how not to headline a story on religious freedom

Earlier today I tweeted this:

Emma Green, the fine reporter who wrote the story (though not the headline), asked me to clarify, so here goes:

  1. That the story lede (the first sentence) is accurate will be seen from what follows.
  2. I called the dek (the description below the headline) “misleading,” but that is generous: it’s simply wrong. And Emma Green — who, again, is a superb reporter and rarely makes errors like this — gets it wrong in her story when she writes the source of the dek: “It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship.” No: it is not true government “must” provide money to a house of worship or to any other organization. The ruling, rather, is that if a state or local government says that it will provide money to organizations in return for providing certain services — in this case, the maintaining of a playground available to children throughout the community — then it cannot withhold that money from churches simply because they are churches. (The New York Times get it wrong in its headline too, and in the same way: “States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule.”) I understand that you can’t squeeze everything into a headline, but the distinction between “governments must give money to churches” and “governments cannot exclude churches qua churches from projects for civic improvement” is not an especially subtle one.
  3. The idea expressed in the hed that this decision “Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier” is simply absurd. What is the “barrier” that existed before this ruling and if now gone? What does this ruling do to establish a state church? After all, the ruling applies equally to churches, mosques, synagogues, and atheist community centers: by what torturing of logic could such a ruling be said to establish a state religion? Just as the Civil Rights Act helped to enfranchise people of color without disenfranchising white people, so this ruling excludes prejudice against churches qua churches (in this one minor matter) without infringing on anyone else’s rights.

It is of course possible — Green goes into this possibility in her article — that people who do want to break down the barrier between church and state will be emboldened by this ruling to … I don’t know, do something secularists don’t like, I guess. But that has no bearing whatsoever on whether the ruling is a good one.  Nor do fears on that score eliminate that part of the First Amendment decreeing not only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” but also that it can’t make ones “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”