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It’s Blasphemy But It’s Protected Speech

One of the books I’ve kept since grad school is a text book on media law. It’s about the same heft as my Oxford annotated bible. That occured to me as I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church can continue to demonstrate at military funerals.

The church’s free-speech rights were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court 8-1. Church members hold the protests because of the funerals’ imagined link to homosexuality and other supposed sins.

The case before the Supreme Court was clear-cut. The U.S. Constitution says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press and that means freedom of expression and that includes offensive public displays at the graves of dead soldiers.

The theology of the Westboro church is definately perverse. When you study the message of Jesus it’s unclear whether he is the manifestation of Hebrew prophesy. But one message is unmistakable. God is love. And doing pointless harm to the families of dead sons is just the opposite. In fact, it’s an insult to the faith the church claims to represent.

Some months ago I wrote about the times when gospels collide. The secular gospel of the U.S. Constitution seems to collide with sacred gospels. But in the case of the Westboro church, and in the case of the small-time evangelist in Florida who threatened to burn a bunch of Korans last year, the First Amendment is their patron saint.

Free expression and freedom of religion make the U.S. exceptional in the world. I was surprised to hear, in a story this week on NPR, about a fashion designer in Paris whose anti-Semitic remarks were actually illegal under French law. No First Amendment in that country.

As for the Roberts Supreme Court, it has the reputation of being conservative. But its overwhelming decision in favor of free expression in the Westboro case shows it can be hard to say what a “conservative” ruling is. The justices upheld individual rights yet they supported a homophobic organization. You be the judge. Pardon the expression.

When I read the first paragraph of today’s newspaper story, about the Westboro case, I assumed the lone dissent in the decision was Clarence Thomas because he typically is the lone dissent. But it was Justice Sam Alito who said the plaintiffs were not public figures and they suffered a “malevolent attack” at a time of personal anguish.

True. But Jesus said to love the people who persecute you. And the First Amendment says you can't force them to shut up.

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