After months of championing anti-gay business owners and criticizing efforts to protect gay and lesbian customers from discrimination, Fox News is finally waking up to the consequences of its fear mongering campaign - and it doesn't like what it's seeing.
Fox Drinks The Pro-Discrimination Kool-Aid
The Supreme Court's historic decision to strike down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 left many anti-gay marriage activists reeling. Recognizing that their decade long fight against marriage equality was quickly becoming a lost cause, many anti-gay conservatives turned their attention to an issue that they believed might offer them more traction - the religious liberty of anti-gay business owners.
While opponents of marriage equality have long warned about businesses being forced to serve gay couples, it's only recently that the issue of protecting anti-gay business owners became a rallying cry for social conservatives.
That rallying cry has been largely amplified by Fox News, which in recent months has worked to tout anti-gay business owners as martyrs, victimized by gay activists seeking services for their same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies.
Falsely accusing gay activists of ushering the "death of free enterprise" in America, Fox News has highlighted a number of anti-gay horror stories in which religious business owners have faced penalties for refusing to serve gay customers:
- a Colorado bakery that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding reception
- an Oregon baker that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony
- a New Mexico photographer that refused to photograph a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony
In each of these cases, the business owners were found to have violated their state's non-discrimination laws. And in each of these cases, Fox News depicted the business owners as victims whose religious freedoms were being threatened by being required to serve gay customers.
States Adopt Fox News' Pro-Discrimination Campaign
Fox News' anti-gay fear mongering hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Many states - including Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, and Texas - are now considering legislation that would protect business owners who refuse service to gay customers on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.
The most widely criticized of these measures is Arizona's SB 1062, which has passed the both houses of the state legislature and now awaits Gov. Jan Brewer's signature. Proponents of the anti-gay segregation measure have defended the measure using the same talking points popularized by Fox News - ironically describing the law as an anti-discrimination effort to protect the religious liberty of business owners. One of the principal drafters of the law is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extreme group that Fox News repeatedly featured in segments about anti-gay businesses. When introducing the measure, supporters of SB 1062 even specifically cited the case of the New Mexico photographer to demonstrate the need for the law.
But now that months of conservative fear mongering about religious liberty have actually materialized into laws like Arizona's SB 1062, Fox News personalities seem to have lost their appetite for the kinds of anti-gay discrimination they were calling for just months ago.
Fox News Deals With The Consequences
At first, Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers seemed to be the lone voice of Fox's dissent, penning a February 19 column in USA Today condemning "homosexual Jim Crow laws" for encouraging discrimination against gay customers - a column she was quickly attacked for by a number of her Fox News colleagues.
But soon, Powers was joined by Fox News Juan Williams, Martha MacCallum, and Andrea Tantaros, who all similarly compared Arizona's law to Jim Crow laws in the racist South and suggested that the push for religious liberty had suddenly "spiraled totally out of control."
Fox's senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano called Arizona's law "profoundly unconstitutional," adding that the Constitution prohibits Arizona from making distinctions on the basis of "stereotypes and hatred."
And even Megyn Kelly, who previously wondered if the New Mexico photography case might result in gay couples forcing churches to perform same-sex weddings, called Arizona's law "potentially dangerous":
We hear a lot from folks on the religious right who say they feel religion is under attack. And I look at this bill and I wonder whether this is a reaction, an overreaction to people who feel under attack on this score. And in the end, they may have struck back in a way that's deeply offensive to many and potentially dangerous to folks who are gay and lesbians and need medical services and other services being denied potentially.
So why the sudden change of heart? What explains Fox's sudden cold feet now that several states are acting to deal with the manufactured threat to religious liberty that Fox News helped create?
To hear people like Fox's Kelly and Tantaros explain it, laws like Arizona's SB 1062 simply went a little too far. These laws would be acceptable if they only affected businesses directly involved in the marriage and wedding industry, but giving all business owners a license to discriminate against gay customers too closely resembles Jim Crow legislation.
As Fox's Brit Hume explained:
It is one thing for a bill to say, if it could say that exactly, that it would be possible or it should be legal on religious grounds to deny goods or services in support of a gay marriage. Marriage is obviously a sacrament. Religion is clearly implicated in the concept of marriage. And one can make - although Christians differ about this - one could make the case that someone who is in the business of providing photography or baking cakes or whatever should be able to say "no" to services or a cake that would be involved in a marriage ceremony. This bill, according to its critics, would go much further than that. It would basically allow business generally to refuse to sell or provide services to a gay couple... It seems to me that that's an order of magnitude greater than the legal right to deny services to a gay wedding where a religion is clearly involved in the sacrament of marriage, at least as far as Christians are concerned.
The distinction between marriage-related services and general services used by gay couples is convenient, but it doesn't stand up under closer scrutiny.
For one, Fox News has aggressively promoted the idea that requiring equal treatment of gay people in non-marital contexts also infringes on businesses' religious liberty. The network aggressively attacked a San Antonio non-discrimination ordinance that would have prohibited city contractors from engaging in anti-gay employment discrimination. The network has also peddled smears against the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) - which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity - falsely accusing the measure of forcing "religious freedom to take a backseat to another kind of freedom."
More importantly, the line between marriage-related services and other businesses is blurrier that Fox News would like to admit. The case of the New Mexico photographer, for example, was about the celebration of a same-sex commitment ceremony, not a marriage. If a photographer can legally refuse to participate in a celebration of a gay couple's commitment, what's to stop a hotel owner from refusing to rent out rooms to a gay couple on their honeymoon, or a restaurant owner from refusing to seat a gay couple celebrating an anniversary dinner?
After all, many Christians believe their sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit them from endorsing all homosexual relationships, not just the ones that end in marriage. Fox News' crusade in defense of anti-gay business owners hasn't left a lot of room for nuance.
Fox News is suffering from a nasty case of an anti-gay hangover. For months, the network jumped at the opportunity to rile up its socially conservative audience by pitting gay rights against religious liberty, helping pave the way for some pretty extreme anti-gay laws.
Now, many of the network's personalities are waking up to the harsh reality that their words have consequences. They're in the uncomfortable position of to decide between disowning the right-wing talking points they helped promote or siding with measures that even they admit look a lot like pro-segregation laws.
It can't be a very pleasant feeling. But it's exactly what happens when a network's commitment to appealing to anti-gay anxieties overrides its interest in honest and fair reporting.