WSJ's Coverage of SB 1062 Veto Is Objective; WaPo, NYTimes Slant Story

Of the nation's three most respected papers of record -- the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal -- only the latter portrayed accurately the religious freedom legislation -- click here for a .pdf of the bill, SB 1062 -- which Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed Wednesday evening.

Both reporter Tamara Audi and her editors treated Journal readers to a fairly balanced and objective treatment of the veto and the purpose of the underlying legislation. "Veto Kills Arizona Religious Measure," noted the headline on page A2 of the February 27 paper. By contrast, the headers for the print stories at the Washington Post and New York Times were loaded.


"Arizona governor vetoes bill allowing businesses to shun gays," blurted the page A4 headline for Aaron Blake's Post story. "Measure would have allowed exemption for religious rights," noted the subhead.

"Arizona Vetoes Right to Refuse Service to Gays," trumpeted the headline for the front-page story by Times correspondent Fernanda Santos.

But the bill in question would have simply expanded the parameters of Arizona's existing religious freedom statute such that an individual's free exercise of religion may not be, in the language of SB 1062, "substantially burdened" unless a two-prong test is met. In that test, the party suing the individual in court -- whether a government agency or private individual -- must show that overcoming that religious objection is "[i]n furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and that the remedy desired constitutes "[t]he least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest."

As such, SB 1062 is not an "anti-gay" statute which green-lights discrimination. It's a bill which tightens the legal standards for levying damages against a defendant in civil court for not providing a service when that business owner cites religious conviction as the reason for not providing said service.

For her part, Audi seems to get this, noting what the law actually does BEFORE delving into what detractors argue it means in practice, and how defenders respond to that criticism (emphasis mine):

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that set off an impassioned national debate over a provision that would have given business owners a legal defense for refusing service to customers on religious grounds.

The bill "does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona," Ms. Brewer said Wednesday, adding that she hadn't heard a single example of an Arizona business owner whose "religious liberty has been violated." She also criticized the bill as "broadly worded" and said it had "the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve."

The decision won praise from civil-rights groups, who said the measure would have allowed businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. Hundreds of demonstrators who gathered outside the state capitol cheered, hugged and waved flags as they heard about the veto.

Supporters of the proposed legislation said the veto wasn't surprising, considering the enormous public opposition and what they contend was the miscasting of it as a discrimination issue. They argued it simply would have strengthened existing law to better protect the religious from violating their beliefs.

Bruce Hausknecht of Focus on the Family, a conservative group that favored the bill, said Ms. Brewer was "intimidated by threats of economic retaliation against the state."

By contrast, here's how the Post's Aaron Blake opened his story (emphasis mine):

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a controversial bill Wednesday that would have allowed businesses in the state to deny service to gays and lesbians if they felt that serving them would violate their religious rights.

Gay rights advocates had denounced the legislation, labeling it a form of legalized discrimination, and Arizona’s two GOP senators and leading Republican candidates for governor had urged Brewer to veto the bill. Several GOP state legislators who had voted for the measure last week have said since then that it was not the right thing to do.

In an evening appearance before reporters in Phoenix, Brewer said the bill “does not address a specific or pressing concern” and is not part of her agenda.

“I have not heard of one example in Arizona where business owners’ religious liberty has been violated,” Brewer said. “The bill is broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”

Brewer told the bill’s supporters that she understands their desire to protect religious liberty but that the bill had the potential to cause more problems than it would solve.

The legislation was passed last week in response to a ruling by the New Mexico state Supreme Court against a wedding photographer who declined to work for a couple’s same-sex wedding.

Supporters of the bill say it was narrowly tailored and would have helped clear up an ambiguity in the state’s law.

“This measure should have been a political no-brainer and only went down because people either chose to ignore the plain language of the bill or refused to read it altogether,” said Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council. “This bill . . . bars government discrimination against religious exercise, so by vetoing this bill, Gov. Brewer is saying she supports government discrimination against people’s religious freedoms.”

But Chad Griffin, head of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said that Brewer’s veto “spared her state from institutional discrimination and economic catastrophe.”

You'll notice Blake's article is front-loaded with the perspective of SB 1062 opponents and that the lead paragraph cast the law as a bill to allow denial of service to gay patrons.

Again, the law itself is content neutral, it's about protecting religious conscience. It could just as well be used by a person sued in court for refusing to cater a strip club's Christmas party or an abortion lobby's fundraising gala out of religious objections to participating in and condoning sin.

But that is of little consequence to the New York Times. Here's how Fernanda Santos opened her story:

PHOENIX — Ending a day that cast a glaring national spotlight on Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill on Wednesday that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds.

Her action came amid mounting pressure from Arizona business leaders, who said the bill would be a financial disaster for the state and would harm its reputation. Prominent members of the Republican establishment, including Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, also sided with the bill’s opponents, who argued that the measure would have allowed people to use religion as a fig leaf for prejudice.

While Santos did explain the perspective of SB 1062 proponents and noted that a lawsuit in neighboring New Mexico against a Christian photographer had been the impetus for the legislation, the tone of her article from start to finish betrayed disgust at Arizona for its generally conservative political bent:

The measure is the latest initiative in Arizona to set off a political firestorm. Arizona is still struggling to repair its image and finances after the boycotts and bad publicity it endured after the passage of an immigration law in 2010 that gave police officers the right to stop people whom they suspected of being in the country illegally and made it a crime for illegal immigrants to hold jobs.

The state also faced a boycott almost 20 years ago, after voters initially refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a state holiday. At that time, the state was also set to host the Super Bowl, but the N.F.L., looking to avoid controversy, moved the game to Pasadena, Calif.

[...]

Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in several states, including Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The veto does not mean the end of the debate about the rights of same-sex couples in Arizona. A bill introduced in January by State Representative Steve B. Montenegro, a Republican, proposes to amend a section of the state’s statutes regarding discrimination in public places to say that it would not “require a church to ecumenically recognize, facilitate or solemnize a marriage that is inconsistent with the sincerely held belief, doctrine or tenet of the church.”

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters