Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Price of Religious Freedom

He is a very conservative gadfly Republican attorney from Indianapolis who supports the Christian fundamentalist agenda. He is politically ambitious, and he is just as menacing as Eric Miller when it comes to fueling the flames of bigotry towards gays and lesbians. He has twice run for statewide office and both times he lost, losing the Republican nominations for U.S. Senate and Governor in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Having hung up his political jock strap for the time being, he has turned his attention towards the state's courtrooms, bringing a flurry of litigation on behalf of Christians who claim their religious freedom has been impeded by the government. He sued Indiana University-Purdue University in Ft. Wayne to block its theater department from showing its production of Corpus Christi, which depicts the life of Jesus as a gay man. Price claimed the use of taxpayer dollars to fund the production of a play he viewed as "anti-Christian" violated he and other fundamentalist Christian's constitutional right of religious freedom. The suit was summarily dismissed by the court and the play went on. His latest target is The Indianapolis Star against whom he has brought a federal religious discrimination suit on behalf of two disgruntled former editorial writers. The suit is the first shot across the bow by Christian fundamentalists in an effort to shift the paper's editorial opinion to more of their liking.

The origin of Christian fundamentalists beef with The Indianapolis Star's editorial staff can be traced back five years ago when the paper's publisher, Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc., agreed to sell the newspaper to media giant, Gannett Company, Inc, which owns 101 newspapers and 21 television stations across the United States. Prior to its sale, the newspaper had been under the control of the Eugene C. Pulliam family since the 1940s. Pulliam, now dead, was a staunch conservative Republican who was the grandfather of former Indiana Senator and Vice President, Dan Quayle. Pulliam was "a publisher who used the Star ruthlessly to propogate his views" and "he became a feared and hated man throughout the state" according to Indiana historian Justin Walsh. Walsh said of Pulliam, "Politicians in both parties who stood to the left of center-as judged by Pulliam-faced daily excorciation in his news and editorial columns." Editorial control of the newspaper was passed on to Pulliam's son Eugene S. in 1975 until 1999. Pulliam' s grandson, Russell has stayed on as a member of the editorial staff, along with his sister, Myrta, since its purchase by Gannett. The Pulliams could always be counted on to take a hard-line on its editorial pages towards homosexuals. Former Senator Birch Bayh was attacked for his bleeding heart liberal support of gay rights in the 1970s, just one of the issues the paper used to support Pulliam's grandson, Dan Quayle, in his successful campaign to unseat Bayh in 1980.

After Gannett purchased the newsaper in 2000 it brought in two veterans from a sister newspaper, The Des Moines Register. The paper named Barbara Henry as publisher and Dennis Ryerson as executive editor. Neither Henry nor Ryerson held the doctrinaire conservative ideology of their predecessors under the tutelage of the Pulliam family. According to Price's lawsuit on behalf of former editorialists James Patterson and Lisa Coffey, "Ms. Henry and Mr. Ryerson consistently and repeatedly demonstrated in the workplace a negative hostility towards Christianity and then existing Christian employees of the Star." In support of their claim, Price complains in his lawsuit against the Star that "Ms. Henry and Mr. Ryerson displayed strong disagreement with anyone who had a Biblical view of homosexuality." Through their actions, the paper "implemented a policy and practice of encouraging, favoring and printing news coverage and editorials with a positive slant on homosexuality and of disfavoring editorials with a positive slant on Christianity." During last April's debate before the Indianapolis City-County Council on Proposal 68, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity, the Star's editors editorialized in support of the proposed ordinance, a view which would have never been taken by the Star's former editors.

As an example of this practice of favoring homosexuals over Christians, Price cites a dispute Coffey had with her editors over research she had recently done on "the topic of sodomy and specifically the public health and economic consequences of anal intercourse." Coffey, a self-described fundamentalist Christian as is Patterson, apparently worked herself up in a lather over the decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Lawrence v. Texas case, a case in which the Court struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law making sex between consenting persons of the same sex illegal. The Court, which described anti-sodomy laws as being "rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards," found that they unconstitutionally violated an individuals due process rights. In so doing, the Court said "that liberty gives substantial protection to adult person in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex." According to Price's lawsuit, Coffey "was surprised to learn that there were many significant health risks associated with anal intercouse, with potentially enormous public health and economic ramifications" after the Lawrence case was decided. Coffey "feared that [Henry and Ryerson] would reject [her sodomy] series as anti-homosexual, as anal intercouse is commonly associated with homosexual and bi-sexual men" according to Price's lawsuit. Indeed when Ms. Coffey submitted her first test column to Ryerson highlighting the fact that "men who have sex with men" are indeed a high-risk group when it comes to HIV transmission", Mr Ryerson "became enraged and refused to print it" the lawsuit claims. Mr. Ryerson repeatedly told both Coffey and Patterson that they would not be allowed to use the editorial pages to "proselytize" their "Christian religious belief", which Coffey and Patterson claim "demonstrated a deep animosity toward Christianity in general and toward [their] . . . . Christian religious beliefs."

In the case of Coffey and Patterson, their fundamentalist Christian views on homosexuality project a decidedly bigoted attitude they have towards gays and lesbians. They, like other fundamentalist Christians, want to be able to use their bigoted views to promote legal discrimination against the innate sexuality of Americans with whom they differ, all the while hiding behind the mantra of their constitutional right of religious freedom. As the Supreme Court in Lawrence observed, anti-sodomy laws had their origins in fundamental religious beliefs. The same can be said of state laws which banned interracial marriages, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1964 as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause contained in our federal Bill of Rights. Our country fought a civil war to bring an end to slavery, which its proponents said was permitted by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Women too were treated as second-class citizens in this country until this past century due in large part to long-held fundamentalist relgious beliefs.

Coffey and Patterson presented their charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") before filing their lawsuit in the Indianapolis federal district court; the EEOC summarily dismissed the charges the two made against the Star. This lawsuit was not filed on the basis of its likelihood of being decided favorably on its merits for the plaintiffs; it is instead part of the Christian fundamentalists agenda to move the editorial content of the Star back in its favor. On a darker side, Price and his plaintiffs appear to be using the lawsuit to pressure the Star's management into an out-of-court settlement to avoid potentially embarrassing disclosures of the sexual orientation of certain high-ranking members of the Star's management; it's not hard to read between the lines of Price's lawsuit.

As a matter of principle, the Star must stand tall and vigorously fight what is by all appearances a frivolous lawsuit. More importantly, it cannot allow the likes of John Price and Eric Miller to influence its editorial content. The Star is right to fight bigotry in any form, including the bigotry against gays and lesbians. It must continue its fight against all forms of bigotry and expose the hypocrisy of those who advance it. We cannot allow anyone to hide behind their religious beliefs as an excuse for allowing bigotry. Otherwise, we will all pay "The Price of Religious Freedom."


Anonymous said...

What kills me about Coffey, and Virginia Cain also, is that they consistently link homosexuality with gay men and anal intercourse, fully ignoring that half the homosexuals are women, who for the most part don't participate in that sexual practice.

I really think that the heterosexuals are far more obsessed with anal intercourse than gay people, male and female, are, and their taking out their weird fears and hang ups on us.

Anonymous said...

What kills me about Coffey, and Virginia Cain also, is that they consistently link homosexuality with gay men and anal intercourse, fully ignoring that half the homosexuals are women, who for the most part don't participate in that sexual practice.

I really think that the heterosexuals are far more obsessed with anal intercourse than gay people, male and female, are, and they are taking out their weird fears and hang ups on us.