NPR Largely Misses Critical Distinction on Religious Freedom vs. LGBTQ Rights

This post has been edited and a correction has been added. — eds

However well-intentioned, NPR’s latest foray into “religious freedom” falls victim to several false equivalencies and ends up leaving the reader/listener vulnerable to the problematic arguments of those pushing for the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Over the past week, NPR has aired at least five stories exploring the current state of LGBTQ rights as they pertain to trans students, residents, and those claiming that “religious freedom” allows them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Correspondent Tom Gjelten’s story is the most thoroughly reported of NPR’s recent efforts to cover this contentious issue. The veteran reporter makes what appears to be an honest, good-faith effort to offer a general backgrounder on the state of religious liberty, but several key omissions and questionable language undercut his effort to provide balance.

First, the good. Gjelten does include a dissenting religious voice, Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, which challenges the preferred conservative framing that this issue is being waged between religious individuals and non-religious individuals. It’s true that it’s almost solely religious institutions that have taken up the mantle of opposing LGBTQ equality or women’s access to contraception, but there are many others who disagree.

And Gjelten is, of course, correct in framing both freedom of religion and the pursuit of equality as central tenets of American culture. But as we have documented here at RD, today’s “religious freedom fighters” are waging a very different battle than did this nation’s Founders when they considered the concept of freedom of religion important enough to be included in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The confusion begins to mount when Gjelten begins to discuss real-world examples. He writes:

If a football coach is not allowed to lead his team in a public prayer, or a high school valedictorian is not given permission to read a Bible passage for her graduation speech, or the owner of a private chapel is told he cannot refuse to accommodate a same-sex wedding, they might claim their religious freedom has been infringed.

This lack of specificity undermines the whole project to illuminate the reader. Is the football coach at a public or private institution? Is the valedictorian? And the “private chapel” is a phrase that may well warrant its own article, as “chapel” clearly evokes a religious entity or space, though in the eyes of the law it’s simply a business like any other.

But these vague hypotheticals offer a more concrete illustration of potential harms done to those who claim “religious freedom” than Gjelten’s piece provides about the concrete harms done to same-sex couples or transgender people who are denied service because of someone’s “sincerely held religious belief.” The article makes no mention of real-life cases of religiously “justified” anti-LGBTQ discrimination, like the 2014 case in Michigan where a pediatrician refused to treat a six-day-old infant because the child had two moms. Since Michigan does not include LGBTQ people in its nondiscrimination law, the refusal of service, which the doctor reached after “much prayer,” was entirely legal. In fact, as ThinkProgress LGBT editor Zack Ford points out, Gjelten’s story does not quote a single out LGBTQ person.

To fairly illustrate the competing claims of discrimination at the heart of this issue, it’s necessary to illuminate the practical impact of what’s at stake for parties on each side. It’s not just about wedding cakes and church services.

Illustrating that point, Gjelten then focuses on Catholic Charities’ decision to cease providing adoption services in Massachusetts, citing a sincerely held religious belief that barred the organization from placing foster or adoptive children with same-sex parents. As with most reports since 2006, echoing Catholic Charities’ own explanation at the time, Gjelten implies that this was based on the 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that embraced marriage equality (only he opts for the preferred term of equality opponents, claiming the court “redefined marriage“).*

What reporting on this issue generally neglects to mention is that Catholic Charities had been placing foster and adoptive children with same-sex parents since 1987 (which even predates the nondiscrimination statute of 1989). Catholic Charities maintained this policy for nearly two years after the 2004 marriage equality decision, until the Massachusetts Roman Catholic bishops instructed Massachusetts Catholic Charities in 2006 to cease providing adoptions to same-sex couples. This came just three months after a unanimous vote by the 42 Catholic Charities board members to continue to place children in same-sex households and was followed by the resignation of seven members.

If it were indeed true that Catholic Charities “stop[ped] providing adoption services because of a state law allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children,” then one would have to believe that placing children in unmarried gay households caused no conflict; that it was only the requirement to place children in married gay households that violated their beliefs. I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t a terribly believable scenario. The more believable explanation is that the passage of the nation’s first gay marriage law would serve nicely as a galvanizing talking point for the burgeoning “religious freedom” efforts we’re seeing so much more of today.

But apart from the particularities of each state, there’s a fairly simple and reasonable solution to the religious freedom conundrum, though it requires the very distinctions between the public and private spaces Gjelten fails to delineate. The First Amendment’s prohibition on state establishment of religion can reasonably be read to mean that government agencies—and, crucially, publicly funded entities—should create policy based on the public interest, not on any particular religious doctrine.

Yet the reader of this NPR piece might leave with only the vague sense that the government is telling a religious institution what it can and can’t believe in or act on. Without mention of the finer distinctions the reader is clearly being done a disservice—which in this case happens to benefit “religious freedom” advocates. Or, for those who balk at the use of scare quotes in that phrase, let’s call them “discriminationists.”

*This post incorrectly stated that Catholic Charities discontinued adoption services in Massachusetts because its public funding put it at odds with the state’s nondiscrimination law, as was the case in Illinois. I was inadvertently snagged by one of the larger points I was attempting to make: namely, that these issues are so complex they demand tremendous scrutiny and rigor, lest we do a disservice to our readers. RD regrets this error. 

First, thank you to Tom Gjelten himself for the gracious email noting that Catholic Charities would have been subject to Massachusetts’ nondiscrimination law whether it were publicly funded or not. The reason for this is that adoption in Massachusetts is, quite appropriately, considered a public accommodation.

Second, pulling apart this vicious tangle revealed a number of other details that have generally been omitted or uncritically examined. Rather than risk further obfuscation here, I will produce a follow up that will, I hope, clarify things.