establishment clause

Blasphemy in Oklahoma City: You Have The Right to be Offended 

Founding Father Thomas Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, wrote, “One man’s revelation is another man’s heresy.” While it’s certain these words, written in a French Jail cell, weren’t intended for the American Republic that Paine helped inspire, they are however applicable to the current political situation we live in today. Specifically, they apply to the uproar over Satanists using the Oklahoma CitySpace Theater for a black mass.

With the exception of religious fundamentalists, and revisionist historians like David Barton, most Americans recognize that our country was founded as a secular nation, all be it one with a Christian majority. But regardless of personal religious sentiment or lack there of, the founding fathers explicitly established a secular government by ratifying the First Amendment and its establishment clause.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines certain rights including the right to speak freely, the right to practice one’s religion, or not, and the right to be free from establishment, by the state or federal government, of a religion. What the First Amendment doesn’t protect is the right to be free from offense, or to prevent hearing speech religious or otherwise that one disagrees with.

Unfortunately, some people like Phyllis Zagano seem to believe that because they have a strongly held religious belief that it should receive special protection. Additionally, that those who hold a religious belief that differs from hers, and which Phyllis finds blasphemous should not be entitled to equal protection under the law, and should explicitly be precluded from freely speaking, or exercising their religious beliefs when those beliefs and statements rise to a level that Phyllis or others find offensive.

In a recent article for the National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis tries to argue that the Constitution should protect her from having to live in a world where other people have religious beliefs and practices that differ from her own. Specifically, Phyllis wants to shut down those nasty Satanists in Oklahoma, and prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights to freely speak and practice their religion.

http://ncronline.org/blogs/just-catholic/blasphemy-oklahoma-city

Unfortunately for Phyllis and the others like her, the First Amendment doesn’t protect her feelings, or allow her to shut down speech that she considers blasphemous, profane or heretical. In fact the First Amendment is designed to protect everyone from people exactly like Phyllis.

It’s clear from reading this article that Phyllis, like the countless other Christians, up in arms against the Satanists, don’t really understand the First or Fourteenth Amendment. Not one to let her ignorance on constitutional law prevent her from exercising her right to speech, Phyllis claims not only a right to be free from offense, but also the unique ability to determine what constitutes a legitimate religion and political speech. She asks. “Who can think Satanism is a religion?” “Who thinks a ‘black mass’ is political speech?”

Well Phyllis, to answer your question, I for one do. But I’m not alone, the United States Constitution, and a ton of legal precedent supports this belief. I, the City Manager, and countless others correctly understand that the First and Fourteenth Amendment does indeed protect what you term, “blasphemous hate speech.”

Oklahoma has anti-blaspheme laws, antiquated laws, which violate the First Amendment, by precluding people from freely exercising their right to freedom of speech and their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. More over, anti-blaspheme laws come into conflict with the Establishment Clause, which precludes the government from showing favor for one set of religious beliefs.

While Phyllis correctly identifies Oklahoma’s blasphemy laws as being old fashioned, she fails to recognize that they are also unconstitutional and urges that they be used to prevent Satanists from freely exercising their religious beliefs, and offending her religious sensitivities, by holding a black mass where they will step on a wafer, that Phyllis believes is magical.

This is a product of what can be termed Christian Privilege.

Because the United States has a Christian majority, Christians receive significant privilege. As a result unconstitutional laws such as anti-blasphemy laws, or laws that preclude atheists from holding public office remain on the books in a number of states. However, they are unconstitutional and while still effective, are not enforced, because enforcement would be a violation of the First Amendment. That theses laws continue to remain on the books, is not a sign of their constitutionality, but only further proof that a majority of elected officials don’t care enough to vote to remove them.

Ignoring her own hypocrisy, Phyllis asks, “Why don’t Catholics get ‘equal protection of the laws’?” The answer is, they do. There is no constitutional protection to be free from speech that one considered blasphemous and hurts the sentiments of religious people.

The reason her question is hypocritical, is because she tries to use the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, to deny equal protection of the First Amendment to people whose beliefs offend her. What Phyllis and others like her demand, is not equal protection, but the right to discriminate against others, because their words, actions, and beliefs are deemed offensive. Or more simply put, because she finds their revelations to be heretical.

If this were a question of Christians being unfairly arrested under anti-blaspheme laws, Phyllis might have a legitimate point by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment. However, this is not the case. There are no cases of Catholics being punished for blaspheme, even though I could make a good argument that Phyllis’s very statements, constitute the wonton uttering of contumelious reproach upon a religion other than Christianity, which arises to the definition of blaspheme under Oklahoma law.

The reality is that Catholics have the right to use the Oklahoma CitySpace Theater for a religious rite. Because Catholics are afforded this ability other religions get the same benefit.  Included in this are religions that preach or hold positions in opposition to Catholicism. By refusing to allow other religions equal access to State facilities, Oklahoma City would be effectively violating of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

Further to preclude speech on the basis that someone is offended would negate the very basis of the First Amendment’s right to free speech. Because the speech in question is religious in nature a preclusion on the basis that it’s offensive to other religions would also violate the free exercise and establishment clauses as well. This is a slippery slope that once started quickly ends in the United States looking like and Islamic Theocracy, with people being punished, for dissenting from the majority religious belief system, or merely saying they don’t believe in god(s).

As Paine said, “One man’s revelation is another man’s heresy,” meaning all religious speech, by its nature, is always going to be offensive to someone. Phyllis, who happens to be a member of the single largest sect of Christianity may be blind to the fact that some people find her opinions, beliefs, and religion offensive and blasphemous. But simply because her beliefs happens to be popular does not mean they receive special protections. The First Amendment was designed to prevent this type of slippery slope. Enshrined within that Amendment are a number of rights, but the right to not be offended, or to shut down speech on the basis of offense is not one of them.

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