Published at Enter Stage Right, 06-26-2000
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The right not to be offended?
The recent Supreme Court case involving prayer at a public high school football game has again thrust the issue of school prayer into the national spotlight, and this particular ruling raises serious concerns for those who believe in freedom of religious expression.
The Supreme Court ruled that a student-initiated, student-led prayer at a public high school event violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In their defense of the decision, the majority wrote that prayer broadcast over a P.A. system causes those who don't ascribe to the faith of the speaker to feel left out and uncomfortable. To protect the feelings of the minority, the free speech rights of the individual offering the invocation must be restricted.
Never mind that the founders would have never envisioned or supported such a ruling when they wrote the Constitution. The intent of the First Amendment was never to restrict the public expression of faith by individuals to protect the feelings of those who may not agree. The "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment was written to prevent the government from establishing a state church, like the Church of England, or to take sides between different denominations or faiths.
But while the Left wraps itself in the Establishment Clause to prohibit public expressions of faith by individuals at a government-sponsored event, they conveniently forget the fact that the second part of that sentence clearly states "or prohibit the free exercise thereof".
The school in question was not endorsing a specific religion. What they were doing was allowing the students to choose who the speaker would be before the football game, and that speaker then had a wide latitude in the topics he or she could talk about. If the speaker wanted to offer a prayer, then they were within their rights, and if they wanted to talk about something else, then they could do that as well. The prayer, or other pre-game comments, was entirely within the domain of the individual.
But that wasn't good enough. Anti-Religious zealots seem determined to banish all mention of religion from the public domain, or anything that has to do with government. And this is all for the sake of the person whom the prayer might offend.
In this Supreme Court case, the justices seem to have found yet another new right in the Constitution: the right not to be offended. If I am offended at what you say at a government function, then I can censor you if your speech has any religious overtones at all.
This opens up a potentially very large can of worms. My local City Council, as well as the County Commissioners and County Council, have a "public comment" time before their meetings. If a local minister were to take to the podium and ask for prayers for a recent tragedy, would the local government be in violation of the First Amendment for allowing the minister to use a public microphone, P.A. system, and the Council's time to offer a specifically religious invocation? Would the City Council be in danger of a lawsuit from someone that saw the invocation from the audience or on television and had his delicate sensibilities offended?
This doesn't just apply to prayer either. The right not to be offended can be (and has been) used to justify limitations on billboards (commercial speech) and yard signs (political speech) because they represent "visual pollution" and might offend someone who sees them.
And what happens when a student speaking before a football game decides to commit civil disobedience and pray anyway? How will he or she be stopped from doing so? Will there be any punishment for the student, and will the school be held liable for this horrific violation of "the right not to be offended"?
The solution should be simple: offer a disclaimer before the student speaks that says the school does not necessarily endorse what the student is about to say, and that whatever he says is his opinion only, not that of the school. Since there is no endorsement of the speech, the "Establishment Clause" is not violated, and the student can express himself however he chooses without censorship.
Voltaire once said "I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it". If only we could extend that courtesy to a high school student who prays before a football game. But then again, what he says might offend someone, and we can't have that.