politics, philosophy, and other lonely musings
Bullying, Religious Liberty, and Free Speech
Recently, there has been some disagreements (perhaps best highlighted in this post) over anti-bullying legislation–oftentimes in response to bullying of children and adolescents who are LGBT, or perceived to be LGBT by others. Specifically, over the inclusion of sections or amendments to the legislation that exempt “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” from the proscription of speech that would be considered bullying. Some argue that the exemption is doing nothing more than ensuring that religious freedom and free speech, as protected under the First Amendment, are being preserved. However, others counter that such exemptions are little more than a smokescreen for members of conservative religious to continue in the same vein of bullying behaviour that led to the need for such legislation in the first place.
Considering that opposing religious dogma–which seemingly underlies the vast majority of anti-LGBT sentiment–is part of the secular/atheist movement, I find that many atheists consider such legislation an important step forward. Not surprisingly, many fall on the side of opposing the “religious belief/moral conviction” exemptions. That distinction can lead to some further conflicts, as we’ll see below.
Many atheists (including myself at various times in the past) commonly distinguish between criticism of an individual and criticism of ideas and institutions. The difference claimed is that criticism of ideas and institutions constitutes the very essence of free speech, whereas personal criticism is oftentimes little more than attacks on the target’s character or person.
In much the same way, those that support the “religious belief/moral conviction” exemptions to anti-bullying legislation argue they aren’t, by stating their religious beliefs and moral convictions engaging in personal attacks at all. They aren’t criticizing the individual, but the “institution” of homosexuality, and to silence it is an obvious assault on free speech and religious freedom.
I think that last bit is worth thinking about. One could easily argue that homosexuality isn’t an “institution” really; it is a deep part of an individual’s personal identity. It is intrinsically part of who they are, and can extend to cover their friends, culture, even preferred gathering places for events and entertainment.
It bears some striking similarities to religion in this way, though. Religion may be something that one can change, but undergoing a dramatic shift in religious identity (or transitioning to an atheistic perspective) could easily be just as traumatic as “coming out” for an LGBT individual. There’s a number of parallels between the two.
Further, to bring this back to the atheist/secular movement, one could make an argument that–as many atheists commonly do–atheism is not a religious belief, and therefore is not covered under the exemption, thereby rendering speech about it bullying under certain circumstances. Conversely, religious students could plausibly claim that criticism of non-believers is criticism of an “institution,” not of the individual: saying people who don’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour are going to burn in hell is not bullying, it is merely expressing a “sincerely held religious belief and/or moral conviction.”
The real question is how do we conceive of atheism, homosexuality, and religion? Can we separate homosexuality the institution from the individual who is LGBT? How about religion; can we separate the Catholic Church from the individual who is Catholic? Finally, what about non-belief? Can we separate the institution of the atheist movement from the individual who strongly identifies with that movement? Further, can we do one or two of those, while not bothering with the other? I feel that it’s a double standard unless you either remove the exemptions entirely (which may not be constitutional) or let the exemptions cover as wide a swath as possible (which some find distasteful).
Even though theism and atheism are different from sexual orientation/preference and such in that the latter is not a choice, still I find all three to be, in some fashion or another, very important parts of our personal identities. Coming out of the closet as an atheist can be as or more traumatic than coming out as LGBT; it all depends on each individual’s circumstances and those of his or her immediate family, friends and community. Reconverting to religion is probably less traumatic than deconverting, but it still is a very significant life event and important to the personal growth and development of the individual. Religion and sexuality are significant parts of each of us are, and both have played very important roles in the development of our civilizations, moral codes, governments, and in human history generally. In too many cases, I find that attempting to “separate the institution from the individual” is either doomed to failure, or a post hoc justification for undue criticism.
As for me, I would fall on the side of cautiously supporting such exemptions. Not only is the First Amendment–in my opinion–by far the most important part of the Bill of Rights, the principle that should rule free speech is the one of least resistance. America has, over the decades and centuries, made our choice and it has consistently been that of “the more speech, the better.” Chief Justice John Roberts put it quite eloquently at the end of his majority opinion in Snyder v. Phelps (the case upholding Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest funerals, and be free from tort liability): “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.”
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