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    Cold Cases, A Reflection on the First Amendment
    August 13, 2015 9:14 am  
    Cold Cases, A Reflection on the First Amendment

    by the Rev. J. Gary Brinn

    One of the first things you learn in biblical studies is that every rule was created for a reason. Something went wrong, there was a conflict that split a village, and next thing you know, “God” had created a new law. We each must decide for ourselves how much or how little of what we have left is divine, and how much is human, which portions to obey, and which to ignore, but we cannot help but see that the rules developed in a context.

    Take, for example, the dozens of verses about skin disease found in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures traditionally attributed to Moses and shared by the Jewish and Christian traditions. These passages read like a manual for diagnosis and treatment, clearly reflecting the reality of contagious skin disease among the tribes of Israel. There are nine verses in Deuteronomy on unsolved homicides, the “cold cases” of the Ancient Near East.

    With the exception of history’s occasional “mad king,” this principle, that laws develop in a context and as a result of a conflict, is universal. It is exactly the case when it comes to our Bill of Rights. The rich white men who founded a nation for themselves looked at conflicts and oppression, in their time and in recent history, and developed rules accordingly. In the First Amendment, they combined real concerns about religious warfare with their own experience of suppressed speech.

    Today, a couple of hundred years later, this amendment has spent a lot of time in the news. You might call this the “First Amendment Summer.” And it has been shocking, really, to see how little Americans, from the citizen on the street to elected officials, understand this law. The points of conflict have involved two controversial symbols and one Supreme Court decision.

    When Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist, walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and slaughtered nine worshipers, including  a State Senator, we pretended to be surprised. It was, of course, an act, as the combination of radical hate speech, military-grade weapons and our refusal to treat the mentally ill has created an environment in which we cannot go to the movies without fear of a shooting. It may be karma really, as those in southwest Asia must constantly wonder if an American drone will hit the wrong target, making the threat of unexpected violence a constant in their world.

    The massacre in Charleston did not lead to substantive change. We’ve already decided that slaughter was acceptable when we did nothing after the loss of so many children at Sandy Hook Elementary. But we have at least begun speaking about the symbols of hate. So it was that Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole. So it was that the State of South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag, long a symbol of racism, from the Statehouse grounds.

    Some of my progressive friends called for a “ban” on the flag, much like the German ban on the swastika. Then, just weeks later, and while we were still feigning shock, a religious cult flew a banner with a swastika over Jones Beach.

    Again, there were calls to “ban” the symbols. A local official even lead a press conference with Jewish leaders calling for such a law.

    They all seem to forget that this is America, where the bar for restricting speech is set very high. Sure, we’ve done it, strayed from the founding principles of the nation, but the results have never been good. So as reprehensible, hated-fueled and racist as symbols and speech might be, we can’t simply “ban” it.

    (Funny enough, the most frequent location of “free speech” claims these days appears to be on the internet, where countless trolls claim their right to post hateful and hurtful comments on blogs and boards. Of course, you have no right to post on a website unless you own it. Every web page has an owner, a person who pays the bills and sets the rules. And just like a home, that person decides who and what is acceptable.)


    The second set of “First Amendment” claims this summer have been connected with the Supreme Court decision granting all citizens the right to a civil marriage. Please read that again and read it carefully. The court said absolutely nothing about religious marriage. It cannot and will not. The First Amendment prevents it.

    The “Religious Freedom” activists have tried to prevent religious freedom, specifically when they convinced the State of North Carolina to criminalize religious marriages between same-sex couples. My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, was a party to the lawsuit that overturned this unconstitutional interference in church affairs.

    The “state” has never told me that I must officiate at a wedding. It has never told me who I can or cannot unite in marriage. It has never told your priest to perform a wedding for a gay couple. It never will. The court’s ruling only applies to our “civil” spaces. This trumped up conflict looks shockingly like the religious claims of those who opposed desegregation in the 1950’s, of religious claims to support hatred and discrimination in every age.

    Those who spread this fear know that it is false. They use this lie in the way the hateful have always used fear, as a means to power, as a way to manipulate the ignorant. In this, they are no better than the Nazi propagandists who spread the “blood libel,” the Medieval myth that Jews kidnapped and sacrificed Christian children.

    The “Religious Freedom” magnets now found on so many cars are the Confederate flags and swastikas of our age, symbols of division and hatred. Yet, I would not ban them, for I still believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom to practice our own religions. I pray that I will never see them curtailed.

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