A better way of covering the Indiana discrimination story

It's all about the cake.
It’s all about the cake.

In a frustratingly inconclusive Washington Post column today on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, Kathleen Parker writes, “Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.”

Trouble is, the weeds are exactly where we need to be. The public perception is that the law would discriminate against the LGBT community. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the legislation (though he now wants to add clarifying language), has insisted that it would not discriminate. For instance, Tony Cook and Tim Evans quote Pence in today’s Indianapolis Star as saying that the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For someone trying to follow this story, the problem appears to be two-fold. First, the law itself is vaguely worded and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Second, the media for the most part have covered this as a political story, more interested in traditional narratives about winners and losers than in what effect the law might actually have on people.

Bits of background emerge here and there. For instance, we’re regularly told that the Indiana law is similar (though not identical) to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and that 19 other states already have such laws on the books. We know that Arkansas is on the brink of joining those states. For the most part, though, coverage is framed in terms of pure politics.

My frustration spilled over this morning in reading the latest from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t mean to single them out. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about this in recent days, and today’s coverage crystallized my sense that the public is not being as well-served by journalism as it could be.

The Times story, by Campbell Robertson and Richard Pérez-Peña, and the Post story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, are mainly about politics. You learn a lot from both of them. The Post strikes me as particularly insightful, as Rucker and Costa observe in their lede that the controversy over the Indiana law “has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.” The Post also notes that Pence may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.

But if you want to know what, exactly, the law would do, you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.

Here is how I’d define what we need to know.

Does the Indiana law merely (for instance) prohibit the government from requiring a member of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages? No; the wording of the law makes it pretty clear that the door is open to actions that would go well beyond that. In any case, the clergy is already protected by the First Amendment.

So where does the law draw the line? What it comes down to, as Kathleen Parker and others have pointed out, is cake. Would the law allow a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple? And here is where the coverage has tended to devolve into a one-side-says-this/the-other-side-says-that morass.

Maybe the Indiana law is just too vague to provide a clear answer to that question. Nevertheless, I think German Lopez of Vox deserves a lot of credit for trying. In a lengthy article published on Tuesday, Lopez pulls together all known facts — the background, the threatened boycotts — and points out that, historically, laws such as Indiana’s have not been used to engage in the sort of discrimination LGBT advocates are worried about. (My favorite example involves the Amish, who were exempted from a law requiring them to put fluorescent lights on their buggies.)

Nevertheless, Lopez notes that supporters of the Indiana law have celebrated the idea that “Christian bakers, florists and photographers” would not have to “participate in a homosexual marriage!” So the intent to discriminate is clearly there. Countering that, though, is University of Illinois law professor Robin Wilson, who tells Lopez that it is unlikely the courts would uphold such discrimination. And yet, as Lopez observes, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision raises the specter that Wilson’s sanguinity might prove unwarranted.

Of course, Vox’s self-styled mission is to explain. But I would argue that even a daily update in a developing story like this ought to explain as clearly as possible what the law is about, or at least link to such an explanation.

In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson writes that journalists need to add a third tool — knowledge — to their traditional tools of direct observation and interviews. In the case of Indiana, telling us what the religious-freedom law would actually do is at least as important as telling us what people are saying about it.

Note: If you find any particularly good explainers about the Indiana law, let me know and I’ll post links to them here. And here we go:

• This article, by Stephanie Wang of the Indianapolis Star, is quite good. (Thanks to Mike Stucka.)

• Here’s an explainer in Q&A form that’s in today’s Times. (Thanks to Kris Olson.)

• In the comments, Steve Stein flags this article by Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans of the Indy Star that explains the differences between federal and state law.

On Twitter, I got recommendations for several worthwhile pieces — one from the liberal website ThinkProgress and two from more conservative sources, The Weekly Standard and Commonweal:

This commentary was also published at WGBHNews.org.

Photo (cc) by D&K and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Right, wrongs and the Supreme Court

Wednesday was a very good (if not quite great) day for gay and lesbian couples. Unfortunately, the stench of Tuesday’s voting-rights decision remains. Here is some needed perspective on the Supreme Court’s week by Linda Greenhouse of Yale Law School, who used to cover the court for The New York Times.

As a country, we are moving left on individual rights (though not individual liberties) and right on everything else. You will be free to do as you’re told.

Mayor Menino versus Chick-fil-A, Round 2

I think it’s very difficult for the city’s top elected official to go after a person, a company or some other organization without making it sound like a governmental threat.

