Conservative media outlets are promoting the cause of an Idaho wedding chapel suing so it can deny services to gay couples, inaccurately portraying the chapel as a religious institution rather than as a for-profit business.
On October 17, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit against the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on behalf of the chapel, which is called the Hitching Post. The lawsuit alleges that the city's non-discrimination ordinance would force owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp to violate their religious beliefs by performing same-sex weddings, despite the fact they had previously offered to officiate non-religious ceremonies without complaint.
ADF is using the lawsuit to revive the right-wing horror story that churches and clergy members will be forced to perform gay weddings. ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco stated in a news release, "Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that's what is happening here."
Right-wing media, led by Fox News reporter Todd Starnes, have echoed ADF's spin. Starnes was the first to misrepresent the case, writing:
What in heaven's name is happening to our country, folks? I was under the assumption that churches and pastors would not be impacted by same-sex marriage.
But conservative reports about the Hitching Post lawsuit have omitted important facts about the case:
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat apologized for appearing at a fundraising event for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extreme anti-gay legal group working to criminalize homosexuality.
On October 16, Douthat spoke at "The Price of Citizenship: Losing Religious Freedom in America," an event held by ADF and aimed at drawing attention to a number of popular right-wing horror stories about the threat LGBT equality poses to religious liberty. Douthat spoke alongside radio host Hugh Hewitt and the Benham brothers, who are notorious for their history of extreme anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The event ended with explicit solicitations for donations to support ADF's legal work.
As Media Matters noted, ADF is one of the most extreme anti-gay legal groups in the country, fighting against even basic legal protections for LGBT people and working internationally to repress LGBT human rights, including supporting Belize's draconian law criminalizing gay sex.
On Wednesday, Douthat explained that he did not know ADF's event was a fundraiser and said he plans to decline the honorarium he received from the event.
"I was not aware in advance that this event was a fundraiser and had I known, I would not have agreed to participate," he said in a statement issued to Media Matters through the Times Wednesday. "I was invited by an events organizing group, not by ADF directly. I understood this to be a public conversation about religious liberty. This is my fault for not doing my due diligence, and I will be declining the honorarium."
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at a fundraising event for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a right-wing legal group that works to defend anti-LGBT discrimination and supported the criminalization of homosexuality.
On October 16, ADF held an event titled "The Price of Citizenship: Losing Religious Freedom in America" in Denton, Texas. The event, which focused primarily on highlighting the alleged tension between LGBT equality and religious liberty, featured a conversation between radio show host Hugh Hewitt and Douthat.
The event also featured an appearance from the Benham brothers, the right-wing activists who lost their HGTV reality show because of their history of extreme anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Muslim rhetoric:
The event touched on a number of popular right-wing horror stories about LGBT equality, from the plight of anti-gay bakers and florists, to the outrage over the recent subpoenaing of several Houston pastors. David Benham, who has previously warned that the gay "agenda" is "attacking the nation," urged the audience to take "dominion" of the media and legal system back from the "sexual anarchy agenda":
DAVID BENHAM: Unfortunately, the church, now that we have the keys to authority that Christ gives the Christian church, we give that dominion back through our silence. And so what we see now is the struggle for dominion. And one of the ways that we've lost dominion is because Christians, unfortunately, don't believe in the sovereignty of God. God is sovereign over all things. The Bible says in Psalm 24 "the Earth is the Lord's and everything in it," including government, entertainment, media, education, the legal system, everything. My finances, my sexuality, everything is under God. ... Does this agenda, this sexual anarchy agenda, does it want dominion? Take a look. Has it got dominion in government? Has it got dominion in entertainment? Has it got dominion, I mean, you name it, in the marketplace? Yes. Absolutely it does. How does God get dominion back? ... The government exists for the punishment of evildoers and for the reward of those who do good. The problem is, is when we switch good and evil and evil and good. There's only one institution that can fight that dominion battle, and that's the church. [emphasis added]
Fox News peddled a new lie about Houston, TX's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance, blaming the measure for unrelated subpoenas issued against a number of local anti-gay pastors.
On October 10, the city of Houston subpoenaed documents related its recently-passed Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) from five local pastors who had opposed the law. The subpoenas are part of the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by opponents of the ordinance who allege that the city wrongly disqualified petition signatures supporting a repeal referendum. Conservative media outlets, led by Fox News, have inaccurately accused the city of attempting to "harass" and "bully" the anti-gay pastors, depicting the subpoenas as an assault on religious liberty.
