Article Apr 12, 2016

"Scare-quoting" religious liberty

Mississippi passes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill

Mississippi Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Into Law

Mississippi Senate Passes Sweeping ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill

All three of those headlines have two things in common. First, they all put scare quotes around the phrase ‘religious liberty,’ the ostensible purpose of which is to introduce doubt or skepticism that the law in question is really about religious freedom. Second, all of these headlines are from news dispatches, and not op-eds. In other words, what you’re looking at is reporting rather than editorializing.

Now, it could be that these publications feel they are sidestepping the debate over the legislation, and merely reporting the words used by one side and the accusations of the other. Those in favor of preventing the state from suing bakers and florists whose religion prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding say it’s all about religious freedom; those who want such coercion say “religious freedom” is code for discrimination. So why not just report what everyone thinks by using words in quotes?

The problem here, in my view, is a conflation between a point of order and a point of debate.

In parliamentary procedure, a member can raise a “point of order” at any time. Often a member seeking to do so will be recognized by the Speaker in the middle of a debate or other discussion. The point of order is by definition intrusive. A member raising it is telling the Speaker and the House that something needs to be fixed, not about what is being said but about the process itself.

The easiest way to get a scowl from a Speaker is to claim you have a point of order, but then, once recognized, to talk about a point of debate. For example: Imagine a governmental group you are part of is debating the merits of the income tax. A person next to you, not recognized heretofore by the Speaker, raises his hand and says “Point of Order!” The Speaker then turns to your neighbor and recognizes them to raise a point of order, an issue with the way the debate or the session is proceeding.

But then, after being recognized for a point of order, your neighbor says: “Yes, Mr. Speaker, I have a point of order. Mr. Jones is simply incorrect about the amount of revenue that can gained by the state through a progressive income tax. He’s not using the best numbers and the members of this House should be aware of that.” At this point, a Speaker who knows Parliamentary procedure would stop your neighbor and (gently, hopefully) rebuke him for raising a point of order when what he really had to say was a point of debate. It’s inappropriate–and more than a tad dishonest–to claim to have a point of order, and then raise a point of debate.

The scare-quoting of religious liberty is like this. For a newsroom to put religious liberty in scare-quotes in reporting is to raise a point of order when what really is being said is a point of debate. Regardless of whether you think the supporters of HB 1523 are honest people, the bill is written as a religious liberty bill; it calls itself a religious liberty bill; and it was signed by a governor who has said that a religious liberty bill is what he was signing. It is a religious liberty bill, as a matter of record. No argument as to the deceitfulness of its advocates can change that.

Now I do find interesting some of the arguments being raised to the contrary. It seems that many of the same people who have argued that same-sex marriage, by virtue of Obergefell, is now unfixable legal reality, are now saying that not even the passing of law by a legislature can do the same for HB 1523. In other words, the argument seems to only cut one way. It’s wrong, we are told, to say same-sex “marriage” in a post-Obergefell world, because, well, same-sex marriage became real and that’s that. For supporters of same-sex marriage, the force of law scrubs the quotation marks off of “marriage,” but not off of “religious liberty.”

That’s why I don’t think we should passively accept the scare-quoting of religious liberty. Whether or not you think that HB 1523 is about discrimination is a point of debate. But the law says religious liberty, the legislature that passed it says religious liberty, and the voters who elected the legislature say religious liberty. You might say they’re wrong, but that’s a point of debate, not a point of order. The public record is what it is, and the debates should be clearly demarcated from that. Putting quotes in the headlines obscures record from rhetoric, and that’s precisely the opposite of what we need from our journalists.