Discussion Question: Did the Supreme Court Get it Right with Snyder v. Phelps?
The Supreme Court recently ruled 8 to 1 that members of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church are entitled to stage their controversial antigay protests even when they cause substantial injury to family members and others attending the funeral of a loved one.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating, "What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous."
Do you agree with lone dissenter Justice Samuel Alito statement that "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," or did the Supreme Court get it right?
The High Court's free speech protection ruling in Snyder v. Phelps was indicative of the fact that the prevailing wisdom of collective common sense is alive and well. But by default it also serves as a warning to any individual or group who would test the limits of future common sense rulings.
Take for example the proposed Muslim Cultural Center near Ground Zero. The parallel to the political incorrectness of the Baptist pastor and his congregation -- and their protected right to protest military funerals -- seems pretty clear in that cultural and political sensibilities, over time, tend to usually prevail.
Large percentages on both the religious and political left and right were disgusted with the Baptist groups' lack of cultural sensibility and decency, and the high court's decision to protect such abhorrent behavior in the name of freedom of religious and political expression. The Court was right, but public sentiment is far more powerful given time and just the right political and cultural context.
Thus, the ultimate question worth asking is if the proposed Muslim Cultural Center moves forward and is challenged, moving all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, will the High Court demonstrate the same integrity in upholding the free exercise of religion -- another vitally important constitutional guarantee -- when the prevailing political and cultural winds stand up and roar like wild beasts against it?
That will be the real test. And it may come sooner rather than later -- if not with the Muslim Cultural Center proposal then with something similar involving a religious minority, however legitimate, falling prey to similar political and cultural scrutiny. When the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom falls, all other constitutional guarantees will begin to unravel.
Author: Gregory W. Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.