Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

So what has been going on, for the past couple of years, with the Sisters of the Poor and the federal health-care mandate requiring them, and many other religious institutions, to offer their employees health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives?

Journalists: Does anyone believe that these regulations require elderly nuns to go to a nearby drug counter, whip out the religious order's charge card, and purchase "morning-after pills"?

Is that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant when, in a recent speech on the rising tide of disputes about religious liberty, he said the following (which is typical of the language he has been using)?

"We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma -- a clear reference to their religious beliefs -- even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office."

What does he mean when he says the nuns have been ordered to "pay for" contraceptives, and lots of other things that violate the doctrines at the heart of their ministry?

So many questions! Was he talking about nuns using a charge card at the pharmacy? Or was Sessions discussing a requirement that they use ministry funds to offer a health-care plan that includes these benefits, requiring them to cooperate with acts that they believe are evil?

It's the latter, of course.

So what are readers to make of the language in the overture of this recent Religion News Service story (it does not carry an analysis or column label)?

(RNS) -- Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”
He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.) He cited judicial nominees questioned about their faith.

Pause right there. For the average news consumer, what is the difference been the word "buy" and the phrase "cover the costs"? What is the moral difference, in the minds of RNS editors? The key is that the nuns are being forced, against their will, to financially cooperate in paying for benefits that violate the core doctrines of their doctrinally defined work.

Now, in terms of basic journalism, what's the solution here? 

Sessions said "pay for." If he had said "fund," would RNS have needed that amazing dash of editorial commentary? Hopefully not.

But there's more. Let's read on. 

... In a nod to Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court case after refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, Sessions said, “We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips,” who was seated nearby.

Hit pause again. Does this editorial language describe the details of this court case?

You may recall that Phillips offered this gay couple any of the goods in his store, including wedding cakes. He declined, as a traditional Christian, to cooperate with them in the creation of a new cake containing artistic content linked to their same-sex wedding.

Think of it this way: So a couple of conservatives walk into a Colorado t-shirt store, seeking a new shirt containing art and information about their upcoming church conference for ex-gays. The gay Episcopalian who runs the store offers to sell them anything in the store that is ready to go, but says that creating the explicit ex-gay shirt would violate his religious beliefs.

Journalists: Did the gay Episcopalian turn these customers away, refusing to serve them, or did he decline to create a new shirt that contained specific symbolic content?

Again, let's read on.

An increasing number of Americans appear to agree with Sessions.
A new poll by Public Religion Research Institute shows a modest but statistically significant uptick in the percentage of Americans who believe that owners of wedding-based businesses, such as caterers, florists and bakers, should be allowed to refuse to serve same-sex couples if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
The poll, conducted last month from among 2,008 Americans, found that 46 percent thought small businesses should be exempted from having to serve LGBT couples -- a 5 percentage-point increase from last year, when 41 percent of Americans said the same.
The shift was most noted among Republicans, with 73 percent of those polled saying wedding vendors should be permitted to refuse services based on religious belief.
Once again, did Phillips "refuse to serve" the gay couple? (Did our gay t-shirt maker refuse service to the conservatives?) Did Phillips seek the right to discriminate against LGBTQ customers -- period? Or did he -- in an act that many would consider offensive -- seek the right to refuse to make a specific artistic statement that violated his faith?

This bright red line between two levels of discrimination is at the heart of this, and many other, First Amendment battles in American public life. Can traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others be granted the same rights as secular or liberal artists and craftsmen?

Now, to the wire service's credit, this same story latter offers a more detailed description of the argument made by Phillips.

The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, outside of Denver, Phillips relayed how early in his career he and his wife agreed to uphold certain Christian principles such as not baking cakes for Halloween, a holiday with pagan roots, and closing for business on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.
He also said he was happy to serve all people -- including LGBT people -- so long as he doesn’t have to create same-sex wedding cakes, which he regards as artistic expression.

So what was the issue that was debated in court?

In terms of First Amendment law, the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally taken a very broad, truly liberal, approach to symbolic speech. Is the artistic and intellectual content of a wedding cake (images, words, symbols "toppers") all that different from, to use my previous example, that of a t-shirt (images, words, symbols)? 

Thus, is it simplistic to frame this RNS coverage with that early statement of facts claiming that Phillips wanted to "refuse" all service to an entire class of customers? Did the gay t-shirt artist want the right to refuse service to an entire class of people?

The bottom line: Does it help public discourse for journalists to blur these lines, when describing these kinds of debates in "hard news" coverage?

Just asking. Again, and again.


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