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]
Breitbart.com editor-at-large Ben Shapiro accused the Supreme Court of engaging in judicial activism in order to promote marriage equality and gay rights, suggesting that the Court wrongly struck down laws criminalizing "anal penetration" in its 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas.
In an October 6 article for Breitbart.com, Shapiro condemned the Supreme Court's refusal to take on the appeal of several cases challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. He suggested that the Court's refusal encourages "low-level courts to continue knocking down traditional marriage laws across the country."
Shapiro compared the Supreme Court's handling of marriage equality to its handling of state laws criminalizing gay sex, including its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state anti-sodomy laws across the country:
The Court clearly wants to wait until a majority of states have been forced to embrace same-sex marriage by lower-level appeals courts. Then they can determine that a "trend-line" has been established, suggest that society has "evolved," and declare that a new standard must be enshrined. That, of course, was the logic of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the Court waited 17 years to overrule Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), stating that anal penetration was a hard-fought Constitutional right; the Court in that case stated that Bowers no longer applied because of "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex." Justice Scalia rightly pointed out that the Court's statement was false - the state, he explained, still regulates "prostitution, adult incest, adultery, obscenity, and child pornography." And Scalia also pointed out that "Constitutional entitlements do not spring into existence because some States choose to lessen or eliminate criminal sanctions on certain behavior." [emphasis added]
On MSNBC, a transgender student described the pain caused by right-wing misinformation about a policy that could allow athletes to participate on the team that corresponds with their gender identity.
During the October 2 edition of MSNBC's NewsNation with Tamron Hall, guest host Richard Lui led a segment on the Minnesota State High School League's consideration of a proposed participation policy for transgender student athletes. The proposal, which has since been temporarily tabled, would potentially allow student athletes to play on the sports team that matches their gender identity.
The segment featured OutFront Minnesota Executive Director Monica Meyer and Zeam Porter, a transgender student athlete who delivered an emotional speech during a public hearing about the proposal. When asked about the hearing, Porter described the difficulty of being exposed to misinformation about transgender students, including a misleading, transphobic ad published in Minnesota's Star Tribune:
PORTER: It was really hard to be in that space. I took away that there are a lot of people who purposely give misinformation and don't value me as a human, much less as a student or as an athlete... Being in that space yesterday was really hard.
PORTER: Other trans students have come to me and said that "I feel scared to pick up a newspaper now because I'm scared of seeing harassment. I'm scared of seeing discrimination. It's like I can't escape it, not on the court, not in the classroom, not even reading a newspaper I can't escape this discrimination. I can't escape misinformation and lies told about me." So it was really hard to hear that from other students because I'm not the only one going through this.
Two prominent LGBT groups are urging journalists to stop conflating religious belief with anti-LGBT attitudes in their coverage of the upcoming midterm elections, pointing to the dramatic rise in support for LGBT equality in communities of faith across the country.
On September 29, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign released a resource guide for journalists covering the 2014 midterm elections. The guide, Faith, LGBT People, & The Midterm Elections, is aimed at helping journalists "challenge anti-LGBT talking heads who mask bias as a 'tenet of faith'" by highlighting growing support for LGBT equality in religious communities. According to the resource guide:
For decades, entire denominations, networks of churches, and Biblical and Talmudic scholars have been making a robust case that scripture actually embraces full and complete LGBT lives. In 2012 Christian and Jewish communities of faith spoke out for marriage equality in record numbers in Washington, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota. Likewise, the United Church of Christ has led a coalition of organizations that have sued North Carolina over its ban on marriage equality on first amendment grounds. And in Houston, Lutheran and Metropolitan Community Churches hosted and organized the effort to pass the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Even respected evangelical Bible scholars like Dr. James Brown and Dr. David Gushee have been encouraging evangelicals to rethink their reading of Scripture on LGBT issues while Catholics for Marriage Equality refuse to abandon their LGBT sons and daughters and the faith they love. These pro-equality voices of faith matter, and they aren't getting the media attention they deserve.
Instead of highlighting religious support for LGBT equality, media outlets tend to rely on the voices of some of the most extreme voices of anti-gay conservatism, treating them as broadly representative of religious voters. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, when even mainstream news networks relied heavily on commentators like Tony Perkins - president of the anti-gay hate group the Family Research Council - to speak on behalf of religious voters: