The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Faith & Freedom of Speech

I’ve come across a few items lately that have me rethinking free speech and religious expression in some contexts. while I’m not sure what I think of it all. Like Via Preemptive Karma, I learned about a christian group in Chicago that filed suit after being kicked off the Navy Pier, where they were preaching and handing our fliers, after being told they would have to do their preaching in the designated free speech zone.

A Philadelphia-based evangelical Christian organization filed suit in federal court Tuesday seeking an emergency restraining order to allow them to preach and hand out their literature at Navy Pier.

The plaintiffs are five members of the group Repent America, which, according to the suit, seeks “to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square.”

… According to the suit, the plaintiffs were doing just this on Saturday, July 15, at Navy Pier, when a police officer told them “they must leave or be arrested. Another officer informed plaintiffs that they must stand in designated ‘free speech zones.'”

On Sunday, the plaintiffs returned to Navy Pier, and were told they could hold their demonstration across the street from the Pier. They were then told they could not stay in the park across from Navy Pier and were arrested, the suit says. The suit alleges that following their arrest, a police officer told one of the plaintiffs, as he was picking up his box of “gospel tracts,” to “get this s**t our [sic] of here. Nobody wants to hear your bulls**t.”

While I’m sure I probably wouldn’t want to hear their bullshit either if I happened to be around the Navy Pier, now that free speech zones are being used to curtail religious speech as as well as political speech maybe something will finally be done about them. After all, securing Repent America’s right to free speech ensures the same right for groups that want to counter them.

SoI tend to agree with Becky that the ACLU should take up this case as a matter of freedom of speech. No word on whether the ACLU of Illinois has taken up the case, but it’s one they should get involved in given who else the ACLU is defending right now.

A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

… In the lawsuit, the ACLU says the Missouri law tries to limit protesters’ free speech based on the content of their message. It is asking the court to declare the ban unconstitutional and to issue an injunction to keep it from being enforced, which would allow the group to resume picketing.

As odious as Phelps and family are to me, I can appreciate the reasons for the ACLU taking up the case. However, though it’s probably not the aim of the ACLU, I think taking up the Repent America case would probably earn them a point or to with right wingers who claim the organization never comes to the defense of religious speech. Nearly everyone is offended by the Phelps’ protests at soldiers funerals (more offended, of course, than most were by the same protests at the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS).

Like I mentioned earlier, cases like these have me rethinking some things, in particular my (what might be called “knee jerk”) reaction to some religious expression. What brought it to mind was an article I read this morning about church services held in Pennsylvania public parks. I’d already started mentally drafting a post titled “Sunday in the Park with God” when I started reconsidering.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, 42 state, national and private parks in Pennsylvania hold nondenominational Christian worship services. It is the only state with such a program, said the Rev. Paul L. Herring of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. The chaplains come from local towns and faraway states, as do the worshipers, mostly Protestants. Last year, 18,000 people attended services in Pennsylvania parks.

… Although the services are held on state land, the chaplaincy program is financed with private money from local churches and denominational bodies. The program began 46 years ago when the Parks Department approached the Pennsylvania Council of Churches because many denominations wanted to preach and evangelize in the parks.

The council developed a program in which the chaplains conduct nondenominational worship services, and they are prohibited from proselytizing, said Mr. Herring, the council’s coordinator of leisure ministries.

Over the years, some people have objected to the religious services being held on public lands, but there has never been a formal complaint or organized opposition, said Mr. Herring’s administrative assistant, Audrey Crawford.

Now, I’ll admit my initial reaction was along the lines of “somebody should put a stop to this.” But I’ve also just finished reading Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, by Michelle Goldberg, and I recalled something she wrote towards the end of the book how progressive and organizations like the ACLU need to support freedom of religious expression, and lighten up on objections to some religious expression like the creches and nativity scenes that appear at city halls and public squares during the holidays, while simultaneously fighting attempts to dismantle the republic and replace it with a theocratic system run according to a specific interpretation of christianity.

It occurred to me as I read that the Pennsylvania program is supported with private money from churches, and that they’re forbidden from proselytizing in the park. Though I wonder, now, if any of the money the churches contribute come from the president’s oversight-free faith-based initiative. And I wonder just how they keep from proselytizing since it would seem to be a major part of a religious service to call for others to join the faith community, much like the “altar calls” common in most baptist churches.

If what’s in the article holds true, then I guess this is one religious expression that can be left alone. And perhaps it also creates the possibility of other faiths seeking access to use the parks in a similar fashion. In the last chapter of her book, Goldberg also suggests that the answer to religious displays and expressions that make religious minorities feel left out isn’t less religious expression but more of it, in the form of those minorities seeking equal access to the public square. Of course, the likelihood of that is happening on any large scale is low considering that non-christians account for 4% of the U.S. population. Chances are in many places there won’t be non-christian groups with the resources to fund a program like the one in Pennsylvania.

I’m still sorting all of this out in my head, but it occurs to me that there are some conditions under which progressives should support religious expression in the public square, and under which doing so forwards progressive goals and aims.

Just don’t ask me to join anybody for Sunday in the park with god. OK?


  1. And I wonder just how they keep from proselytizing since it would seem to be a major part of a religious service to call for others to join the faith community, much like the “altar calls” common in most baptist churches.

    I’ve got plenty of experience with church services, but little that fits that description. The religious leaders I have cherished and respected have challenged me to consider my inner thought/prayer life. They’ve told parables which described their own lives and the lives of people they’ve known and loved, leaving me to draw my own lessons. They have asked open-ended questions and issued open-minded challenges. Most of all, they’ve made examples of themselves as servants and students, aware of the deepest needs of their neighbors, frustrated and sometimes weary about not being able to do more.

    In that context, it certainly seems possible to me that a non-denominational service could be thoughtful and compelling without evangelizing or demeaning others.

    I worry, though, that such examples are becoming increasingly rare.

  2. There is a difference between a church (or any other organization) reserving a public park for an event like a service for people that choose to take part in the event – and a hate fest aimed at passersby. I think the right to religious freedom has been taken a little too far. No rights are absolute and simply claiming that harassment, discrimination, and abuse are constitutionally protected because I claim my religion says so is ridiculous

  3. Pingback: My Community Place