Before I go any further, I need to tell you something about myself. I’m a firm believer that every person should get enough fiber in their diet every day. Current recommendations are that women under age 50 need about 25 grams per day, and men under age 50 need about 38 grams. Most Americans get about half that much in the average day. So, let’s reiterate, I’m a fiber fan. Go fiber. Great.
Now let’s talk about you. Who are you? Well, in this piece, you are a rhetorical you. You and I are going to have a little argument about something. Well, actually, I don’t think we’re really going to argue, I just disagree with something you say quite frequently and I think we need to talk about it. I’m frankly kind of bugged at the lack of precision that has crept into a pet topic of yours. You talk about religious freedom a lot and about how your religious freedoms are under attack and how you need to defend your religious freedoms. I get the war metaphor. Seriously, I do. I really liked The Avengers. I like to be on the right side when good people defend against bad things. I have to say, though, in this instance, I think you’re overstating your case and in the end it harms the point you’re actually trying to make. And since I care about you and care about your ideas, I want to take some time to parse through them with you so you can make a stronger argument.
Okay, let’s explore this through two different examples. The first example is a courthouse. I’m a lawyer and an American and I have respect for courthouses. I think that solving our differences through rhetoric rather than violence is a good thing, and I like that there are a lot of public servants who guard law and order in our country and make sure that dangerous people are confined so they don’t hurt me or my family. I really appreciate that both law and tradition in this country protect me in the courts too. If I’m being wrongfully accused of something, I’m guaranteed help to defend myself. One time, I defended a really lovely elderly Russian Jewish couple against their neighbor who had filed criminal charges against them. Upon investigation it turned out that the neighbor, who was actually a nice lady, was experiencing dementia and was scared that Russians lived next door and accused them of coming into her house and stealing stuff and then replacing it later. My clients were really scared because they didn’t understand the process, but we helped them through it. It was a great experience,and we solved the problem. So back to the religious freedom issue. Some people feel really strongly that religious symbols should be placed in government buildings or on government property. As an example, there are several cases of litigation arising over murals of the ten commandments being displayed in courthouses.
When religious symbols like the ten commandments in courthouses are taken down or challenged, you say that your religious freedom has been taken away. It really upsets you, and you want to “fight” against this encroachment on your freedom. This is where you lose me. Do you really have the “freedom” to insist that your favorite message be placed in a prominent place in a government building? Really? I’m actually intrigued to hear that because I have a favorite message. It is as follows: “Fiber brings peace, fiber brings comfort, fiber brings justice. Go fiber!” I know that my message should really be placed everywhere in America, on bus stops and billboards, and grocery store ads. But there is nowhere that my message is more important than at a courthouse because as age old wisdom says: “A constipated lawyer is a less effective lawyer.”
You disagree with me? I thought you would. I know what you’re thinking. You think that I’m making fun of you using vaguely scatalogical humor, and that it is obvious to everyone that a message like the ten commandments is a basic notion of justice, it supports law and order, and that it is a lot more fitting for a courthouse than my irreverent fiber fandom. You think that religious messages that support traditional notions of public morality are fitting in a place where people need to be reminded about their moral obligations to society. You think that it is fitting to remind defendants that they have done wrong, and it is fitting to remind their judges what wrong actually is. Religion is a cornerstone of a just society, and your ten commandments belong in the courthouse, while my fiber message is frivolous and distracting. Actually, you’re probably right. But see, in coming to this conclusion that you’re probably right, we’ve made two important assumptions. The first is that not every person has the right to post whatever message they want prominently in a government building, and the second is that we’ve employed a value judgment that one message is better than the other. A violation of freedom would be that you had the right to make a certain sort of speech and you were prevented from doing so. But we’ve agreed that not everyone has that right when it comes to government property. What you are actually arguing for is the privilege of posting your message because it’s better. You want to privelege one type of speech over another. Religious speech is MORE fitting, it’s MORE important, it’s MORE useful, and so you think it ought to be in a government building. Well, we’ll get to that point in a minute, but let’s call a spade a spade here. This isn’t about freedom, it is about asserting privilege–it is wanting to enjoy special rights or immunities.
Alright, now before we move on to our second example (remember the first was courthouses–I know this is long….lawyer, remember?) let’s take a minute to talk about why privileging religious speech in a courthouse is probably not a good idea. I’ll start with a confession. I’m not a great person. Oh, I’m fine and all. Pretty good, pretty decent, generally contribute to society, but I recognize that there are a lot of people out there who are simply better than me. They are better behaved, and have better intentions in their hearts. They are less selfish and more prone to service. Some of them are Mormons, some are Catholics, some are Protestants, some are Hindu, some are Muslims, and some are atheists or agnostics. It’s just the way it is–I admire these people and know they deserve my respect. I can imagine how bad it would feel if I went into a courthouse for a trial and I didn’t know what to expect. I would be scared and looking for reassurance. If I looked up on the wall and saw a monument to Danu, the Mother of The Tuatha De Danann, with a prayer extolling her justice and mercy it would just make me feel worse. I would feel like an outsider in a place where my rights were supposed to be equal, and I would doubt the ability of a court to really see me as an individual deserving protection rather than an “other.” Ought I to force my friends, those friends who are better, more moral and less selfish than me, to feel like “others” in a place where they ought to feel safe and protected? To bring this to a more realistic example, can you imagine how my Russian Jewish clients would have felt if a cross had been posted above the courtroom door?
Alright, now on to our second example, and I think you’re going to like this one, because we’re going to agree about it. Imagine that you moved into a community where there were no good public school options, and so you contacted your parish priest to set up a school. You, the priest, and the other parents in the congregation agreed that in addition to the reading, writing, and arithmetic, you would hire a principal of the school who was a member of your religion to lead the children in prayer and scripture recitation every morning, and close each school day with a homily encouraging them to be better more service-oriented Christians as they left the church school and went out into the community. Imagine that a non-believer applied for the principal job, and then sued the school when he didn’t get the job. Now is your religious freedom threatened? You think so. I happen to think so, and, as it turns out, nine members of the Supreme Court think so too. (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/12/us/12scotus-text.html). Okay, I like it that we agree about this example, although personally I think you can dial back the attack/war/defense rhetoric because when all nine justices agree with you, I don’t think you exactly need to pull out the “threat” metaphors. (Yes, I’m talking to you Maurine Proctor http://www.ldsmag.com/church/article/10929?ac=1%3Fac%3D1&start=1).
Okay, so let’s go back to my original point. Before our little chat, you really enjoyed painting lots of things with the broad “attack on religious freedom” brush. I hope we agree now that this is simply not accurate. Wanting to privilege religious speech is not the same as fending off attacks on religious freedom. And here’s why you shouldn’t keep shrilly insisting that it is: you have a good point in the first place–don’t muck it up. It is important to protect all of our constitutional rights. That is a common cause that almost every American agrees with. When you create these scary lists of all the ways that your religious freedoms are under attack when you actually are just saying “people don’t like religion as much as I want them to” and “I think my religious viewpoint should be privileged above yours” you come across as unreasonable. No outsider is going to listen to you, so all you achieve is just providing a kind of delicious horror to people who already agree with you. If you are serious about making real arguments about religious freedom, and really protecting the free exercise of religion, then be precise. Precision matters. Your cause will be better for it.