The First Amendment, beta version

By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Newt Gingrich is on record as saying: There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

I am not taking this out of context, as can be seen at Note that Mr. Gingrich is not arguing against the wisdom or the propriety of the Cordoba Center. What he says is that American citizens of Saudi origin should not enjoy freedom of religion – which has always included freedom to erect religious centers.

This reasoning will appear to some to be common sense, but it ignores the historical context in which our constitutional right to free exercise of religion developed. When the Founding Fathers penned the First Amendment with its prohibition against impeding the free exercise of religion, they did so with the full awareness that there was hardly a square foot on planet Earth where people had freedom to worship as they chose without being persecuted or marginalized. The assumption behind the First Amendment was that it didn’t matter what other countries did. We Americans were going to celebrate freedom of conscience as a testimony to other nations and challenge them to catch up with us. The Fathers consciously accepted, to use Mr. Gingrich’s phrase, a “double standard.”

This novel idea of Mr. Gingrich’s would reverse over 200 years of history. From now on, apparently, we would offer freedom of religion to American citizens who are Muslims if and when there is religious freedom in the country of origin of those citizens. Gingrich avoids this tension by “reminding” us that those people who wish to build mosques in Manhattan are really radical Islamists and not good Americans. They must be radical, or else why would they be doing something so unpopular? To quote: “Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia but others use non-violent methods—a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence.” So, it’s the quiet ones you really have to watch out for!

If the Cordoba people are terrorists, then please, arrest them immediately! If not, then the law’s the law.

“We’ll grant religious liberty to your people in our land as soon as you grant it to our people in yours!” says Mr. Gingrich. Well, if we had followed this tit-for-tat policy consistently, we would have denied religious freedom to just about every settler and immigrant in America since the very beginning, including my ancestors and probably yours. Even England denied full religious and political rights to Jews, Roman Catholics, and Nonconformists for much of the history of America. So just switch out the terms of Mr. Gingrich’s statement and see how it would have sounded, say, 150 years ago: “There should be no Anglican (Episcopalian) church in New York so long as Jews, Catholics and Nonconformists do not have equal footing with Anglicans in England.”

This is pseudo-logic. It rings hollow when it comes from a man who believes in the strict construction of the Constitution.

Addendum. In to attempt to be even-handed about the First Amendment, let me say: in 2010, Pastor Terry Jones did have the constitutional right to burn the Koran, as I think any court would agree. This is why he wasn’t arrested. This is why they didn’t send in the National Guard, as some Americans suggested should have been. And yes, this is why Gen. Petraeus, Secretary Gates and other powerful people tried to persuade him to desist. Thank heaven for the First Amendment, despite what foolish things people do with it.

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