RFRA

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Debate is back in Georgia, and so are the scare quotes

Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Debate is back in Georgia, and so are the scare quotes

Georgia’s legislative fights over gay rights vs. religious freedom have made headlines before.

In fact, I wrote a 2016 post headlined “Down in Georgia, here's what the news media's love of 'religious liberty' scare quotes tells you.”

I noted then that most major media insisted on scare quotes around "religious liberty" or "religious freedom.”

By the way, Dictionary.com defines scare quotes this way:

A pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.

Fast-forward to present day, and a similar bill is making news again in Atlanta. The differing treatments of that bill by The Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are interesting.

On the one hand, scare quotes still seem to be in vogue at AP, which has this headline:

'Religious liberties' bill renews a recurring Georgia debate

AP’s lede also relies on scare quotes:

ATLANTA (AP) — A ‘religious liberties’ bill that aims to add greater protections for personal beliefs has renewed a recurring debate in Georgia about discrimination and religious freedom.

Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone said Thursday his proposal was drafted to mirror the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“I believe that Georgians need to be fully protected under the First Amendment from not only federal law, but also state and local law,” Harbin said at a news conference.

But critics say the bill would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his election campaign last year to sign “nothing more, nothing less” than a mirror image of the federal law. His predecessor, GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, vetoed a similar bill passed by lawmakers three years ago amid threats by major companies to boycott Georgia if the measure became law.

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Unitarians in the desert: A few basic facts go a long way in explaining religious freedom lawsuit

Unitarians in the desert: A few basic facts go a long way in explaining religious freedom lawsuit

I’m shaking my head.

The answer was easy. So easy.

Why then didn’t NPR bother to include it?

Here’s what I’m talking about: Back in October, I wrote about an NPR piece with a compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

I offered lukewarm praise for parts of that report, but mostly I questioned the lack of specific facts concerning the lawsuit and, more precisely, the religion angle. I noted that NPR mentioned a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths and quoted a volunteer named Scott Warren.

But I complained:

Is it too much to want to know the specific nature of Warren’s religious beliefs? Does he belong to an actual faith group? Or are his beliefs purely personal in nature?

Such information would be extremely helpful and enlightening to know.

Fast-forward to today when the Wall Street Journal published a story on the same lawsuit.

And guess what? The Journal nails the crucial details that NPR missed. I love it when that happens!

Let’s start at the top — and see if any vital information that NPR missed doesn’t grab you up high:

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NPR sort of dives into a case involving immigration, religious freedom and a vague faith

NPR sort of dives into a case involving immigration, religious freedom and a vague faith

Really, it’s a fascinating story — sort of.

I’m talking about an NPR piece out today with the compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

Forgive my wishy-washiness, but the report has elements — such as its explanation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and how it works — that deserve praise. But at the same time, NPR fails to answer obvious, basic religion questions.

NPR’s opening sets the scene:

In January, Border Patrol agents walked up to a ramshackle old building on the outskirts of a small town in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. They found three men.

Two were Central Americans who had crossed the border illegally. The third was an American — a university lecturer and humanitarian activist named Scott Warren.

Warren was arrested and ultimately charged with two federal criminal counts of harboring illegal migrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport them. Warren has pleaded not guilty.

Warren's arrest briefly flickered across the national news amid the partisan tug-of-war over the administration's immigration policy before fading into the background.

But his legal team's decision to stake out part of his defense on religious liberty grounds has made the case a clash between two of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' top priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration and defending religious liberty.

Keep reading, and NPR outlines cases that have cited RFRA — such as Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court win in 2014 — and notes Attorney General Jeff Session’s stated support for religious liberty.

Then NPR quotes progressive legal sources, including a Columbia Law School professor and an American Civil Liberties Union official, who accuse the Trump administration of a bias toward conservative religious liberty causes.

That’s all perfectly reasonable material to include, although it would be interesting to ask conservative legal voices — such as the Alliance Defending Freedom — to weigh in. It would be interesting to see if they would side with Warren or the Trump administration in this specific case.

But my bigger question for NRP: What about the specific facts of the Arizona case in question? That’s where this report keeps things really vague.

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This week's podcast: Colorado fine-tunes legal campaign against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner

This week's podcast: Colorado fine-tunes legal campaign against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner

No doubt about it, there was a big, big religious-liberty story back on June 28 out in the often-overlooked Rocky Mountain Time Zone.

This was a story that had been cooking for some time and, yes, it involved Jack Phillips of Colorado, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. 

To understand the significance of this news story -- the goal of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) --  it helps to look at the following timeline:

* On June, 26, 2017 -- the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission -- a Colorado lawyer named Autumn Scardina called the bakery and made a rather simple request. Scardina requested a cake with blue icing that was baked with pink batter. The lawyer told a Cake Shop employee that the goal was to celebrate Scardina's birthday, as well as the seventh anniversary of the day he came out as transgender she.