Nevertheless, Mayor Tom Menino’s letter imploring Chick-fil-A to stay out of Boston (via Universal Hub) does a reasonably good job of getting his point across while acknowledging that he’s only expressing his personal views.

If you read between the lines, he seems to back off a bit from what he told the Boston Herald: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

Meanwhile, Gizmodo reports that Chick-fil-A’s homophobia-induced meltdown continues.

Earlier coverage.

Mayor Menino, Chick-fil-A and the First Amendment

There may be more to say later, but I want to offer a few quick thoughts on Mayor Tom Menino’s declaration that he intends to keep Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of the company president’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as reported by Greg Turner of the Boston Herald.

Chick-fil-A has long been at odds with the LGBT community. But things got a lot worse this week, when company president Dan Cathy said, according to the Washington Post, that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

That brought this response from Menino: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

My gut reaction is that Menino is wrong. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be any end to this if government officials decided to approve or reject business licenses on the basis of their executives’ religious or political beliefs. There are First Amendment issues at stake as well. Can’t the head of a company say what he thinks without risking the wrath of the government?

Starbucks, as you no doubt know, has earned a lot of praise for its support of gay civil rights. There are plenty of municipalities out there whose officials might be tempted to deny Starbucks the right to operate inside their borders. And they could point to Menino for support.

Earlier this year my employer, Northeastern University, disinvited Chick-fil-A from opening in the student center after a number of people protested. I was among those who signed an online petition asking to keep Chick-fil-A off campus. But I see a huge difference between voluntarily inviting a business to operate on your private property, as would have been the case at Northeastern, and acting to keep a business off someone else’s private property, as Menino proposes to do.

Chick-fil-A has a serious issue on its hands, and it may well have to do some damage control that goes beyond the cosmetic. The San Jose Mercury News reports that residents in Mountain View, Calif., want to keep the chain out of their community. And we can expect to see a lot more of that.

Menino actually missed his best argument for keeping Chick-fil-A out. Restaurant executives apparently want to open in a tourist-heavy area along the Freedom Trail. If I were doling out food licenses in Boston, I would be very reluctant to hand over such a prime location to a business that is closed on Sundays.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

A great day for America, but with political implications

Was it partly political? Of course. As Jay Rosen tweeted, “I’m old enough to understand that a president who is with you only when the polling supports it is the best you are ever going to get.”

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So perhaps the most remarkable aspect of President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage was that he clearly saw it as good politics.

There are many ways of looking at this. For instance, Michael Rezendes reports in today’s Boston Globe that it may help the president with fundraising. But I think the overarching reason is that Obama’s been dragged into the most vicious culture war in a generation, and he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Now he’s free to play both offense and defense. His base will be as energized as the Republicans’.

(Non-political, real-world aside: This is huge! Tuesday was a great day for our country, and Obama deserves our thanks and congratulations no matter what political calculations went into this.)

Which brings me to an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in November 2003, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional. I urged Democrats in general, and the presidential candidates in particular, to embrace the ruling. My argument was that if they didn’t, they’d be cast by the anti-marriage right as gay-marriage supporters without receiving any of the benefits of actually coming out and saying it.

I was proved correct the following year, when then-president George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in part on the strength of anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballots in a number of battleground states — all while Kerry kept professing his opposition to same-sex marriage.

We are free to speculate that Obama’s opposition to gay marriage was just as political as — or perhaps more political than — his about-face. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who’s against same-sex marriage, tweeted yesterday, “Pro-gay marriage in 1996. Anti-gay marriage in 2004. Pro-gay marriage in 2012. When Obama evolves, he evolves!” Jacoby was referring to a questionnaire Obama once filled out when he was running for office in Illinois.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is doubling down on his opposition to same-sex marriage and even civil unions. And in characteristic Romney fashion, he is saying the matter ought to be left to the states, which contradicts his own position. As Rick Klein of ABC News tweets, “important to add that he [Romney] wants to ban it at federal level, via Constitution.”

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In any event, the president is now on the right side of history, of morality and of human dignity. That it might also help him win re-election is beside the point.

Richard Land’s wicked gay anti-Romney analogy

Anti-Mitt Romney evangelical leader Richard Land, who doesn’t think the Republican frontrunner is enough of a hardliner when it comes to hating the gays, offered a very curious analogy last week when interviewed about his attempts to find an alternative. Land told NPR:

Before we marry the guy next door, don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we’d like to be accustomed? And if he can’t, we can always marry the steady beau who lives next door.

Well, yes you can, Dr. Land. But first you’ll have to move to Massachusetts.