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TEXAS FAITH: Religion and the right to free speech


The following ran on the Sept. 18, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

September 19, 2012

By Bill McKenzie

The situation in the Mideast and North Africa has been fluid the last week, and no one knows how exactly events will turn out. But it is clear that a clash of values is sparking at least part of the conflict.
As our editorial said last week, if not in Libya, then certainly in Egypt and Yemen, we have seen yet another clash between religion and free speech.
One side saw their faith being defamed and believed that justified a violent response. The other side believes that free speech protects even idiotic films.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of conflict. We saw it, for example, after a Danish cartoon lampooned the Prophet Muhammad. And we probably will continue to see this tension between religion and free speech.
With that in mind, here is the question for discussion:
If religion is about ultimate values, doesn’t it stand to reason that some will see it as trumping the right to free speech?...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Let me take this out of the geopolitical arena for a moment and put the issue at the place where freedom of speech intersects with social practices. If someone stands on a street corner and engages in sexual acts for a fee, that is deemed a violation of law. But if someone stands on a street corner and engages in sexual acts for a fee, with those acts filmed and included in a movie for which people buy tickets, that is not considered a violation of law. It is art.
To venture back into the political arena, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote has declared that political speech is protected, as long as someone can financially afford to say it. An action group can release television ads in campaigns, containing blatant lies and misrepresentations. But their freedom to speak that way is constitutionally protected, in the decision by the Court.
We protect freedom of speech with the first amendment to the Constitution, but we define it in many ways. Some freedoms are treated as art, in which almost anything is allowable. Some are treated as religious, in which most things remain allowable — although plural marriage and human sacrifice are not among them.
Freedom of speech is a political right, granted by the political systems that are established in various places. And it constantly is being tested, as people try to discover where the boundaries lie. Religions are part of the political process.
Therefore, in Texas, some religious activists are demonstrably successful in demanding that science curricula in schools include teachings contrary to evolution because those religious activists view evolution as contrary to their faith. They certainly have a right to cling to that belief. But do they have a right to impose it on public school teachers and students? Apparently in Texas, as well as a few other states, the answer is yes.
We should be slow to condemn people in other countries and cultures for demanding that religious convictions are superior to political rights. We permit the same sorts of things in America. We just choose different topics....