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FIRST-PERSON: Religious speech takes a hit in Mich.

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–It seems that city leaders in Dearborn, Mich., could use a refresher course on the Bill of Rights as articulated in the United States Constitution, with special attention given to the freedom of speech granted in the first amendment.

According to a variety of reports, four men were arrested during Dearborn’s recent Arab International Festival — which takes place annually and on public streets — for distributing copies of the Gospel of John written in English and Arabic.

The men were later released and told by Dearborn police that the city had a policy stipulating that during the Arab festival no literature could be passed out within a five block radius of the event. Anyone violating the policy would be subject to arrest. (Watch video of the arrest at http://ow.ly/23o48.)

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifically states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The Supreme Court has ruled that the liberty to express oneself is quite broad and few are the types of speech that fall outside its parameters.

The Court has stipulated that among the categories of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment are obscenity, defamation, fighting words, hate speech and speech that incites illegal action.

Speech that some may consider offensive is protected by the Constitution. After all, what is offensive to one person might be music to another person’s ears. If you are going to live in the United State you will have occasions, depending on your sensitivity and standards, to be offended.

In order for the city of Dearborn to restrict the distribution of materials at any time, the literature would have to fall into one of the above categories. It is clear, at least to any reasonable individual, that the Gospel of John does not violate the standards thus far established by the Supreme Court.

If the First Amendment and the high Court’s rulings are so clear, why has the city of Dearborn established a policy that so blatantly flies in the face of the Constitution?

Dearborn is home to one of the most densely populated Muslim communities in America. It is estimated that one-third of the city’s 90,000 residents are adherents of Islam. I can only speculate, but it seems that Dearborn’s leaders adopted the policy restricting the distribution of literature in an effort to protect its Muslim population from being offended by Christian literature.

There are some adherents to Islam that have shown a propensity in the past for reacting quite strongly to perceived offenses and threats to their faith.

When “The Satanic Verses,” written by Salman Rushdie, was published in 1988 many Muslims believed the book contained blasphemous references to the prophet Muhammed. As a result, some Islamic leaders called for Rushdie to be killed.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons about Muhammed in September, 2005. Many Muslims were offended by the depictions. When newspapers in other countries carried the cartoons, Muslims around the world protested. Some demonstrations even turned violent.

More recently, the irreverent cartoon “South Park” that airs on the cable network Comedy Central censored an episode that depicted Muhammed in an unfavorable light. The network heads determined they did not want to risk offending any adherents of Islam.

In America, freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with another liberty articulated in the First Amendment — the freedom of religion. According to the Bill of Rights, the government cannot force or forbid any religion.

In the United States an individual is free to embrace the religion of his or her choice and to exercise the freedom of speech to spread its tenets. A person is also free to reject any and all religion and to even to voice objections to the pursuit of faith.

In a climate of unfettered religion and free speech there will be occasions for one to take offense. However, that is the price that Americans have long been willing to pay for the privilege to worship and speak freely.

Freedom of religion was never designed to trump freedom of speech; it was designed to complement it. America is the land of the free, the home of the brave and a country where offenses that do not violate the Constitution must be tolerated.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs