Gay Rights and Religion

The complainant, Karen Howells, felt personally insulted and thought a column by Neil Macdonald was hateful and anti-religion. It dealt with fundamentalist attitudes to homosexuality in the context of the Orlando shootings in a gay club. The article was powerful but it did not violate policy. I did recommend that CBC add to the number of columnists to ensure that there is a range of voices on matters of public concern.

COMPLAINT

You strongly objected to a column by Neil Macdonald published on cbcnews.ca of June 13, 2016. You thought the piece, entitled After Orlando, time to recognize that anti-gay bigotry is not religious freedom, was an example of CBC’s “anti-faith bias.”

The CBC has really gone over the top in its ongoing anti-faith bias. Neil Macdonald's column coming, right after the Orlando terrorist attack is not only unkind, it espouses prejudice and bigotry. It is outrageous to accuse all Muslims of culpability in radical islamic terrorism, but Neil goes further to blame all Jews and Christians as well. He builds the argument that what we ‎believe is de facto homophobia, regardless of our individual attitudes and behaviour towards the LGBTQ community or individuals we encounter in our lives.

You thought that Mr. Macdonald was displaying a strong personal dislike of organized religion. You also thought his argument was a weak one because “most of victims of radical Islamic terrorism are members of the faith communities he accuses as being at fault for the Orlando terrorist.” You added that this was tantamount to blaming the victims. You added that you were deeply moved by the tragedy in Orlando. You felt it was offensive to blame members of faith communities in general and your Catholic faith in particular. You felt personally deeply offended and felt Mr. Macdonald had judged you as “homophobic and a purveyor of hate speech.” You considered this column a violation of human rights because it was “advocating clear prejudice against me as a member of a religious faith community.”

You also challenged his interpretation of certain biblical texts and said he failed to understand their context within the teachings and interpretation of your church. You said Mr. Macdonald’s column was not analysis but opinion.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The senior producer of Politics for cbcnews.ca, Chris Carter, responded to your concerns. He told you he “sincerely regretted” that you found the column personally hurtful and offensive.

To be clear, Mr. Macdonald's piece started with the basic premise that in the aftermath of a shooting that apparently targeted the gay community, a discussion about the role of religion in the attack and in attitudes about the LGBTQ community not be limited to Islam, the religion of the shooter.

He told you Mr. Macdonald cited some biblical texts to support the statement that the three major monotheistic religions have “in their teachings and their texts” characterized homosexuality as an “abomination.” He acknowledged that Mr. Macdonald states that in a modern context, such statements could be considered hate speech. Mr. Carter said he used this to explore the notion that there were competing rights at play: those of the LGBTQ community to live openly without discrimination and those of members of faiths to practice and express their beliefs. Mr. Carter pointed out that Mr. Macdonald cites specific examples where the two have clashed in the public and political sphere. He said that was the point of this piece, not an attack against organized religion. He added that there was no inference that all people of faith are homophobic or intolerant. He said it was an exploration of a difficult topic, but there was no intent to “promote prejudice against any religion, group or faith.” He added:

Similarly, his piece is not an argument against faith or organized religion or a particular church. It is an argument that a conversation should take place about religious freedom when it excuses infringements on the rights of others -- especially in this instance infringement, or worse, on the rights of people in the LGBTQ community.

REVIEW

CBC journalistic policy makes a commitment to acting in the public interest and to uphold freedom of expression. There are also other policies that deal with the use of language and giving offense. It asks journalists to consider precision of words and to try to avoid giving offense, but at the end of the day, editorial considerations guide decision making, even if that means giving offense to some. Like the issues this article addresses, there are often competing needs and considerations. It is clear that you found this an offensive and difficult article to read and felt that it condemned you in particular and all people of faith in general. You completely reject that certain religions have had negative attitudes and teachings about homosexuality and that might create difficulty in terms of LGBTQ rights or attitudes toward them. Mr. Macdonald points out scriptural text and activities on behalf of organized religions that paint a different picture. It never states that it is the whole picture, nor claims every person of faith is guilty of homophobia.

He asked readers to consider that the events of Orlando be seen in a broader societal context:

Now, after Omar Mateen armed himself, reportedly professed allegiance to ISIS and went hunting gays in an Orlando night club, could there possibly be a better time to have the same conversation about organized religion, and what responsibility it bears for the pain and misery and death inflicted on gays for so many centuries in the name of god?

And not just the Muslim god. That is happening now because of Mateen, and deservedly so, but restricting the discussion to Islam is far too easy.

Islam may be more overt about its homophobia than the other major religions — anyone who's worked in the Middle East has heard some fool in high office declaring that there are no gays in Islam, and therefore no AIDS — but the fact is, conservative iterations of all the monotheistic faiths are deeply and actively and systemically anti-gay.

As Mr. Carter pointed out, this may not be an easy conversation to have, but it can be argued and it is in the public interest to have it, because, as Mr. Macdonald also states, there are competing claims to human rights. He not only makes that observation, but cites several examples where religious groups have actively lobbied for the right to follow their religious precepts in the treatment and acceptance of LGBTQ people. He not only points out some of the biblical and Koranic passages that underline this attitude and belief system, but also that this is associated with fundamentalist factions within religions. He also notes that there is a range of practice and interpretation within faith communities and mentions that Pope Francis has “softened his church’s line on homosexuality.

Homophobia is a reality in our culture. Examining what influences have made it so is a legitimate journalistic concern, as it leads to discussion and thought about an important issue. There is a cultural shift going on, and times of great change and redefining social norms are difficult, especially when it involves such deep seated tradition and belief. The purpose of journalism is not to be comforting, but to ask difficult and provocative questions. You are entitled to reject Mr. Macdonald’s analysis, but that doesn’t make it a violation of policy.

There is always a grey area between analysis and opinion. While CBC journalists are able to use their “professional judgment based on facts and expertise”, they are not permitted to express their own opinions on matters of controversy. Mr. Macdonald certainly draws conclusions in this column. I believe he draws on enough examples to characterize it as an interpretation of fact. I recognize that it is not the only interpretation possible. CBC policy also makes a very strong commitment to reflect a diversity of voices over a period of time. Mr. Macdonald provides his expertise and analysis frequently on the pages of the CBC News site. While other views and interpretations may be represented over time in the course of interviews and other news stories, Mr. Macdonald seems to have a very strong presence. I urge CBC management to think about giving equal prominence to other writers and thinkers who might have different perspectives.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman