Human decency is sacrificed when religion, free speech clash

We Americans like to sound off. It’s as natural to us as breathing. Thus, the most cherished of rights protected under the Constitution is the freedom of speech in the First Amendment — and not, as some would have us believe, the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment.

So important to the American way of life is the ability to speak one’s mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has extended it to flag burning and other activities that sometimes don’t seem related. But some clearly obnoxious and tasteless self-expressions clearly tax our tolerance and leave us wondering just how far the privilege goes.

We know that protected speech doesn’t extend infinitely. We have a responsibility not to engage in verbal assaults. Hate speech that can bring about violence fits in this category, and more and more has become an object of legislative attention.
Perhaps the most distasteful example of hate speech is aimed at the gay and lesbian community and is being carried out by a family that claims it are doing so in the name of Christianity. The Phelps family — as many of you already know — run a tiny Baptist church in Topeka, Kan., from which they regularly sally forth to commit acts that challenge the very teachings they profess to uphold.

There are few words that can describe just how despicable these people really are under the leadership of Fred Phelps, an octogenarian lawyer, minister and all-around troublemaker whose rabidity would make Kansas’ John Brown wince. While his taunts aimed at homosexuality are jarring — causing him and his followers to be banned in the United Kingdom — they almost pale in the hatefulness of the family’s most publicized act: disrupting the funerals of American service members killed in action. According to the Phelps clan, God hates not only gays but also soldiers and presumably their families, and has assigned the Phelps clan to carry out his work.

Fortunately, some steps have been taken to remove the Phelps demonstrations a distance away from where grief-stricken mothers, fathers and spouses are honoring their loved ones. In 2006, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, and then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a law establishing a 150-feet no-picket zone around funerals in 2007.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will decide whether these indescribable violations of human decency carried out by the family are protected by the Constitution, which a U.S. appeals court said is the case.

Aside from the basic repugnance of the Phelps family’s activity, how could it be anything but an unwarranted intrusion on the most painful moment in the lives of mothers and fathers? Any decision otherwise by the court would seem an almost tragic disconnect with the rules of civilization. Is that too over-the-top?

As a journalist, the First Amendment has been the guiding light throughout my career. The defense of its freedoms has been a constant aim. At times, it seems we must accept that free speech comes in many forms whether we like it or not. But we must also understand there are boundaries to this freedom that shouldn’t be crossed. Whatever the court decides will become the law. We only hope we can live with it.

Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

NEPOp Edsop-edOpinion

Just Posted

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led a late-game comeback against the Packers, but San Francisco lost, 30-28, on a late field goal. (Courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)
The Packers beat the Niners in a heartbreaker: Don’t panic

San Francisco is no better and no worse than you thought they were.

Dominion Voting Systems, a Denver-based vendor, is under contract to supply voting machines for elections in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/Examiner file)
Is San Francisco’s elections director impeding voting machine progress?

Open source technology could break up existing monopoly

Health experts praised Salesforce for keeping its Dreamforce conference at Moscone Center outdoors and on a small scale. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Happy birthday, Marc Benioff. Your company did the right thing

Salesforce kept Dreamforce small, which made all kinds of sense

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers proved to be too much for the Niners in a Week 3 loss to Green Bay. It was San Francisco’s home opener for the 2021 season. (Courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers.)
Week 3 NFL roundup: Packers victory over 49ers caps off a stellar Sunday

By Tyler Dunne New York Times Here’s the Week 3 roundup of… Continue reading

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, pictured with Rose Pak in 2014, says the late Chinatown activist was “helping to guide the community away from the divisions, politically.”
Willie and Rose: How an alliance for the ages shaped SF

How the Mayor and Chinatown activist shaped San Francisco, then and now

Most Read