The Right Not to Be Offended?

In a 2001 Ten Commandment display case, Stefan Presser,  ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director wrote to the Commissioners of Chester County, PA, in part:

“We are respectful of the fact that a plaque bearing the Ten Commandments constitutes a sacred religious symbol to a large segment of the community,” Presser wrote in his letter to the commissioners. “However, for that very reason, the plaque may offend persons whose beliefs or religious affiliations do not recognize its significance or sacredness.It is for the very purpose of avoiding offense to those who might find themselves in the minority on such issues as the Bill of Rights mandated that the state exclude itself from such religious matters.”

As much as I love and admire the ACLU, this argument is utterly bogus. You don’t have a right to not be offended. The first amendment guarantees to all Americans the right to offend you with their words. The Supreme Court has now ruled that such displays are unconstitutional and impermissibly advance religion. Justice O’Connor enumerated several excellent reasons for their decision. Nevertheless, I still read and hear this absolutely wrong argument all the time.

The Supreme Court is right, county courthouses and other government buildings should not be displaying passages from the Judeo Christian Bible. There are two much better reasons for them to refrain.

1. Such plaques constitute a religious activity on the part of government. They are a backdoor attempt to establish Christianity as the state religion.

The Christian Right openly argues that Biblical law is somehow related to 21st Century law, that Biblical laws are foundational to modern laws. They are not. In fact modern law overturns most Biblical laws.

The Christian Right hopes to legalize an illegal activity by calling it something else. In the 2001 case Commissioners’ Chairman Colin Hanna recited the standard party line still used widely today: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to secure, for all Americans, the freedom of religious expression,” Hanna said.”Their interpretations, instead, seek to stifle the very right it seeks to secure.”

So with a little magic pixie dust “establishing a religion” becomes “free speech.” Very clever. The lines can easily be delivered with a little misty eyed gaze and a catch in the throat.

2. Displaying religious messages in government buildings constitutes an abuse of power.

The argument that removing Bible verses stifles free speech is predicated on the false idea that majority rules in everything. It does not. The majority doesn’t get to decide what religious texts you read or don’t read. The majority does not get to vote on your religion for you. Those decisions you must make alone. Therefore government “speech” is necessarily hampered in this arena. This prevents abuse of power and tyranny of the majority.

I don’t find the 10 commandments to be particularly offensive. Some of the commandments are good advice. The truth is, if I want to read them, I can always open the Bible. I don’t need the government to help me out with that chore.

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