Two things are certain whenever a story involving religious liberty is in the news: Many national reporters will be confused, and newsrooms will hand out scare quotes like party favors.
Where other hot-button political debates, including healthcare reform and LGBT rights, are treated without any protective gloves, religious liberty normally appears in news reports and headlines carefully quarantined between two quotation marks.
It's not religious liberty, that thing which is carefully protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it's so-called "religious liberty."
This media phenomenon was on full display again this week as President Trump signed an executive order promising to, "enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom."
"The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government," the executive order read.
It added, "For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans' first freedom. Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections."
In the hours preceding and proceeding the order's signing, newsrooms scattered carefully placed quotation marks across their social media accounts and front-pages.
The Hill published a story Friday titled, "ACLU won't sue Trump over 'religious liberty' order because it was just 'an elaborate photo-op.'"
"Atheists Sue President Trump Over His 'Religious Liberty' Executive Order," read a Daily Beast headline the same day.
"Trump Signs 'Religious Liberty' Executive Order Allowing for Broad Exemptions," read an NBC News headline Thursday.
NBC published a second story titled, "Civil Rights Groups Vow to Battle Trump's 'Religious Liberty' Order in Court."
"Religious Leaders Left Unimpressed by Trump's 'Religious Liberty' Executive Order," read a Slate headline.
Time magazine opted for: "ACLU: President Trump's 'Religious Liberty' Executive Order Has 'No Discernible Policy Outcome.'"
"Trump signs 'religious liberty' executive order," read CBS' version of the story Thursday.
"Here's what's in Trump's 'religious liberty' executive order," read Business Insider's headline.
It goes on like that for quite a while.
Of course, not all newsrooms used scare quotes this week. The Washington Examiner, for example, reported the issue straight-up. So did the Washington Post, vox.com, the Wall Street Journal and a handful of others.
Why the scare quotes then?
For individual newsrooms, it's a judgment call. There's no guideline to be found in the "Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law," which is used by hundreds of media groups, including the Examiner, to govern grammar style and usage.
As the scare quotes are informal, their use could be for a number of reasons. It could be that newsrooms are trying to be extra careful with the issue. Then again, the fact that other politically-charged issues don't get this sort of treatment has left a few critics crying foul.
"The concept of religious liberty has become a stand in for having unpopular or culturally unacceptable beliefs on a host of controversial issues. It's not woke to believe in religious liberty or protections for it, Constitution be damned," a longtime politico and media editor told the Examiner.
The insider added, "Many reporters scare quote the words as a distancing maneuver in order to signal, consciously or not, that they're not on board with these ideas. One could argue that it's a subtle form of bias, unless that same reporter scare quotes things like 'LGBTQ rights' and 'pro-choice.'"