* On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, by a 7-2 margin, that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown anti-religious animus during proceedings leading to its actions punishing Phillips for refusing to create one of his one-of-a-kind wedding cakes to celebrate a same-sex couple's marriage. Phillips offered to sell the couple any of the other cakes or goods in his shop, but -- because of his faith -- refused to create a special cake to celebrate that rite.

* On June 28, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that there was evidence that Phillips had discriminated against Scardina because of anti-trans bias, as opposed to this action being another act of conscience by the Christian baker, protected by the First Amendment.

You can assemble those dates in your mind with a bit of editing as you read the Washington Post (or New York Times) coverage of this new chapter in the Masterpiece Cakeshop drama.

So why is the story breaking this week? You can see that in the overture to the Post story:

Add another layer to the legal drama surrounding the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple -- and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday filed another federal lawsuit against the state alleging religious discrimination.

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After the Cakeshop decision: Celebrations, cynicism and sobering insights from pros

After the Cakeshop decision: Celebrations, cynicism and sobering insights from pros

So I was at the gym last week (old people with arthritis do things like that) and I fell into a conversation with another old-timer about the 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (.pdf here). She wanted to know what I thought of the decision.

These kinds of conversations happen all the time here in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in part because my column has run for three decades in the nearby Knoxville News Sentinel, a newsroom that played a key role in the birth of "On Religion." I'm that religion guy.

Anyway, I said that it appeared America's one true king -- Justice Anthony Kennedy -- couldn't decide how to settle this clash between the First Amendment and LGBTQ rights, two issues at the heart of his high-court legacy. So he punted and wrote a narrow opinion, focusing on the anti-religious bias exhibited by Colorado officials. Who knows what will happen next?

I didn't take notes, but this Oak Ridger replied: "Well, I just don't think that guy could refuse to do business with a gay couple like that."

I asked if she knew that baker Jack Phillips offered to sell them anything in his store for their wedding, including cookies, brownies or basic wedding cakes. What he said he couldn't do -- because of his traditional Christian beliefs -- was make one of his special, handcrafted designer cakes that included themes and details linked to their same-sex union rite.

Well, I don't think it's right for him to single out gays like that, said the woman.

Actually, I noted, Phillips has turned down lots of jobs because of his evangelical beliefs, including making Halloween cakes, cakes containing alcohol, risqué bachelor-party cakes, atheist event cakes and, yes, cakes with slogans attacking gay people. He doesn't reject classes of people, but he does reject delivering specific messages he believes are linked to religion.

This Oak Ridger was silent for a moment, then said: "Well, I haven't heard any of that on CNN."

Maybe I should have told that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), because it's a perfect example of how simplistic press coverage has helped shape -- "twist" might be the right word -- grassroots discussions of religious-liberty issues.

Ever since the ruling was handed down, there has been an amazing barrage of opinions from activists on both sides.

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After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

It's the question that journalists have to be asking right now, along with the legal pros on both sides of future First Amendment clashes between sexual liberty and religious liberty. 

Now what?

To be blunt, was the 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (.pdf) a signal (a) to religious believers of all stripes that it's open season, in terms of rejecting LGBTQ customers or (b) to blue-zip-code politicians that they are free to stomp on the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers, only while using cool, calm legal logic rather than the heated prose used in Colorado?

As always, the key lines to parse were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Here is the essential material, as quoted by USA Today:

Kennedy acknowledged that business owners generally cannot deny equal access to goods and services under a neutral public accommodations law. Otherwise, he said, "a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws."

"The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts," Kennedy said. "These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

It's interesting that Baptist Press, when focusing on the same bottom line, made a strong effort to note the degree to which Kennedy once again affirmed LGBTQ rights:

"Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth," Kennedy said. "For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression."

He wrote, "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

So reporters, what phrases jump out at you, as you look to the future of this story?

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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?

Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?

It probably comes as no surprise that this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on key ingredients in the Masterpiece Cakeshop debates at the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is one case in which it really helps to spend time reading the transcript (click here for the .pdf). I loved Julia Duin's description of these court arguments, earlier this week, as, "a knife fight between 10 participants (nine justices and the hapless attorney before them)." Host Todd Wilken added that, in this setting, the action took place in a kind of polite, legalistic slow motion.

Hint: It's interesting to scan the document looking for key words and phrases. For example, try "tolerance." And if you search for "doctrine" you will find all kinds of references -- but in this case the word refers to doctrines established by the high court. That's rather chilling.

My pre-game post focused on several issues that I thought would be crucial in media coverage. For example, tt appears the justices accepted that baker Jack Phillips was, in fact, being asked to create one of his unique, artistically designed cakes, with content linked to a same-sex wedding -- as opposed to an all-purpose wedding cake (which he offered the couple).

What about the cases in which the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that liberal bakers did not have to produce products that violated their beliefs? I truly expected journalists to include some information about the court's discussions of that. Many did not.

So what happened on that issue? First, before we look at one interesting chunk of the transcript, please allow me to flash back to a parable that I created in 2015 to illustrate this question. Here it is again:

... Let's say that there is a businessman ... who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.
Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian.

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