Gays and Georgia: Mainstream media ignore the religious angle

The gay rights/religious rights battle is back in Georgia, where a religious freedom bill died in the last legislative session. As the next session opens today, mainstream media -- some from far away -- are watching closely at this embryonic state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Unfortunately, all of that close watching misses the usual religious ghosts, and other stuff.

How many people have Georgia on their minds? Apparently they do in Portland, Maine, where the Press Herald ran a Tribune News Service advance on the Georgia session. It says RFRA is actually one of three such bills coming up.

But for a news organization once known for its conservatism, the article starts out awfully skewed toward the opposition:

ATLANTA — A public campaign by some of the biggest companies in the world launched Wednesday in Georgia, aimed at assuring gay employees and customers ahead of one of the latest legislative battles over religious freedom and gay rights.
Google, banking giant SunTrust and AT&T joined stalwarts including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS among nearly 100 businesses and universities that have signed on to the effort so far, which they have jointly dubbed "Georgia Prospers."
It marks the first organized effort by business and education leaders against a "religious liberty" push at the state Capitol that many in the gay community fear could allow discrimination – and that the corporate world fears would make an economic pariah of the Peach State. Religious liberty supporters, however, cast it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference.

To TNS, then, the important part is not that the bill is back, threefold; it's that corporations say these issues of principle will hurt business. Note also that the article puts "religious liberty" in sarcasm quotes, but not gay rights.

The story then quotes a CEO protesting that he wants to project the image of a "welcoming state." You may recognize that phrase as code for "pro-gay," as did stories on a rating of LGBT-friendly cities. TNS, however, gives the term a pass.

At least it lets the main proponent have his say. It quotes state Sen. Josh McKoon, sponsor of the RFRA bill, using the analogy of "a Sikh student who would be protected from being forced to remove his turban during ROTC training to illustrate his intention." It adds: "Recently, he has challenged opponents to show a case where such legislation, commonly referred to as RFRA, was successfully used to discriminate against someone. If they do, he has offered to contribute $100 to a charity of a person’s choice."

An interesting challenge indeed. Would Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, take up McKoon on it? TNS doesn't say; it just quotes Graham warning that RFRA would open a can o' worms over "public funding for students home-schooled for religious reasons; child custody battles; and businesses that may withhold health services due to religious views."

Nor does the article identify Georgia Equality as an LGBT advocacy group, although the group's own website does.

TNS also raises the specters of "similar battles in Arkansas, Indiana and elsewhere." It cites two studies -- acknowledging they were produced by opponents -- "that show Atlanta and the state could see a negative economic impact of $1 billion to $2 billion if SB 129 passes without any specific civil rights protections or anti-discriminatory language that McKoon has so far opposed."

Another distant outlet -- Boston-based Crux, the Catholic-oriented magazine of the Boston Globe -- carried an Associated Press story on the Georgia RFRA. Not only would individuals be covered, it says; so would "closely held companies like Hobby Lobby."

The story also describes the other two bills coming up in Georgia. One would protect government employees who object to same-sex marriage. The third would exempt "religious officials" from officiating at wedding ceremonies that differ with their beliefs.

Meanwhile, as the other reports say, AP has the business community warning the loss of a billion bucks or more.

Oddly, Georgia media seem less talky about these issues, perhaps because they covered them last year.

Atlanta Magazine includes the matter in its own advance. Its 200-word digest on RFRA majors on the money hits feared by corporate leaders "after seeing Indiana take a $1.5 billion economic hit following protests over a similar kind of law passed last year." But it adds, "McKoon counters with another fact: Seven of the last 10 Super Bowls have taken place in states where RFRA already existed." Of the articles I read, this is the only one that reports that fact.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports results of its new poll on several issues. "While the poll found overwhelming support for casinos and medical marijuana, the majority support for religious liberty is more nuanced," it says. When pollsters described RFRA, 53 percent favored its passage, the newspaper says. But when asked, “What if the bill allowed businesses here in Georgia to refuse service or refuse to offer a job to gays or lesbians based on the business owner’s religious beliefs?”, 53 percent turned against the bill.

"By combining the results from both questions, the poll found that only 27 percent of Georgia voters would support the bill if it allowed discrimination," the Journal-Constitution says. Hmmm, but the poll apparently didn’t also ask, "Should someone be sued or jailed for not doing business with someone in conflict with his/her religious beliefs?"

At least the paper gets live quotes from both sides. A retired teacher says "A person’s business should be private. Whether or not I agree with that decision is beside the point." And a writer for a nonprofit organization suspects the bill is "a ruse to allow discrimination against the LGBT population. I think we have enough laws to protect religious freedoms.”

Most of the articles show two massive blind spots. You’ve already seen one of them: dwelling on fears, especially economic, if RFRA and its kin pass in Atlanta, while ignoring fears if it's not passed. You know, like a photographer or a baker being hauled into court for not wanting to take part in gay weddings.

Only Atlanta Magazine brings up such an example: Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for not wanting to put her name on a gay marriage license.

And as I said, none of these four articles have any religious voices, either pro or con.  (Yes, there's a sizable list of religious leaders in Georgia who oppose RFRA.)

The topic of religious freedom has a blindingly obvious religious aspect. So do homosexuality and the nature of human beings. And, as you may know, Georgia remains one of the most religious states in the U.S.

For mainstream media to ignore all that is a tacit way of saying either that (1) religious matters are not really religious, or that (2) politics are more important than religion, or that (3) religious leaders aren’t worth hearing, even on issues that may directly affect them.

Never thought I'd see this: coverage that’s big on economic and political specters while missing religious and spiritual ghosts.


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