion story in today’s Tulsa World. The headline grabs readers’ attention this way:

All souls welcome at church’s morning service for atheists

OK, I’m curious.

The top of the story:

Why would atheists go to church?

Wouldn’t that be like someone going to a movie theater, staring at a blank screen for an hour, and then going home?

Not at all, says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, who this fall started a special service for non-theists at All Souls Unitarian Church.

“These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death,” he said.

Lavanhar said the church started the humanist service in September, partly in response to the rapid growth of atheism in society.

“The fastest growing religious segment of our society are those who call themselves non-religious,” he said.

“If I can’t make my case for loving your neighbor without reference to God and Scripture, then I am truly going to miss a huge segment of the population who may find themselves permanently outside the walls of organized religion,” he said.

Keep reading, and the World provides insight into the pastor’s theology and beliefs:

He said he prays regularly and experiences God’s help in his ministry, especially when he is counseling people facing illness or the loss of loved ones.

He does not like to be labeled, which is not helpful, he said, but when pushed, he says he is a theistic naturalist. He believes in God but does not believe in miracles.

He said he does not believe in the Christian orthodoxy that Jesus Christ was truly God in the flesh, but said he has no dispute with people who say they have found a life-changing relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

He said developing a relationship with God is at the heart of what All Souls is about, but he believes Jesus is only one of many paths to that relationship.

Many people who come to All Souls as atheists have not rejected God but their fourth-grade concept of God, he said.

“I say to them, ‘Tell me what God you don’t believe in, and I’ll probably tell you I don’t believe in that God either.’”

That’s all interesting and relevant. But what about the atheists themselves? According to the pastor, the non-theist service has drawn as many as 280 people. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear from some of them?

This is basic Journalism 101 stuff: In a story about atheists going to church, the reporter needs to interview some atheists who go to church, right? Maybe ask them why they wake up extra early on Sunday if they don’t believe in God?

Otherwise, you end up not with an intriguing news story but with a blasé one-source sermon that fails to answer the key question raised.

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