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Does Free Speech Protect Your Right to Criticize Religion? Duh!

Does Free Speech Protect Your Right to Criticize Religion? Duh!

I’m a lawyer by training. It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done because now I can recognize all the things otherwise smart people get wrong about the Constitution. And, boy howdy, there are a lot of people who misunderstand the Constitution.

Take, for example, this guy, Bishop David Zubik. You don’t get to be a Catholic Church middle manager by being a dummy, but you might by being spectacularly ignorant and near-sighted.

Let me set the context. A Carnegie Mellon University art student allegedly dressed as the Pope, only with…um…no bottoms. She was charged with public nudity. OK. Fair enough. You can’t just walk around flashing your naughty bits. Nothing unconstitutional about that. But Zubik, of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, is in favor of some decidedly more stringent restrictions on free expression:

“As I have said over these last few weeks, this is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not constitute a freedom to dismiss or disrespect the beauty of anyone’s race, the sacredness of anyone’s religious belief or the uniqueness of anyone’s nationality,” Zubik said.

I think this gif is the only appropriate response to such a statement.

The Nope Octopus is running away because, in fact, the Constitution guarantees exactly the opposite of what Zubik says. And it doesn’t take a legal scholar to figure this out. We know that Nazis can march in a Jewish neighborhood. It doesn’t get a lot more confrontational than that. The Westboro Baptist Church can protest basically everything because of strong First Amendment protections. Everyone else gets to criticize both Nazis and the WBC, even though the latter is a religious group because of the First Amendment.

So, you see, what Zubik said is factually inaccurate. Freedom of speech exists so you can criticize popular ideas and positions without fear of official retribution.

Of course, I have no doubt that Zubik actually thinks his definition of free speech is the correct one. After all, it would basically eliminate any critical discussion of religion. Which, let’s face it, is what he really wants. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Zubik couched that little nugget in between “disrespect the beauty of anyone’s race” and “the uniqueness of anyone’s nationality.” Those smack of racism. Nobody likes racism. Racism is bad. It’s really hard to not sound sarcastic as I type that because it’s so self-evident. (It’s self-evident, right?) Criticizing religion, in my humble opinion, does not fall in the same league. We need to criticize religion the same way we need to criticize assumptions that lead to racist attitudes and policies.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress details how the mere existence of non-Catholic people are considered some kind of existential threat to Catholicism. If you are a member of religion A, and you discover that religion B believes something different, does that not arguably “dismiss or disrespect…the sacredness” of your religious belief? Sure it does, because it plants the little seedling in your brain that suggests that you might be wrong. To get rid of that threat, you need to eliminate religion B. Suddenly you have a medieval-style death match.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But do you see what I mean? Think of all the things we might not have if we weren’t allowed to criticize religion. We wouldn’t be able to explain why creationism is not a valid scientific theory. We wouldn’t be on the slow but steady march toward LGBT equality. We might not be able to stop people from owning slaves! Do progressive values disrespect the sacredness of religion? Not necessarily, but maybe. And suddenly we live in some kind of dystopian epic where rights can’t be protected because of some douche canoe’s religious belief.

Of course, what Zubik and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy really desires is the inability to question Catholicism. Luckily, that is not the country we live in.


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2:16AM PST on Dec 5, 2014

I really enjoy reading and also appreciate your work. Dominion Business Law PLC

8:42PM PDT on Jun 1, 2013

Thanks for the info

4:18PM PDT on May 19, 2013

Thanks for sharing!

3:45PM PDT on May 18, 2013

Sorry, Bishop...but the First Amendment was intended to break the bond between church and state in an era when the churches were supported by taxes, the clergy were paid by the local gvt. and they held sway over the political process. If you were not in good standing with the local church powers, you could forget holding office, different denominations dominated different locales and hounded and persecuted people of other beliefs. The founders saw this as inimical to freedom. The First Amendment also protected freedom of the press.The founders saw this as indispensable to freedom ....
The Church and mainstream religion generally are back on their heels, they see this as the result of criticism rather than the failures in their own behavior. They have traditionally been able to maintain their status and worldly power despite foibles, scandals and self indulgence. now they're like the trust fund brat who's daddy has always bailed them out of trouble and is finally faced with having to take responsibility and pitches a fit.

6:15PM PDT on May 17, 2013


1:22PM PDT on May 17, 2013

Perhaps Zubik should go to a country where there is NO freedom of speech. A country where he would not even be allowed to the statement that he just made. How would he feel then?

5:30PM PDT on May 16, 2013

All ideas, even religious ones, can be criticized, ridiculed, and insulted.

4:13PM PDT on May 16, 2013

Sharon R. You may find the bottomless La Popessa tasteless but it is protected speech under our Constitution. She went afoul of the law for indecent exposure. The fact that people like you don’t like free speech is the reason we have the first amendment. There are very many tasteless forms of free speech, flag burning and the awful displays of the Westboro Baptist Church are both forms of protected speech. The US Constitution exists to protect the minority, the majority needs no protection. Everything the bishop said concerning things he thought were not protected was wrong. Again, the bishop is either ignorant of the scope of the law or a liar; there are no other options.

3:26PM PDT on May 16, 2013

Brian S. wrote:
"there should also be a way of preventing unfounded mudslinging at the Christian church, because the church and its members have the right to be treated with respect by society."

They only have the right to be treated w/ respect when they show some themselves. The Catholic church rarely shows respect for anyone (anything) that differs from them. Respect is a TWO-WAY street, a give and take process. You only deserve respect by giving it to others, even when they disagree with you.

3:16PM PDT on May 16, 2013

I disagree with most of what the catholic church preaches but I also disagree with protestant beliefs, jewish beliefs, islamic beliefs, etc. Yet, I think the lady was wrong. Not so much because she dressed like a pope but because she really didn't dress like a pope. Think about it. What is wrong with that woman? Doesn't she have any sense at all?

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