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Monday, May 30, 2011

Public Prayer Not Always Privately Protected

I must report disappointment on secular affairs in Texas, unfortunately. A federal judge declared that the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs cannot remove the mention of Jesus Christ from an invocation by a pastor at Houston National Cemetery. The minister in question has done invocations in the past, but according to his testimony that he had mentioned Jesus in the past prayers, it would appear the violation flew under the radar like many have in the past. But this time around, he seems to be confident he will go through with it, as he has the backing of the Liberty Institute, which reminds me of a conservative mirror image of the ACLU, the American Center for Law and Justice. Yet again, we have a problem of interpretation of the establishment clause and the 1st amendment’s general protections of freedom of speech, not to mention the 9th amendment’s protection of minority rights from being dashed to pieces by majority tyranny.

Judge Lynn Hughes said the government cannot "gag citizens…in the interest of national security, and it cannot do it in some bureaucrat's notion of cultural homogeneity," I don’t see any relevance to the first part of the critique. Issues of government endorsement of religion in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st amendment aren’t concerned whatsoever with national security. The U.S. is not in imminent danger from terrorists because some preacher flubs up and forgets to be inclusive in a public prayer. But it is a serious problem when people continue to do this in the name of tradition. The second critique still seems to miss the point. Many people judge that being politically correct is stifling free speech. But in this context, free speech isn’t what is at issue; what is the problem is prayer that started off trying to be inclusive and ends excluding every faith but Christianity through this pastor’s invocation as represented by the federal government; through invitation I might add. No one’s saying he can’t go forward with his prayer, but the touchy issues of inclusivity and exclusivity can have the reverse effect and make many pastors get too enthusiastic about their faith and trample over everyone else’s. This is why a moment of silence is a more practical and equitable solution to these issues. But as the Bastrop story demonstrates, people can find loopholes to get around that as well. This incident in Texas would be harder to defend, except by saying the pastor is a private citizen in the context of being clergy. But once he does an invocation as part of a public and federal ceremony, I don’t think he can hide behind his “protected” position anymore.

The Liberty Institute responded in the vein of the judge’s sympathies by saying that the government “cannot stifle private speech on public land,” I cannot imagine where they’re getting this justification. That’s like saying a KKK Grand Dragon can just stand out in the street corner and spout racist epithets and teachings. No one would say that’s protected. If a cemetery funded by the government is considered a public area, then private speech is protected to the extent it isn’t inflammatory or exclusionary. You don’t have a justified freedom to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, even if you technically have the potential to do so; similar to shouting racial slurs at minorities in the streets; you could do it, but it’s hate speech. And the inverse of the claims by the Liberty Institute would be justified. Public speech on private land would be justified and unable to be censored by the government. If the KKK held a rally at a place they owned and paid money for out of their own coffers and made public statements of a racist and anti-Semitic nature to an open audience, the government couldn’t really touch them, anymore than if they got official permits by the state to march in a parade.

The private and public, as well as government and private spheres of speech, can be misunderstood, especially when considering things important to us, such as religion and politics. And in issues we get offended about, like neo Nazi parades, we can forget the protections that nonetheless exist for such groups. We tend to agree that people proclaiming offensive things are nonetheless protected by the 1st amendment, such as the relatively recent decision that Westboro Baptist Church is, regardless of our deep-seated frustrations, protected (within potential future restrictions of prudence). But the same cannot be said for people proclaiming their particular religion as more important than others’ beliefs in particular contexts, even if they’re trying to be tolerant while steadfast in their faith. Even if the pastor tries to qualify he respects other people’s beliefs, like Laci Mattice at Bastrop High School’s graduation, he is disrespecting people of different beliefs in saying he gets priority to place his own religion in a prayer within a public context. The argument by the opposition is that since he is expressing his private religious beliefs, also noting his invocation is being sponsored by a private group, his speech is private and thus protected by Supreme Court decisions that the government cannot censor private speech on public property. Problem is the nature of this incident is not like if a sangha meditated in a park or a Christian fellowship was praying to Jesus in the same park. Considering both of these as religious beliefs expressed in public, the government would have no justification to censor that speech, since they’re doing no one any harm. But since this pastor was invited by a public group to do the invocation, one can argue they have a responsibility and standing to censor this singular part of the prayer mentioning Jesus. By all means, he can pull out of this event. The problem is the argument that this private speech in a public incident is protected even though it’s not done purely as a private citizen, but in response to a request to officiate this part of the event as clergy. The preacher doesn’t have the right to push his own personal beliefs into something that by nature should be inclusive to all veterans of differing beliefs nor does he have the right to sue because he believes his rights have been violated, since they haven’t in reality. And his qualification that he respects others doesn’t actually reflect respect. I don’t respect someone when I punch them in the face, but say beforehand, “I respect your face’s right to bleed,” Nor would it be any fairer if a Muslim tried to pray to Allah in this situation. People would be up in arms about that, but they give a free pass to the majority religion in the country on a troublingly consistent basis. The ACLU and FFRF seem to have their hands full with an overflow of such problems. My hat’s off to them, though if this passes, it won’t be the end of the world, but it will set a bad precedent. Just my last thoughts on this. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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