G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” It’s a quote that might strike Americans as odd; we tend to have robust and frank discussions about our religious beliefs on a regular basis. But Chesterton wasn’t American, he was a Briton. The vast gulf between our two nations’ ideas of religious liberty was beautifully demonstrated in two recent incidents. In both instances, state officials were confronted with unpopular religious speech. But how the United Kingdom legal system acted, and how the United States reacted, demonstrated how two nations can both embrace the notion of religious liberty, but act in radically different manners.
The annual Wimbledon Tennis Championship was held this year over a two week period in late June and early July. American street pastor Tony Miano decided to take advantage of the huge crowds in London’s Wimbledon district to partake in some evangelism. Miano set up shop out of front of the stadium on July 1, preaching on chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians. His message: human beings need to renounce sexual immorality, including masturbation, adultery, premarital sex, and homosexuality. At one point, he denounced those who focus solely on homosexuality while ignoring their own sexual sins.
Miano was soon approached by London police alerted by an offended witness. He was asked about the content of his sermon, and admitted that he had been preaching against homosexuality. He was promptly arrested under section 5 of the Public Order Act, which forbids using “insulting words or behaviour” in public. During questioning, Miano recalls that he was asked “if I believe homosexuality is a sin… what portion of the Bible I was reading… if a homosexual was hungry and walked up to me, would I give them something to eat.”
Video of the incident can be seen here (the arrest occurs about 25 minutes in). Miano was eventually released without charges brought against him, but not before being fingerprinted, photographed, and having a DNA sample taken. The Christian Institute notes that Miano’s case is hardly a unique one, and that several individuals have been arrested for nothing more than voicing unpopular and “insulting” views in public.
Meanwhile in the United States, a petition on WhiteHouse.gov to label the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group has reached over 360,000 signatures. The Westboro Baptist Church is known for hateful protests at military funerals, funerals of AIDS victims, and pretty much any other location no decent person would ever protest at. Among their favorite slogans: “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for Hurricane Katrina/ Sandy Hook,” etc. With even the KKK protesting against them, it’s fair to say the WBC is the single-most hated group in America.
The White House responded, as anyone would, that they were disgusted by the WBC’s actions. But they declined to label them as a hate group. “[A]s a matter of practice,” they noted, “[T]he federal government doesn’t maintain a list of hate groups.” The Supreme Court has also in the past struck down attempts to restrict the Westboro Baptist Church’s activities. In Snyder v. Phelps, the Court ruled 8-1 that the Church could not be kept from picketing military funerals by the state. Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority wrote a powerful defence of free expression:
Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.
There is a clear disagreement between our two countries about how the government should treat offensive religious speech. Even if you disagree with his stance or posturing, the Miano case reveals the folly of the United Kingdom’s way of doing things. Under the sense of religious liberty Chesterton commented on, religion is an entirely private affair and attempts to bring it into the public square are just plain rude. Legitimate religious expression can only occur so long as nobody’s feelings are hurt and due homage is paid to politically correct cultural assumptions. What is and isn’t allowed doesn’t depend on the content of speech or the intentions of the preacher, but the subjective visceral reactions of his audience. Every heckler gets a veto.
Christians should not be tempted to silence religious expression we consider heinous or entirely without merit. Stifling the undeniably evil religious expression of the WBC only opens the door to imposing society’s beliefs on all religious individuals. Christians are called to question and criticize deep-seated cultural attitudes that do not accord with the teachings of Christ. No matter how pleasant and cordial we act, many will be offended simply by the ideas we hold.
Take the majority ruling of Windsor, where Justice Kennedy declared that only a “bare… desire to harm” could possibly justify opposition to gay marriage. In one sentence, Kennedy stigmatized every Christian denomination with reservations about gay marriage. The Catholic Church may have declared John Paul II a saint this week, but Justice Kennedy already declared him a bigot.
Attacks like this will continue, as Christians address society’s views on life, sexuality, consumerism, ethics, and all sorts of divisive issues. In our zeal to denounce the most hateful among us, we must not set a standard that could one day be used as it is in the United Kingdom: to drive unpopular religious expression out of the public square.