Previewing SCOTUS term, New York Times views wedding cakes through familiar Kellerism lens

Hmmm, let's see now. It's the first Monday in October, and that means the Supreme Court of the United States, popularly known as SCOTUS, is back in session. It's as predictable as clockwork.

Equally predictable is having journalists at The New York Times view a controversial issue involving the First Amendment and deeply held religious beliefs through the lens of Kellerism. That's the GetReligion term for news coverage that says some issues are settled, hence airing both sides of an issue is unnecessary. We all know the Earth isn't flat, right? (That's a rhetorical question, gentle reader. I know the planet isn't flat, but thank you for asking.)

The lens-deployment comes in the matter of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In a long story on the new term, we get a lengthy, chunky section on this case. It's worth wading through the details contained in this long excerpt:

The court will re-enter the culture wars in a case concerning a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple, saying it would violate his Christian faith and his right to free speech.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111, involves a clash between laws that prohibit businesses open to the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation and claims of religious freedom.
On one side are religious people and companies that say the government should not force them to choose between the requirements of their faiths and their livelihoods. On the other are gay and lesbian couples who say they are entitled to equal treatment from businesses that choose to serve the general public.
The Supreme Court’s earlier decisions and Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s conflicting impulses about gay rights and free speech make the outcome hard to predict. In 2015, in a majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the court established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and the court has in recent decades consistently ruled in favor of gay rights.
But the court has also shown solicitude for businesses run on religious principles, as when it ruled in 2014 that some companies could not be required to provide free contraceptive coverage for their female workers. Justice Kennedy voted with the majority.

This excerpt emphasizes the religious freedom issue at the expense of the other key point that baker and artisan Jack Phillips, and his legal team, is actually raising: Must he be compelled to create expressive works that violate his beliefs? Would the same standard be applied to other artists dealing with controversial content issues? Do gay artists have to make art for religious groups with teachings that clash with their own beliefs?

That's a big part of the case, as the very same Times reporter acknowledged just two weeks earlier. There, Phillips was given a lot of space to explain his position, saying:

The government, Mr. Phillips contends, should not be allowed to compel him to endorse a message at odds with his beliefs.
“I’m being forced to use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event -- a significant religious event -- that violates my religious faith,” Mr. Phillips said.

While I realize this latest article is a roundup, and, while lengthy is not a 25,000-word New Yorker -style "longform" piece, I believe the Times does a disservice to the issue by giving barely a nod to the free speech issues here.

There's also a bit of, well, politicizing when the article makes passing mention of the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. I believe a number of legal scholars would not have called the court ruling one demonstrating "solicitude for businesses run on religious principles" as much as the majority read the Constitution of the United States as supporting the arguments brought by the Green family and the other plaintiffs in the case.

Having reported on the 2014 case, I have some understanding of how difficult it is to strike the right balance on controversial issues. But I believe it's possible to do this without throwing shade on the side with which one disagrees.

The bottom line: The positioning the latest Times story gives to Phillips' arguments doesn't help readers understand the issues at hand, and that's a shame.

Please respect our Commenting Policy