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.
Image credit: Newtown grafitti