I’m still scratching my head over a story that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times . Ace reporter Ethan Bronner, who has covered legal matters among others for many years, went out to Palo Alto for the kickoff ceremonies of a new law school clinic at Stanford Law School, the first of its kind, devoted to religious liberty issues. Here are his first two paragraphs:

Backed by two conservative groups, Stanford Law School has opened the nation’s only clinic devoted to religious liberty, an indication both of where the church-state debate has moved and of the growth in hands-on legal education.

Begun with $1.6 million from the John Templeton Foundation, funneled through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the school’s new Religious Liberty Clinic partly reflects a feeling that clinical education, historically dominated by the left’s concerns about poverty and housing, needs to expand.

Well, certainly this story gives “an indication” of where the Times thinks “the church-state debate has moved.” Evidently, for the Times , devotion to religious liberty is now a right-wing cause. And it’s not as though the newspaper went looking for devotees of religious liberty and found only conservatives. It assumed, throughout this story, that evidence of an interest in religious liberty is evidence of conservatism.

Take the Becket Fund , for instance. I know a number of the people at that organization. Some I know to be fairly conservative. About others, I have no idea. But the Becket Fund itself has no political commitments whatsoever outside the field of religious liberty, to which it is zealously devoted, no matter what the political views of its clients. The Fund takes no position on abortion, or same-sex marriage, or the debt ceiling, or gun control. It is all about religious liberty, and that’s it. And that makes it “conservative”?  Huh.  As for the Templeton Foundation , it is broadly interested in what it calls “Big Questions” at the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science. I don’t think Templeton has any “politics” to speak of, but if it is always and only “conservative” to take faith seriously, as the Times now seems to think, well, I guess that settles it.

Oh, and of course, clinical legal education, we’re told, has been “historically dominated by the left’s concerns about poverty and housing.” Conservatives’ only interest in “poverty and housing,” I suppose, is seeing to it that there are plenty of poor people to gouge for the rent in squalid slums. It would have been more accurate to say that clinical legal education has been historically dominated by the left’s belief in litigation and judicial activism to achieve the progressive agenda for poverty and housing that democratic institutions and voters are reluctant to enact.

Now Bronner, the Times ’ writer, might be partially forgiven for framing the whole business this way, given what is said to him, on the record, by Stanford Law School’s associate dean for clinical education, Lawrence C. Marshall, a man whose bona fides are established by describing him as “a hero to liberals for his work to exonerate death penalty inmates when he was a professor at Northwestern Law School a decade ago.” (Conservatives, as we know, are in favor of executing innocent people as well as guilty ones.) Here is what Marshall says:

The 47 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well . . . My mission has been to make clinical education as central to legal education as it is to medical education. Just as we are concerned about diversity in gender, race and ethnicity, we ought to be committed to ideological diversity.

Astounding. Does Marshall hear what he is saying? “We know that Romney got the votes of everyone who believes in religious liberty. Some of those—-let’s face it, incomprehensibly conservative—-people come to study at Stanford Law School. They ought to have a clinic too, as a sign that we are as willing to patronize them as we are to patronize women, blacks, and Hispanics.”

When Bronner gets around to quoting the clinic’s founding director, James A. Sonne, he is equally careful to light up Sonne’s presumptive ideological profile with the clues that he “converted to Roman Catholicism while a student at Duke University” and used to teach at Ave Maria School of Law. Then the reporter writes that Sonne “acknowledges the political coloration of much of the religious-freedom debate but says he does not want his clinic to be seen as a program for conservatives.” Notice that when Sonne “acknowledges the political coloration of much of the religious-freedom debate,” no direct quotation is provided so we can see what he actually said in response to what was almost certainly (given the tone of this story) a loaded question.

Bronner also tells us that nowadays, “liberals tend to worry about religious establishment or imposition by government, while conservatives mostly focus on free exercise.” He might have noticed that, in the 9-0 smackdown of the Obama administration a year ago in the Hosanna-Tabor case on the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination statutes, the friends of religious freedom relied on both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment—-and so did the Court. One might say, with equal or greater accuracy, that “secular liberals tend to worry about what they call ‘separation of church and state,’ while religious liberals and conservatives alike mostly focus on the protection that both clauses of the First Amendment provide to religious freedom.”

Bronner does paraphrase Stanford’s Michael McConnell, who conceived the idea of the new clinic, as saying that “the divide today” in this area of controversy “is between those who are religiously committed and those who are not.” Does Bronner notice McConnell’s non-ideological description? Or does he simply identify the left with those who lack or even are hostile to religious belief, and the right with those who hold religious beliefs and defend religious freedom? Since he sees fit to call up that tireless separationist and ideologue Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) for a canned hostile response to the clinic’s creation, maybe so.

In the Age of Obama, this is increasingly what the world looks like, the left reflexively hostile to faith and freedom, the right defending them. But are we quite there yet? Maybe not quite. When Bronner tells us that “leading conservative scholars” celebrated the creation of the new clinic, one of his three supposedly conservative examples is not a conservative at all, Stephen Carter of Yale. And the keynote speaker at the clinic’s opening? That was Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, a liberal through and through (though Bronner seems not to know it), and one of the great champions of religious freedom under the First Amendment, who argued and won the Hosanna-Tabor case on behalf of the Becket Fund and its client.

The world is still a more complicated place than the Times ’ template can explain. Is it moving in a direction in which that template is more accurate? I fear it may be. But does the Gray Lady have to give it a push with such tendentious reporting?

UPDATE: For video of the law clinic’s opening ceremonies, see http://bit.ly/SCqXbu .

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