L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 309, March 6, 2005
"Free Walt Anderson"
For Me, But Not for Thee
Special to TLE
Most Americans seem to have at least a limited understanding of the Bill of Rights. They may be unclear as to whether or not the Bill of Rights grants them specific rights or not (it doesn't; it acknowledges certain rights and prohibits the government from interfering with them). They may not understand even the clearest verbiage of the first ten amendments (determining all too often, for example, that "the people" in the Second Amendment refers to the National Guard, but that "the people" in all of the other amendments means "the people"). But as a whole, they "get" at least the idea of the Bill of Rights, and we might assume that any specific misunderstanding or ignorance could be addressed by education and example.
Another problem concerning the Bill of Rights is more serious. It has nothing to do with knowledge per se, but is rather the tendency of some to believe that certain of the amendments apply to them, but not to certain defined or undefined others. Rarely is this type of assumption more clear than in the case of certain religious factions, namely the fundamentalist Christian.
Citing the First Amendment, a group of Christian protesters in Pennsylvania confronted a group of homosexual activists during a gay pride celebration there. In the many accounts I've read of the incident that followed, no one from either side of the confrontation has suggested that the other group not be allowed to express its opinion in such matters. But the Christians were apparently confrontational, and some homosexuals fought back. As a result of the near-riot that ensued, a number of the Christians were charged with hate crimes (among other things).
Now I oppose the very idea of criminalizing speech as a "hate" crime. But I oppose censorship, too, and you don't see me arguing against the arrest of a man who yells "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. That's relevant here because free speech wasn't the real issue in Pennsylvania, either. The Christians, as they have repeatedly pointed out, had the right to express their opinion that homosexuality is immoral. They did not, however, have the right to deliberatelyand repeatedlyprovoke the people they were criticizing, and by most accounts that's what they did. I don't consider hate speech a crime, but what about harrassment or incitement to riot?
In the end, all of the charges against the Christians were dropped earlier this month, a decision with which I disagreed on grounds having nothing to do with the freedom of speech or worship (it's telling, by the way, that the judge who made the ruling offered an indirect comparison to the unpopular viewpoints of Nazis or the KKK). But the resolution didn't happen before various conservative web sites jumped to the defense of the Christian group, calling the prosecution of the case "Christian persecution." At the same time, I'd be willing to bet whatever you like that if a homosexual activist had jumped in front of a Christian and screamed in his face, those same web sites would be howling for blood.
Numerous Christian activists around the country who are busy trying to get creationism into biology classes often claim that the only reason creationism isn't already part of the curriculum is because of discrimination against Christians and/or the Christian viewpoint. They don't care that the Native American creation mythologies aren't taught in schools, nor are they unhappy that the Hindu version of creation isn't a subject for study. If discrimination is really the point, why don't they don't claim discrimination where Wiccan or Buddhist concepts of the origin of life or life energy are concerned?
The reality here is that religionany religionis a matter of faith, and science is a matter of fact. But they equate certain tenets of their own faith with fact, thus making the faith of others a substantially lesser thing which, in turn, makes them the ones truly guilty of discrimination! Meanwhile, these groups are costing school boards across the country more than a little taxpayer money, thanks to potential lawsuits and legal reviews of stickers and pseudo-science. If this were truly an issue of religious freedom, creationist advocates should be clamoring for other creation myths to share equal time with their own. They're not because it isn't, and most of them know it.
Some Christians have complained when Bibles have been banned from school libraries as potential violations of the separation of church and state. I agree with the Christians. The Bible is too often cited or used as rationale in too many instances for it not to be present at the least as a reference book. And merely having a book on the library shelf is neither an endorsement of religion nor an encouragement by school officials toward that religion. Unfortunately, exactly the same groups typically use the ironic opposite of their own arguments to demand that Harry Potter books be pulled from libraries because the availability of such books is something they consider a call to witchcraft (be forewarned that the cited web site has significant errors of fact as early as the first paragraph about the Harry Potter author; as an aside, also know that those who believe that Harry Potter is equivalent to witchraft are conversant with neither the Harry Potter books nor with witchcraft). To put it more simply, the First Amendment applies only to those things with which those activists agree, and those religions they think are okay.
In Virginia, there's an ongoing case of a school that buses kids off to Bible classes every week. The school and many parents say it's okay for them to do that because nobody is forced into it; some parents say that kids are coerced, if nothing else, by being ostracized or harrassed by the majority of kids who do opt for the Bible classes. Those against the program also point out that kids who elect not to participate have nothing concrete to do while their classmates are off getting religion.
The same people in Virginia who say that Bible classes are a good thing are the people in California who are seriously up in arms over classes in schools there that spent some time teaching the Koran (as it happens, not actually not as bad as it sounds when taken within the complete context of the lesson plans though still questionable in connection with the separation of church and state). While the motivation behind the California classes may or may not be suspect, I personally think that some motivation behind at least some teachings in high schools and universities is an ultra-politically correct notion that the 9/11 terrorists and men like them have a point (something which may be strictly true but with which I strenuously disagree as any kind of an excuse or rationale). But whatever the motive, how is an elective discussion of the Koran a whole lot different than a supposedly elective discussion of the Bible? The answer, of course, is that there's no difference at all except in the eye of the beholder.
Let me make it clear that I have nothing against Christianity. In fact, I have nothing against any religion as long as its practitioners don't hurt other people by stealing away their rights, property, or lives. Let me also say that some Christians aren't the only ones guilty of this particular sin. If I were writing this column in Saudi Arabia, for example (forget that I would have been arrested and executed long before now for the "blasphemous" content of some of my other columns), I'd be complaining for much the same reason about certain fundamentalist Muslim groups.
But I don't live in Saudi Arabia, and in this country it's radical Christians (to be fair, the word "radical" is perhaps an overstatement of zealousness in comparison to some radical Muslims) who are causing religious strife and trouble entirely out of proportion to their relatively small numbers. The biggest difference between the United States and many in the United Arab Emirate isn't so much religion or religious fervor as it is the fact that Americans have the right to dissent from the majority or other minorities where religion is concerned.
That right to dissentand to vocalize such dissentis inherent in the First Amendment. That means that the religious fundamentalists do have every right to speak their piece. What they do not have the right to do is to force their opinions on everyone else, or to voice their opinions exclusive to the opinions of others. Their right to worship freely does not include the right to forestall or interfere with that same freedom for others. And certainly their faith does not entitle them to force others to go along with whatever they might believe, or even to learn more about what they believe, if that education is under some form of duress.
The easiest way for anyone to understand just what is a violation of rights and what isn't is to put the shoe on the other foot. If it would be wrong to preach Islam in a public school classroom during class time, then it would be wrong to preach Christianity. If the earth didn't really begin as a giant turtle as some Native American stories suggest, then it would be wrong to demand others be taught in science classes that the planet is only 6,000 years old (actually, First Amendment aside, teaching either of those things would also be wrong simply because, well, they're both wrong). If someone finds the Bible offensive (and some people do) and so demands it not be included in library collections, wouldn't it be equally as narrow-minded to censor other books off the shelves?
On the other hand, some of the people I'm talking about are apparently so busy seeing the light of whatever revelation it is that's caught their fancy that they've essentially been blinded to the rights of the rest of us. They pass their time judging others by whatever standard it is they believe they're on earth to uphold, and demanding that others toe their chosen line. I'm pretty sure there's no constitutional amendment that addresses that problem per se, but it just so happens that there is something in the Bible that does: "Whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire." Matthew 5:22. If they won't listen to the Constitution as Americans, perhaps they'll consider the source they claim they do revere as Christians.
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