During the October 17 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Anna Kooiman falsely stated that the subpoenas were actually "part" of the non-discrimination ordinance:
KOOIMAN: The city now being accused of ordering its pastors to "show us your sermons" or be held in contempt of court. The move, part of an ordinance aimed at ending discrimination against the LGBT community but critics say it actually stifles religious liberty. [emphasis added]
Kooiman's lie was echoed during the same day's edition of Fox News' Outnumbered. Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers attacked the ordinance, accusing the measure of trying to "legislate speech":
POWERS: This is such a blatant violation of the First Amendment. It's so chilling. And these anti-discrimination statutes, the way that they're being implemented is very scary and very chilling as well because it's basically, they're deciding what your views are supposed to be on certain things and they're now trying to legislate it. And they're trying to legislate speech. [emphasis added]
The conservative media's meltdown over a Nebraska school district's effort to train teachers about gender diversity demonstrates how conservative misinformation threatens even basic efforts to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.
In late September, administrators from the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district in Nebraska began providing teachers with informational materials aimed at better equipping them to accommodate and protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included handouts from the group Gender Spectrum, which works to help develop "a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens."
One of those handouts, "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness," listed recommendations to help teachers make their classrooms more gender-inclusive, including asking teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid the use of gender-specific terms like "ladies and gentlemen." Instead, Gender Spectrum recommended teachers use terms like "readers," "campers," or classroom nicknames like "purple penguins."
The school district's distribution of Gender Spectrum's materials sparked controversy when the conservative group Nebraska Watchdog published a report on the handout on October 2. The report was picked up by National Review Online and The Daily Caller before eventually making the jump to Fox News. The network ran multiple segments falsely accusing LPS of "banning" terms like "boys and girls" as part of a "political agenda."
In an interview with Equality Matters, Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum criticized the "disingenuous" reporting on his organization's training materials. "They're sharing information about work that's occurring in a school and not being accurate about ... the overall purpose of the work," he said. "[B]y taking various things out of context - like "purple penguins" - they completely trivialize something that's really, really important and misrepresent our work."
Fox's misleading coverage of Gender Spectrum's handouts eventually prompted LPS Superintendent Steve Joel to call a press conference to dispel the network's misinformation. Joel criticized conservative media outlets for peddling falsehoods about the educational materials, calling it "regrettable" and "truly unfortunate" that the school was forced to waste time and resources responding to calls and questions about the handouts.
Conservative media outlets, led by Fox News, are attacking the city of Houston for subpoenaing a number of local pastors who were part of the right-wing opposition to the city's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance that is suing the city now that the anti-discrimination law is in effect. But their claims that religious liberty should keep the pastors' public addresses secret ignores the fact that subpoenas of parties relevant to a lawsuit are a typical part of the legal discovery process.
Conservative media reacted with outrage to reports that the city of Houston had subpoenaed five local pastors requesting a variety of documents related to their involvement in the legal battle over the city's recently passed Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents. The subpoenas included a request for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity."
On October 13, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, calling them "overbroad" and "unduly burdensome." The motion was reported by Fox News' Todd Starnes, who accused the city of Houston of trying to "silence American pastors" and "deconstruct religious liberty":
I predicted that the government would one day try to silence American pastors. I warned that under the guise of "tolerance and diversity" elected officials would attempt to deconstruct religious liberty.
Sadly, that day arrived sooner than even I expected.
Now is the time for pastors and people of faith to take a stand. We must rise up and reject this despicable strong-arm attack on religious liberty. We cannot allow ministers to be intimidated by government thugs.
Starnes' apoplectic report triggered a wave of conservative misinformation about the subpoenas, with commentators accusing the city government of engaging in unconstitutional bullying and anti-religious harassment. Fox News has covered the story in similarly misleading segments on Fox & Friends, Hannity, and The Kelly File:
But the facts of the case - and normal legal procedure -- don't support right-wing claims of religious persecution:
Fox News entirely ignored a Vatican report described as "stunning" by religious leaders which suggested that the Catholic Church should welcome and appreciate gay people, despite the network's track record of using religion as an excuse for discriminating against gays and lesbians.
On October 13, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican released a preliminary document suggesting that the church should be more welcoming and accepting of gay people, stating that gay people have "gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community":
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
The document has been described as a "pastoral earthquake" and a "stunning" change in tone for the Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality. Both CNN and MSNBC devoted significant airtime in the 48 hours following the document's release, discussing its implications for the Catholic Church, the legacy of Pope Francis, and even domestic GOP politics.
But on Fox News, the "pastoral earthquake" went completely unnoticed. According to an Equality Matters analysis, Fox News didn't report on the story once on either October 13 or 14:
A Nebraska school district superintendent responded to Fox News' inaccurate reporting about the district's recommendations for accommodating transgender and gender non-conforming students.
