New podcast: Yes, cover RFRA; but Equality Act coverage has also been quiet on local stories

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What we have here is a logical question that journalists (and news consumers) should be asking at this point in coverage of debates about the Equality Act. It’s also one of the questions that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and dissected during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

That question: How many religious health organizations, schools, recreation centers, homeless shelters, campgrounds, day-care centers and other forms of faith-driven ministries and nonprofit groups are located in the zip codes covered by the newsrooms of your local media outlets?

Earlier this week, I wrote a post (“Puzzle: Many reporters ignoring Equality Act’s impact on this crucial Schumer-Kennedy legislation”) noting that a few mainstream news organizations have covered the ways in which the Equality Act would edit or even crush the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, which passed in the U.S. Senate vote of 97-3. That vote symbolized both the bipartisan nature of that legislation and stunning left-right coalition of sacred and secular groups that supported it.

That remains a valid angle for coverage. However, the more I thought about this topic, and the more Equality Act reports that I read, the more I focused in on another “quiet zone” in the mainstream news coverage — including at the local and regional levels.

For starters, let’s look at two pieces of a major New York Times report on the Equality Act:

It was the second time the Democratic-led House had passed the measure, known as the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add explicit bans on discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both public and private spaces.

Now, that’s remarkably broad language. What kinds of groups and institutions, pray tell, are included under “both public and private places”? And remember this old journalism mantra: All news is local.

Later on, the story adds:

In a landmark decision in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 civil rights law protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination, and that the language of the law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. House Democrats sought to build on that ruling with the Equality Act, which would expand the scope of civil rights protections beyond workers to consumers at businesses including restaurants, taxi services, gas stations and shelters.

It would also water down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law at the heart of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case that set a high bar for governments to enact laws that “substantially burden” an individual’s freedom to exercise religious beliefs. Those protections have been cited by, for example, bakers or photographers who object to serving same-sex weddings.

This makes it sound like — on the RFRA front — the Equality Act would only affect businesses and, obviously, religious believers who own these businesses and/or work in them.

However, there are all kinds of explicitly faith-defined institutions that serve the public (to varying degrees) or are open to the public, as well as the members of their own faith groups. It is very rare for Christian schools, for example, to serve only families from a specific denomination. Homeless shelters open their doors to as many people as possible.

This leads to a logical question: Who would the Equality Act impact these faith-defined ministries?

There are, of course, fierce debates about this issue, debates that would require many journalists to get out of their comfort zones and talk to true believers on both sides.

But first, journalists would have to acknowledge that This. Issue. Exists. Then journalists could go online and research precisely how many groups and institutions of this kind are located in their coverage zones. This would be hard work (but all news is local).

Let’s look at another example of what’s happening in the coverage — a National Public Radio piece with this headline: “House Passes The Equality Act: Here’s What It Would Do.”

Let me stress that this is a way, way better than normal mainstream report on this topic. However, read the following passage carefully:

Importantly, the bill also explicitly says that it trumps the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (commonly known by its acronym RFRA). The law, passed in 1993, set a higher bar for the government to defend laws if people argued those laws infringed upon religious freedom.

Under the Equality Act, an entity couldn’t use RFRA to challenge the act’s provisions, nor could it use RFRA as a defense to a claim made under the act.

There’s the question that I asked earlier: What kinds of groups and institutions are included under the giant umbrella of a vague word like “entity”? Would that include Catholic hospitals? Homeless shelters? Faith-defined schools and youth ministries? Christian parachurch groups?

You can see the same journalism “quiet zone” in effect in the following passage from the same NPR report. This is long, but I wanted readers to see the context:

The question of religious freedom is the main issue animating people against the Equality Act.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has criticized the Equality Act since its 2019 introduction. He told NPR in an email that the law is “less necessary” now, after the Bostock decision.

Furthermore, while he supports adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal anti-discrimination statutes, Laycock believes that this bill goes too far in limiting people’s ability to defend themselves against discrimination claims.

“It protects the rights of one side, but attempts to destroy the rights of the other side,” he said. “We ought to protect the liberty of both sides to live their own lives by their own identities and their own values.”

Another key fear among opponents of the Equality Act is that it would threaten businesses or organizations that have religious objections to serving LGBTQ people, forcing them to choose between operating or following their beliefs.

OK, I’ll ask. In addition to businesses, what other kinds of “organizations” would be affected by this legislation? Why not ask leaders of faith-defined groups and institutions about that question (or ask their lawyers)?

In conclusion, let me mention another interesting “quiet zone” question linked to this major church-state story. Where are the quotes from leaders of major religious groups? Other than FAQs on websites, what are religious leaders doing and saying linked to Equality Act lobbying efforts?

My assumption is that many are convinced (a) that the bill has no chance in the 50-50 (plus Vice President Kamala Harris) Senate and that (b) President Joe Biden would not support crushing the Senate filibuster in order to pass legislation that would — it appears — have major implications for so many Catholic and, well Black church institutions and ministries.

Once again (as noted by GetReligion weeks ago) all eyes are on a strategically located Catholic Democrat from West Virginia. However, it would also be wise for journalists to pay attention to Utah, land of “Utah Compromise” strategies on these issues.

Let’s go back to that NPR report:

Democrats in the Senate broadly support the bill. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, among the most moderate Democratic senators, signed a letter in support of it last year.

But the bill would need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins cosponsored the bill in 2019, but not all of her fellow, more moderate Republicans are on board. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for example, told the Washington Blade that he won’t support the act, citing religious liberty.

“Sen. Romney believes that strong religious liberty protections are essential to any legislation on this issue, and since those provisions are absent from this particular bill, he is not able to support it,” his spokesperson told the Blade.

Stay tuned, and keep your eyes on centrist Democrats and Republicans. Oh, and the “quiet zone” surrounding key voices in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it on to others.

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