There’s an increasing willingness in the U.S. to categorize any speech critical of a particular religious belief as “hate speech” that is some how not worthy of First Amendment protection. But the Supreme Court held over 70 years ago in Cantwell v. Connecticut that pointing out the errors of the religious beliefs of another is exactly what the Free Speech Clause was designed to protect. If it’s not protected, everyone’s freedom suffers because one never knows when their particular religious views may be deemed critical of some else’s. For instance, merely holding a sign in a public park stating, “Jesus: there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12″ seems innocuous enough. But it might be considered offensive to, and defamatory of, religions who believe there are many paths to salvation.
The danger of not protecting speech that defames or criticizes a particular religion is dramatically demonstrated in other countries that have started down this slippery slope. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a study on August 9, 2011 that directly ties laws prohibiting the defamation of religion to an overall decrease in religious freedom.
“Globally, countries that have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion were more likely to have high government restrictions or social hostilities than countries that do not have such laws. A solid majority (59%) of countries that enforce such laws had high or very high restrictions on religion (government or social) as of mid-2009. Among countries that do not have such laws, by contrast, 58% had low restrictions or hostilities. Not only were government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion generally higher in countries with laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion, but restrictions also rose in many of these countries.”
The Pew report observed that laws criminalizing defamation of religion are often touted as means of protecting religion. In reality, the numbers show they have the opposite effect. These laws are the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. Giving government the power to say what religious speech is acceptable is a lousy way to protect religion. It simply doesn’t work.
It is vital that we continue to resist efforts in this country to categorize speech critical of a particular religion or religious beliefs as “hate speech” that is somehow unworthy of full constitutional protection. Another 1940s Supreme Court case said it best. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette.
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