Freedoms Must Come First

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value of our society and one of the greatest rights of its citizens – a right that sets our nation apart from most nations around the world. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech … ” In its picketing of military funerals, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) exercises its right of free speech as set forth in the Constitution.

The church’s frequent demonstrations are attempts to capitalize on the pain of dying soldiers to attract attention to sickening messages of doom being brought down on the United States for a number of “crimes,” such as being anything but Protestant (and even that sometimes isn’t good enough) and being tolerant of GLBTQ persons.

In 2006, the church picketed a Marine’s funeral, toting signs that read, “Semper Fi, Semper F -gs, Coming Home in Body Bags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The picketing of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral by the church, though horrifyingly insensitive and downright appalling, is considered an exercise of free speech and must therefore be protected by the First Amendment to maintain the standard of freedom our stipulated by our Constitution.

The argument that the WBC’s tactics are horrible, while absolutely valid, is insufficient to deny them the rights of the Constitution. The very concept that the church celebrates the deaths of soldiers who died for them to be able to speak freely is quite simply disgusting and obviously wrong. Unfortunately, the concept of doing the wrong or right thing doesn’t apply to legal disputes. Though most every American would agree that the church is in the wrong when it pickets military funerals, its actions are not illegal and must be protected by the root of our nation’s laws – the Constitution. That one document has laid the basis for our nation’s framework and is the document that distinguishes us from the numerous totalitarian and oppressive governments around the world. Without the authority of the Constitution, the U.S. just wouldn’t be the U.S., so abandoning it is not an option.

On a similar note, a ruling against the church could greatly alter the course of our nation’s history by setting a precedent for future rulings. Our Founding Fathers laid down the laws of freedom of speech and religion to encourage democracy, to allow citizens to speak out and argue for what they believe in. If the Supreme Court were to rule against the actions of the church simply because they disagreed with its ideas or were enraged by its tactics, it could very easily set a precedent of denial whenever a dissenting opinion is expressed. In doing so, the Supreme Court could limit free speech in numerous other areas, such as government censoring of the press. Our nation was founded on the idea that the government should not interfere in those areas – that it is an organization that was built to protect the right of freedom all citizens have. Despite the vileness of the church’s actions, it is imperative that the Supreme Court rule in favor of it to continue to encourage the free spirit of America.

For many Americans (especially the politically-minded), this might bring up a sense of hopelessness and despair. Clearly the church is in the wrong, but the Constitution still defends it. Does that make our Constitution wrong? It does not. In order to prevent such disgusting hate groups from being successful, laws need to be made limiting their protests. Our Constitution allows for this. In Illinois, a law entitled the “Let Them Rest in Peace Act” has already been passed, making it a felony to protest within 200 feet of a funeral or memorial service.

For the public, the best course of action against the church is a classic cold shoulder. The church’s antics are desperate attempts at attention, created through the most horrifying means imaginable.

This column itself is proof that its attempts are working. The best way to combat such displays of hatred isn’t through a court ruling. It is through simply ignoring thecChurch’s frequent demonstrations.In purposely outraging people, the church gains the attention it wants from the media and American citizens. By ignoring them, we similarly ignore their senseless messages.

In a world where all Americans did the right thing, this column wouldn’t be necessary. But in that world, neither would the Constitution. Our nation is based on the fundamental idea that people are allowed to believe in different things and express that belief openly, no matter how outrageous it may be. In order to be awarded the rights of the Constitution, it’s necessary for Americans to accept all applications of those rights, even in situations they don’t agree with.

October 20, 2010