July 16, 2013 — I was absolutely stunned a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from the California Secretary of State’s office announcing a proposed “Bible-based speech initiative” that would exempt “speech based on biblical authority from existing constitutional and statutory restrictions applicable to all other speech, including restrictions against discrimination and hate crimes. Repeals constitutional provision denying protection to acts of religious expression inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.”
What? Whoa. Where to start?
I believe in the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I believe in a free and open marketplace of ideas because I also believe in such an environment the good ideas will earn acceptance and the bad ideas will fall away. I believe we especially need to defend the free speech rights of those with whom we disagree. Our freedom to think and act independently depends upon a vital public debate of ideas that arise from differing perspectives and disparate points of view.
But despite the lofty sounding First Amendment guarantee, our freedom of speech is limited. Here are a few examples.
If we libel or slander someone we are subject to civil liabilities. The First Amendment does not protect us from falsely damaging another’s reputation.
Likewise obscene speech — words and images — are not protected. Neither is child pornography.
Fighting words — speech designed to incite violence — are also not protected. Neither are those words whose utterance creates “a clear and present danger” to the peace and safety of our communities.
The government may even restrict speech during a time of war that would be permissible during a time of peace. And famously, the First Amendment does not protect one who falsely yells fire in a crowded theatre.
I also believe in the freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment, but I tend to agree with the Founding Fathers that these religious decisions are, to repeat their ideas, a matter of conscience — a person’s relationship with God is an individual matter between a man or a woman and his or her creator. The Founding Fathers wisely rejected any religious test to hold public office in our great land, and we are each free to believe and worship or not as our conscience alone dictates.
Now I have some Christian friends who disagree. They believe their religion and their lives are one and the same — absolutely inseparable in any and every way. And they believe their rights to both free speech and religion are infringed because they cannot speak out without restriction of any kind against those who do not live or behave in accordance with their beliefs. America, they say, can be spared God’s wrath only if we all conform to their view of God’s will. They say they cannot accept or even tolerate the presence of the unholy in their midst.
While I understand and appreciate their position, this initiative seeks to remove all legal restrictions from any speech if only the speaker can cite the Bible as authority — including utterances that would otherwise be considered discrimination or hate crimes and even speech that jeopardizes the peace and public safety. In fact, this initiative seeks to set speech based on biblical authority completely apart in a class of its own beyond the reach of any restriction, restraint or limitation of any kind in any place.
The Westboro Baptist Church’s home website, godhatesfags.com, (I kid you not) offers a great many judgments and pronouncements based upon biblical authority. It’s already protected, and it’s apparently perfectly legal. Just imagine what this church, already infamous for disrupting the funerals of America’s warfighters and rejoicing at their deaths, might do and say if all limitations on their Bible-based speech were lifted completely.
After visiting their website, I can’t help but recall the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman and how He advised we should not judge lest we be judged, how He said the sinless one should cast the first stone.
I’m guessing the sponsors of this initiative and the Godly folks at Westboro Baptist somehow must have missed this message.
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