God Has a Constitutional Right to Hate Fags and the Congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church Has a Right to Say So
I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
– Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
It is, perhaps, when the words of our country’s most nefarious citizens are spoken and defended that the United States radiates most brightly. Yesterday, the Supreme Court stood by the Westboro Baptist Church, suppressing a lawsuit that would seek to strip the congregation of a fundamental and invaluable human right. Members of the church were taken to court by the father of a slain Marine who took legal objection to a protest assembled a police-ordered 1,000 feet away from his son’s funeral. This was not the first funeral protested by the church—indeed they have made quite a habit of such demonstrations. By their own estimates, members of the Westboro Baptist Church have conducted over 30,000 protests in two decades. The sheer number of demonstrations is staggering, let alone the typical content, which tends to consist of signs bearing wildly inflammatory rhetoric: “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God For Dead Soldiers,” and “Thank God For 9/11” are used frequently.
The lawsuit was intended to console the plaintiff, Albert Snyder, whose grief was undoubtedly exacerbated by the sight of hateful language in such close proximity to his son’s corpse that the funeral procession required redirection. While the presence of this particular congregation at the funeral was certainly regrettable, it was and continues to be protected unequivocally by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This oversight on the part of the plaintiff is doubly unfortunate, because, after losing the case, it is quite possible he will owe the congregation nearly $100,000 in legal fees.
While it is entirely unfortunate that such a group of people exists that are so deluded by faith that they believe attacks upon the United States and its military have been and continue to be warranted by the (yet incomplete) legal protection of homosexual men and women in this country, it is precisely the freedom of such misguided and horrifically misinformed persons to assemble and speak that makes this country so distinct. The protection of assembly and speech rights is disappointingly underemphasized in many advanced societies. Most of the countries in the European Union—while promising, to some effect, the freedom of their citizenry to say and write what and where they will—include in their documents a rather discouraging amount of qualifying clauses. Holocaust denial, while lamentable in any country, is a punishable offense in France and Germany. Blasphemy is illegal in Germany, Italy, Malta, and Ireland; having never visited any of these countries, the manner in which such a prohibition is enforced is unclear to me.
Depending on one’s disposition, one might (or might not) find it surprising that Sarah Palin wrote yesterday that the Supreme Court’s decision lacked “common sense and decency” before bewailing her alleged inability to “invoke God’s name in public square.” First, it is of great concern that common sense and decency have led Palin so far astray from the Constitution on this point, considering she may well run for the presidency next year. Second, I cannot be sure of what she complains when she longs for her right to invoke god in public, because she surely has it.
The Supreme Court’s decision was not unanimous. Justice Samuel Alito voted in favor of Snyder’s ability to “bury his son in peace,” saying: “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” Pardon me, sir, but in fact it is.
When protecting the right of any person to say what they will, it must necessarily be in mind of the lone dissenter. We must defend the rights of people to openly deny the Holocaust, decry homosexuality, and protest the funerals of fallen soldiers if we are to defend the rights of others to speak any word at all. The Supreme Court’s protection of the Westboro Baptist Church should reverberate with pride from the mouth of every citizen in this country.
Rosa Luxemburg, who was executed as an enemy to Tsarist tyranny in Russia, wrote inimitably on this subject:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter. Not because of the fanaticism of “justice,” but rather because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effects cease to work when “freedom” becomes a privilege.