July 20, 2014

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.

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April 29, 2014

An extremely interesting — and potentially highly important — twist came Monday in the ongoing culture wars over religious liberty.

New York Times religion writer Michael Paulson reports:

In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”

The relatively brief Times story quotes Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports same-sex marriage:

“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”

The report also quotes a same-sex marriage opponent (the same one used by The Associated Press):

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”

“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”

Here’s what I find intriguing: If North Carolina can tell clergy that they can’t perform same-sex marriages (regardless of whether the state recognizes them), what’s to prevent states that allow gay weddings from telling clergy that they must perform them? The values coalition source doesn’t seem to answer that direct question.

In a front-page Charlotte Observer story on the lawsuit, religious conservatives also address the rightness/wrongness of same-sex marriage itself:

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February 24, 2014

The reliably liberal New York Times has waved yet another red flag, thinly masked as in-depth news, on the traditional-religious bigots who disagree with its morality — even daring to pass contrary laws. This time, Ground Zero is Arizona, which is considering a bill to allow businesses to choose whom they serve.

Never, in this alleged news report, are we left in doubt of the “correct” opinion to take.

Not with a headline like “Religious Right in Arizona Cheers Bill Allowing Businesses to Refuse to Serve Gays,” even though “Religious Right” isn’t even in the body of the story.

The article quickly brings in — right from the lede paragraph — other examples of non-gay backlash, in New Mexico, Washington State and Colorado. Later, it adds three other states:

The Arizona measure comes as multiple states are considering such exemptions, with considerable controversy. In Tennessee, the legislature is considering an exemption for wedding vendors; in Kansas, a similar measure was set aside when conservative senators raised concerns about discrimination. In Oregon, opponents of same-sex marriage are seeking to place an initiative on this year’s ballot that would allow individuals or businesses to opt out of participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.

For those who need visual cues on what to think, the story is topped with a photo of a gay couple who complains that a florist wouldn’t provide flowers for their wedding. The two beefy men are photographed smiling, hand in hand, on a sunny porch. What nice folks.

Further down is a shot of Arizona Representative Justin Pierce, speaking in favor of the bill, looking all stern and suited in a dimly lit legislative chamber. The choice is yours, dear reader: Smiling, sunlit couple or boring, lecturing suit.

Now let’s count fingers. The numbers game isn’t the only way to compute bias, but in this case it’s pretty glaring. We start with a quote in favor of the bill, rather high in the story:

“In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and the government shouldn’t be able to tell us we can’t do that,” said Joseph E. La Rue, the legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that advocates religious liberty and supports the measure passed by the State Legislature. “Faith shouldn’t be something we have to leave inside our house.”

Then we get a rebuttal quote with a set-up paragraph:

But civil libertarians and gay rights advocates say there is a difference between protections for clergy and houses of worship that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage and the obligations of business owners that serve the general public.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it’s not a blank check to harm others or impose our faith on our neighbors,” said Daniel Mach, who directs a program on freedom of religion and belief for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Arizona legislation. “Over the years, we as a nation have rejected efforts to invoke religion to justify discrimination in the marketplace, and there’s no reason to turn back the clock now.”

So far, so fair (except for the setup paragraph, which the first quote didn’t have). Then the anti-bill side picks up steam — a consultant to Gov. Jan Brewer, a Hispanic leader, a pizzeria owner — before we hear from a leader in a “conservative group that supported the bill.”

That leader does offer an eye-opener on Arizona law:

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February 20, 2014

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love is in the air. Or at least more marriage headlines are filling up my computer screen. (And perhaps this would be a good time for me to give a shoutout to my lovely bride and fellow GetReligionista, Tamie. I know she’ll love this video.)

But I digress …

Earlier this month, I highlighted — and praised — Reuters’ coverage of what it called a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates: proposed religious exemptions for florists, cake makers and others opposed to the practice. In a straightforward account of an Oregon proposal, the wire service presented the facts and quoted both sides.

But in perusing this week’s news, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Oregon anymore. So, let’s try Kansas.

Here’s the top of a Yahoo! News report:

Gay rights advocates are outraged over a bill — passed by Kansas lawmakers earlier this week — that would allow businesses and state government employees to deny services to same-sex couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Honk if you have any idea which direction that story is headed. Let’s just say that the phrase “so-called religious exemptions laws,” which appears later, does little to hide the writer’s point of view.

A Time magazine trend piece to which Yahoo! links is better but still a little breathless for my liking (it reads like a written version of disagreeing talking heads going back and forth on Fox or MSNBC).

But then I clicked the Yahoo! link to a Wichita Eagle story on the issue. For anyone wanting to read the actual news and understand the arguments pro and con, this is the story to read. It’s a factual news report quoting a variety of perspectives. It’s just good, old-fashioned journalism.

Religious exemption supporters such as this lawmaker gets their say:

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December 23, 2013

It would be hard to find a city in American that contains more historic Catholic ministries than Baltimore. Thus, there are quite a few people here in Charm City who are involved in the legal warfare over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer their employees, and students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including “morning-after pills.”

