In the past week, courts on either side of the Atlantic have issued rulings in two cases which go to the very heart of the meaning of freedom of speech and of religion. Both rulings have elicited condemnation from many conservatives, but for different reasons. However, both cases taken together illustrate perfectly why the freedoms protected by the First Amendment are such an important part of American society. The cases also serve as a reminder that, as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Here in America, the Supreme Court ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that inflammatory protests at the funerals of fallen war heroes by the rabidly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church cannot be prohibited. Meanwhile, Britain’s High Court has ruled in favor of a social services agency which prohibited a couple from fostering a child because of their religious views on homosexuality. On a superficial level, the cases are centered on homosexuality, but both cases are really about freedom of speech and of religion.
In the Westboro case, the objection of conservatives is mainly to the disturbing methods employed by the group, although the extreme views of the group which place it well outside any mainstream Christian teaching are also a factor. In the case of the would-be foster parents, the objection is to the increasing tendency of the British courts to side with a purely secular and amoral vision of society at the expense of any traditional morality.
However, there is a key difference between the two rulings. The case of Westboro Baptist Church is actually a victory for religious freedom, whereas the case of the foster parents is a resounding defeat. There are strong disagreements about homosexuality in this country across an extremely broad political spectrum, but those disagreements and others make our democracy stronger.
Instead of being subjected to the will of a judge or a bureaucrat, the cornerstone of freedom is the ability to debate contentious issues in the public square and to make an appeal to reason instead of compelling people’s behavior by force.
In America, religious institutions, the press, political parties, private clubs, charitable associations, and lobbyists are all included as adversaries against one another and as counterweights to the power of the state. Furthermore, public institutions here do not depend on the state for their existence and thus are free to expound on their own teachings, whatever they may be. Whether religious or civic, the freedom to participate in society and its institutions is an essential freedom which benefits us all.
The First Amendment is a beautiful construct, because it encourages a healthy and vibrant diversity of opinions about morality and the role of government in our society. Instead of allowing the government to define morality and to silence the views of those with whom it disagrees, our Constitution encourages constant debate and engagement in society. Allowing groups like the KKK, Nazis, and the Westboro people to spout their terrible hateful views as a part of that debate is a dear price for religious freedom, but it is one worth paying.