Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. First Amendment to the United States Constitution
Can a person defend the First Amendment rights of an individual or group, but not support or otherwise endorse the specific speech or activity that is being engaged in? For instance, can you defend Oliver Stone’s or Michael Moore’s right to produce anti-American films, but at the same time refuse to support those movies in any form or fashion? Does the First Amendment itself force citizens to like how others might express their freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, or petition?
I do not believe that these are complicated questions, but rather straightforward. In the context of a discussion at BaptistLife.com regarding the building of the Ground Zero mosque, I have tried to ascertain whether or not one can defend the legal and constitutional rights of Muslims to build the Cordoba Initiative in lower Manhattan, but at the same time maintain opposition to the project itself. I have addressed part of this question in an earlier post titled, I Love NYC, But Hate Idea of Mosque at Ground Zero.
I have not taken the position (like others) that constructing the mosque at its proposed location near Ground Zero violates anyone’s rights. Further, to disallow construction, on spurious legal grounds (i.e., changing the zoning or declaring the property a landmark), would violate the rights of this Muslim community to build on their own property. I believe it would be meaningless if, with one hand, the government says that they can build the mosque, but with the other hand, the government uses legal process to take away that right.
I believe a principled conservative argument can be made which defends the legal and constitutional right to build the mosque near Ground Zero while at the same time personally opposes said construction because of a belief that it is inappropriate and offensive to build on that particular site. Dr. Richard Land, President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently commented on the proposed Ground Zero mosque (read the full article here):
“I take a back seat to no one when it comes to religious freedom and religious belief and the right to express that belief, even beliefs that I find abhorrent,” said Land, the denomination’s top representative on moral, ethical and religious-liberty concerns. “But what I don’t do is I don’t say that religious freedom means that you have the right to build a place of worship anywhere that you want to build them.”
But in the current case, Land said, religious freedom isn’t absolute. Muslims have every right to build another mosque in Lower Manhattan if they feel they need one, he asserted, but the right to build it near Ground Zero “is something that is not protected by the First Amendment.”
“The people of America have a right to say that this place, Ground Zero, has been made sacred by the enormity of the sacrifice of the 3,000 people who died there, such that we have to treat it differently than we would anyplace else,” he said.
First, no reasonable people are arguing that you can build a place of worship “anywhere that you want to build them.” Of course, zoning laws and other pertinent laws should, within reason, dictate where certain structures can be built, including religious facilities. As far as I can tell, the First Amendment and local laws do give Muslims the right and protection to build the outreach center and mosque in lower Manhattan. If the NYC Landmarks Commission or other governmental bodies would have designated this particular location as a landmark nine years ago or even two years ago, prior to any thoughts of a mosque at this location, then that may have passed constitutional muster. But to try to pass a law, after the fact, even if we agree with the outcome, is simply repugnant to our democratic ideals and to conservative principles.
Likewise, Newt Gingrich’s argument that the mosque should not be built in NYC until churches or synagogues are allowed to be constructed in Saudi Arabia may play well politically, but it is wrong-headed constitutionally and conservatively. The United States of America enjoys the greatest liberties and freedoms on the face of the earth. To somehow condition the granting of religious freedom in this country, as enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with the denial of religious freedom in one of the most oppressive dictatorship in the Middle East is preposterous!
The First Amendment promises all Americans, regardless of our religion (or lack thereof), race, gender, creed, etc., the same freedoms, including the freedom to practice our religion according to the dictates of our conscience. That includes Muslims legally building on property that they own near Ground Zero. That also includes, at least according to a Federal District Judge in Missouri, the “rights” of Westboro “Baptist Church” to engage in vile and hateful protests near military funerals. The U.S. Supreme Court is already scheduled to hear another case involving Westboro.
I have asked the folks at BaptistLife if they would not only defend, but support/endorse the rights of Westboro IF the Supreme Court finds that this repugnant group has a constitutional right to engage in their protests. No one wants to answer this question. If they do, they try to re-word it or otherwise answer a question that I have not asked. I have further asked if there is anything that they believe is protected by the First Amendment, but which they personally would not support or endorse, such as pornography. The response: crickets. Or worse, the “Could you define it (pornography) for me. I’m hard-pressed to define it” defense. If we are this far apart theologically, culturally, and politically from our moderate Baptist brethren, then I do believe we need to thank God for the Conservative Resurgence!
I have been accused by some at BaptistLife of not being clear in my arguments. Perhaps so, although I do not think so. I would therefore like to expand this dialogue to a wider audience in order to clarify the discussion. So, to all my readers — Baptist and non-Baptist, Christian and non-Christian, Jewish and Gentile, Believer and Atheist, here’s the question: Is there any situation that you would argue is legally protected by the First Amendment, but that you personally find inappropriate and/or immoral and could therefore never support or endorse? Discuss amongst yourselves (and with me)!