Free Exercise 2

A further thought on The Righteousness of Blasphemy.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas. Here’s why.

Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines.

Actually I’m not sure that’s quite true (unless I misunderstand what Peter Fosl means by ‘formally’ and/or ‘discourse’, which is quite possible). In the US, for one thing, the free exercise clause of the Constitution results in the fact that, in a legal sense, there is something special about religious doctrines: they have special protection. This is unfortunate, I think, but it’s a fact. How that clause should be interpreted in practice is a highly contested issue, as we saw last month in Free Exercise. Different courts decide differently, and things change as circumstances (and attitudes) change.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle.

But that doesn’t detract from the basic point – although some religious people would argue that indeed it does: that the right to free exercise of religion does indeed entail protection from ridicule, jokes, searching questions, and blasphemy. There is a large strain of thought that thinks the right to free exercise of religion requires interfering with all sorts of other rights and the free exercise of all sorts of other activities. Some people think they can’t freely exercise their religion in Arkansas if there is an atheist freely talking in Seattle. And at the moment the tide is running more in their favour than in that of the atheists.

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