On October 9, Fox News ran several segments attacking the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district for distributing informational materials aimed at helping teachers better accommodate transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included recommendations that teachers stop gender-based bullying and avoid using gendered phrases like "ladies and gentlemen" when referring to students. Instead, teachers could use phrases like "campers," "readers," or classroom nicknames like "purple penguins."
Fox News' Gretchen Carlson falsely accused the school district of "banning" the use of gendered language, and a Fox News report echoed the claims of one parent who believes the school district was using "taxpayer dollars" to promote a gender-neutral agenda.
Following Fox News' inaccurate reporting, LPS Superintendent Steve Joel announced a press conference to discuss the training materials, according to the Lincoln Journal Star:
At the press conference, Joel aimed "to set the record straight" and correct the "recent confusion and misinformation" caused by inaccurate reporting about the training materials. From Watchdog.org:
[A]fter three FOX News shows derided Lincoln Public Schools' gender sensitivity training on Thursday, the superintendent called a press conference, and with his school board seated behind him, clarified what happened without backing down.
"Our teachers are allowed to use boys and girls in the classroom, and they do so in schools every day across the community," he said in the message to parents. "We are telling our staff to be sensitive to the needs of all students, and those with gender identity issues are particularly vulnerable to bullying and suicide."
During his press conference, Joel called it "regrettable" and "truly unfortunate" that the school district has had to waste so much time and energy answering questions and fielding calls about the training on gender inclusiveness used during summer teacher training at Irving Middle School, and possibly other LPS schools.
Fox News' Gretchen Carlson criticized a Nebraska school district's efforts to accommodate transgender and gender non-conforming students, accusing the district of pushing a "political agenda" while downplaying the problem of gender-based harassment and bullying in schools.
The Lincoln Public Schools district in Nebraska has been targeted by conservative media outlets following a report that teachers had been given educational materials with recommendations for better accommodating transgender and gender non-conforming students. Those materials included a handout encouraging teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid using gendered expressions like "ladies and gentlemen" to refer to students. Instead the handout suggested teachers could use gender-neutral phrases like "readers," "campers," or nicknames like "purple penguins."
During the October 9 edition of The Real Story, Carlson invited Fox News contributors Alan Colmes and Tony Sayegh to criticize the school district, falsely accusing the school district of "banning" gendered language:
CARLSON: Don't kids have enough to worry about right now? Now we're going to confuse them even more - right before puberty, by the way - to not call each other what the majority of the population really is, and that would be boys and girls. Once again, this is pandering to outrageous over correction of a society addicted to making sure we take care of the .001 of the population instead of the masses. I want to be very clear: I am not against transgender people or transgender kids in any way, but to make an entire population start calling each other "purple penguins" because maybe one child in the entire school system will turn out to be transgender is crazy.
The Human Rights Commission in Lexington, Kentucky dismissed the argument that a business could refuse to serve gay customers on First Amendment grounds, ending a years-long conservative campaign to disguise anti-gay discrimination as free speech.
In March of 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington (GLSO) filed a complaint against Hands-On Originals, a T-shirt company that refused to print GLSO's shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival celebration. GLSO argued that the company had violated the city's fairness ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Conservative media outlets rallied to the T-shirt company's defense, accusing GLSO of trying to "ruin" a Christian business by forcing Hands-On Originals to promote a message it doesn't agree with. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the legal group representing Hand-On Originals, similarly framed the dispute as a free speech issue, stating that "the Constitution prohibits the government from forcing business owners to promote messages they disagree with."
On October 6, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission released its recommended ruling in the dispute, concluding that Hands-On Originals had violated the city's ordinance. The decision roundly dismissed ADF's "free speech" arguments:
The Respondent argues that Mr. Adamson's objection to the printing of the t-shirt was not because of the sexual orientation of the members of the GLSO, but because of the Pride Festival's advocacy of pride in being homosexual. Acceptance of the Respondent's argument would allow a public accommodation to refuse service to an individual or group of individuals who hold and/or express pride in their status. This would have the absurd result of including person with disabilities who openly and proudly display their disabilities in the Special Olympics, persons of race or color, who are not only of differing race and color, but express pride in being so, and persons of differing religious who express pride in their religious beliefs.
The Fairness Ordinance does not require the Respondent to display any message, and does not require the Respondent to print promotional items including t-shirts. The Fairness only mandates that if the Respondent operates a business as a public accommodation, it cannot discriminate against potential customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. [emphasis added]