In particular, the historic Baltimore suburb of Catonsville includes a group linked to a highly symbolic ministry caught up in this church-state fight. There is a good chance that, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court could hear a case that literally would be called The Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Kathleen Sebelius.

The Baltimore Sun team has to cover this group, of course. Today’s tiny Christmas Eve Eve edition includes an A1 report that is surprisingly good — except on one of the most crucial facts linked to this case.

The key, of course, is the unique three-level approach to religious liberty that is being used by this White House. The Sun team knows that the Little Sisters of the Poor are caught in the middle, between the for-profit companies that are fighting the mandate (think Hobby Lobby) and the churches and strictly denominational organizations that have been granted conscience-clause exemptions.

To its credit, the story includes — in addition to logical pro-White House sources — this strong passage, with a logical voice of authority, on the viewpoint argued by the Sisters:

Although dozens of for-profit and nonprofit employers have filed lawsuits over the requirement, the Becket Fund says the Little Sisters’ lawsuit was the first of its kind because it could potentially affect hundreds of nonprofit Catholic ministries. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said the Little Sisters’ service is “unmistakably a work of religion” and said the issue is one of religious liberty that could affect all religious people, not just Catholics.

“The government is drawing lines where the church does not draw them,” said Lori, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “We see serving the poor, educating the young, healing the sick, as a natural outgrowth from what we believe and how we worship. And so we believe that all of these ministries should be exempt.” …

Planned Parenthood characterizes the law’s religious exemption as expansive and says it will allow 350,000 churches, religious schools and houses of worship to get out of the requirement. At issue in this Little Sisters of the Poor case is whether groups that don’t fall under that exemption should be counted as “religious employers.”

Like I said, this is a pretty good report and it did appear on A1. So what is the problem?

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December 2, 2013

It was one of the most famous First Amendment cases in American history. As the American Civil Liberties Union website notes:

One of the most noted moments in the ACLU’s history occurred in 1978 when the ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.

Everyone knew that this was a First Amendment case testing the limits of free speech, both literal speech and free speech in the form of symbolic actions.

Some people thought that letting the Nazis march through Skokie was a valid application of the First Amendment. Others disagreed and thought that this case crossed a line and that the First Amendment didn’t apply.

But no one doubted that this was a free speech case that raised First Amendment issues.

No one tried to argue that this was actually a “free speech” case or a “First Amendment” case. There was no need for news-media “scare quotes” implying that the conflict didn’t really center on free speech and the First Amendment.

This brings me to an interesting lede in a CNN.com piece the other day. Here is the top of the story, as it first appeared on the Internat. See anything interesting?

Washington (CNN) — The high-stakes fight over implementing parts of the troubled health care reform law will move to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months, in a dispute involving coverage for contraceptives and “religious liberty.”

The justices agreed … to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay. At issue is whether private companies can refuse to do so on the claim it violates their religious beliefs.

Now, hours later the wording changed.

You got it. That scare-quote formula — “religious liberty” — changed to a plain, simple factual reference to religious liberty, minus the quotation marks.

Why mention this in conjunction with the famous Skokie case?

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September 25, 2013

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include:

* The church is a growing nondenominational Christian group. In other words, an independent congregation with little or no access to national church-state lawyers.

* Neighbors are worried about the church’s expanding facilities and the impact on traffic.

* Tax officials want more revenue. Duh.

* There is some question about whether some of the land is being used in a way inconsistent with the church’s non-profit status (think concerts, athletic events, food festivals, etc.)

At the moment, The Washington Post is covering a pretty typical battle in nearby Prince William County. The top of the story is very straightforward — then hits the key snag in the case.

Behind New Life Gainesville church in western Prince William County, there’s a gravel path that leads to a thick grove of tall pines and rippling streams.

As far as New Life leaders are concerned, that land is part of their church and should enjoy the same tax-exempt status as the building that holds the arched-ceiling chapel. But county officials have a different view: They say the woods aren’t used for religious purposes and should be taxed. When the county sent a $1,000 property tax bill, church leaders were not happy.

“Giving glory to God … is not taxable,” said Pastor Mike Hilson, who recently joined New Life Gainesville, formerly Fireside Wesleyan Church.

Prince William officials say that taxing some land owned by religious institutions is nothing new and that they are simply following state law, which mandates that only land that is “exclusively” for religious use is tax-exempt.

That’s interesting. So the issue isn’t that the church is using the land in any way that violates its non-profit status. The growing congregation is not, at this point, using the land at all. So if the church held regular prayer walks through the grove it would suddenly become religious?

Late in the story, the Post team notes another relevant wrinkle in this case:

Both sides in the Prince William debate agree that for-profit ventures on church land — such as a cafe or rental housing — should be taxed. But leaders at New Life Gainesville say the woods behind their church do not bring in any revenue. And because the land is in a protected rural area, the church cannot divide off the taxed land and sell it.

“The idea we’re going to throw a Starbucks back here is kind of ridiculous,” Hilson said.

County officials say they are simply following existing laws at the local level. Meanwhile, Virginia leaders are concerned about clarity in the state’s laws.

The Post also quotes a local-level expert, who rather predictably notes the following:

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