Religious Freedom Laws and The Media’s Role in Manufacturing Rage

A pizzeria in Walkerton, Indiana is getting national attention after a local news station asked its operators if they would extend their services for a same-sex wedding. It was clear that proprietors of the store, which has Christian symbols and imagery inside it, were going to give an obvious answer, making the establishment an obvious choice when manufacturing a news story.

According to The Daily Beast, it is the state’s first business to declare it will not service gay weddings after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” on Thursday, a bill that is now the subject of a major controversy.

“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Crystal O’Connor of Memories Pizza said.

This is where some people will stop. This quote is all some media outlets need to run with a story featuring a headline that reads, “Indiana Pizzeria Says It Will Deny Service to LGBT People,” or run with a lower third that reads, “Restaurant denies some service to same-sex couples.” People would not have to go on to read or hear the addendum to O’Connor’s statement.

“We are a Christian establishment.” However, gay couples—like those of other faiths—are welcome to patronize the establishment on non-matrimonial occasions. “I don’t think it’s discrimination,” she told the news station. “It’s supposed to help people that have a religious belief.”- The Daily Beast, April 1, 2015

However, focusing on the whole story is not how the news works because there would be no controversy to manufacture. There would be no story.

The focus to these stories is not where it needs to be, which perpetuates a national dialogue that is not asking the right questions nor considering all the variables to the issue.

The backlash against Indiana for passing its version of a “religious freedom” law continues to grow. Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a statement Monday banning state money from being used to travel to Indiana. Inslee’s mandate is similar to actions taken by governors in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, as well as mayors in many cities.

Several industry giants, like Apple, have responded to the new law as well, and are now boycotting Indiana.

“A number of companies — including Salesforce, EMC and Cloudera — have withdrawn their sponsorships for Indy Big Data, a tech conference scheduled in May. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says he has also canceled all company travel to Indiana and pledged to “dramatically reduce” investment in the state. Salesforce bought Indianapolis-based ExactTarget in 2013 for $2.5 billion,” ABC News reports.

The focus to these stories is not where it needs to be, which perpetuates a national dialogue that is not asking the right questions.
Shawn M. Griffiths, IVN Editor-in-Chief
Indiana is not the first state to pass a religious freedom law. Currently, 20 states have laws with the stated purpose of protecting the private religious rights of individuals.

However, the difference between the laws, according to an article in the Huffington Post, is where the dispute lies. Most states limit the burden the government can place on a person because of their religious beliefs. The state cannot restrict religious practices unless it can prove it has a compelling interest to do so.

If a business was sued for discrimination because it denied service to a same-sex couple for their wedding, the business owner could not use these religious freedom laws as a defense unless the state was involved.

The difference with the Indiana law is that, whereas some states exempt private businesses from discrimination claims brought by the state, this law goes further to protect businesses against discrimination claims made by private parties. Opponents argue that this allows “legal discrimination.”

Opponents of these laws argue that denying service for a same-sex marriage alone is a form of discrimination, which is why the Indiana pizzeria is now making national headlines. To some, there is no difference between people who solely think same-sex marriage is wrong based on a religious belief and people who just hate gay people.

The result is we are not having the discussion we need to be having, which is how far the state’s interest extends on this issue. The state has a compelling interest to protect everyone’s rights, including protecting people from public discrimination, individual religious rights, and the private rights of businesses.

The conversation should not be gay rights versus religious rights, which is exactly how the issue is being treated. However, the nation will never have the conversation it needs to have as long as the media is in the business of manufacturing rage.

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