Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The First Amendment

I sometimes wonder how some people can miss the point entirely. The current controversy over the building on an Islamic center a few blocks from the World Trade Center is one of those times. 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While the first section of this First Amendment to the Constitution originally only applied to the federal government,  by the middle of the 20th century the Supreme Court had ruled that both the anti-establishment and free exercise guarantees applied to the states as well. Given the free exercise guarantee, why are people trying to block the Islamic center? Because they think that the guarantee only applies to them? Because they don't see that restricting other people's freedom means that their freedom is at risk? Because they think that their being offended by the proximity of the center to the WTC should be reason enough for the center's organizers to scrap their plans?

Near the end of the movie The American President, President Shepherd makes a telling comment about Senator Rumson's attacks on him for belonging to the American Civil Liberties Union. Shepherd said that he realized that he had been wrong to think that Rumson didn't get it. The reality was that Rumson couldn't sell it. I think that maybe that's true about those who oppose the Islamic center. Yes, they understand the First Amendment guarantees, but opposition is so much easier to sell. As President Shepherd said earlier in that scene, America is advanced citizenship. It's hard work, the hard work of defending the rights of  people who are very different from us, people who hold opinions that offend us, even people who do terrible things. It's the hard work of my realizing that those who are speaking out against the plans for the Islamic center have a right to do that and my defending that right. President Shepherd was right that it's advanced citizenship and I worry that we might not pass the course.

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