Category Archives: Politics

Which First Amendment?

The Obama administration ruled on a policy. And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the conservative talk-shows are lit up with (feigned?) outrage over what is being construed as a Constitutional travesty. The past few years have shown us that there is perhaps nothing the President can do without drawing fire. Tell kids to work hard and stay in school? Indoctrination!  Stoop down to shake the hand of a shorter king? Treason! Order Dijon mustard on a sandwich? Too French. Go home to see family for Christmas? Waste of taxpayer money.

Despite all the crying wolf (and deer and bird and caterpillar), I can at least see where the Religious Right are coming from this time. Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health & Human Resources has clarified that all employers receiving federal money must comply with the mandate in a duly passed law that employees be provided with insurance that covers women’s health services and products, including birth control pills. Contraception control of any kind is prohibited by the Catholic Church, so naturally they are claiming discrimination.  There is an exception carved out for strictly religious organizations, such as individual churches, but not to large institutions like hospitals and colleges, both of which benefit substantially from federal money in the form of Medicare or Student Loans and grants.

When an organization has long gotten its way, it is understandable that it will feel slighted when asked to change. In response to the requirement, Catholic Church officials essentially making two arguments: First, they are claiming that this has never been the case in the past. Second and more interestingly, they are claiming that this is not only discrimination, but a violation of the First Amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution. The first point is easily dismissed. Argumentum ad antiquitam (Appeal to Tradition) is a logical fallacy. Defending a policy simply because it has always been the policy is a logical fallacy. Despite the sentimental appeal of such arguments, they are not a reasonable justification for passing laws or ignoring mandates. The second, I think, derives from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Anyone with strong religious convictions likes to think that the First Amendment is primarily about free speech and freedom to practice religion. And most of us are grateful for that part. There is simply nothing quite like the U.S. protection of speech and religion anywhere else in the world. A person really can say almost anything, no matter how vile, discriminatory, critical, or just plain weird through any number of media and be protected on the federal level. Persons can also practice any religion, whether it be one of the “big five” of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or one for a few or one practitioners, or, my favorite, no religion at all. Simply put, the government cannot prevent anyone from practicing his or her own religion. This is the argument on which the Catholic position lies.

But there is another part of the Amendment; one that prohibits establishment of a state religion, which has been determined to also extend to favoring one religion or another. This is the part where the Catholic argument fails. Indeed, the government cannot prevent anyone from going to Mass, praying the Rosary, writing religious songs, or even attempting to convert others. The government also must allow Muslims to build mosques and pray as freely as Christians do, and accommodate religious attire to the maximum extent possible. Sometimes this goes so far as to allowing Sikhs to carry ceremonial daggers into places where weapons would otherwise be prohibited.

These actions all have something in common—they are positive expresses of faith, by individuals or groups. The protections of religious actions follow necessarily from the freedom of speech. However, a religious policy designed to prevent legal behavior or established rights for religious and only religious reasons, cannot be protected without running afoul of the First Amendment. Catholic Hospitals and Universities employ people of all faiths and genders—people who are guaranteed to have the same options for healthcare as anyone else. The argument against the Administration is legally and logically backwards. Discrimination lies in telling non-Catholics that they must give up rights that the Church does not acknowledge. One cannot expect to use taxpayer money to pay the bills on one hand while working against the larger citizenry on the other.

I think the Administration has a winning argument based on a whole, rather than selective reading of the Constitution. That does not mean it has a winning political argument. Already, there is talk of finding a compromise or amending the policy so as not to offend conservatives. It is an election year after all.

What do you think? Who is discriminating against whom here? Does the Catholic Church have a winning argument from a Constitutional, rather than political point of view? Should the President stick by a sound policy or would it be better to simply pick another hill to die on?

How Long and How Far?

There are few things more frustrating than individuals who advocate a suspension of liberty in order to preserve it. Yet time and time again, leaders do not merely get away with advocating such nonsense but actually earn admiration for it. Most recently, leaders of the right such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have given impassioned arguments against the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, their arguments have been strong on emotion and weak on facts. Such tactics are no longer surprising in this country, but they are nonetheless disappointing. History is full of attempts to scapegoat the powerless or unpopular. From witch hunts and inquisitions of old to discrimination of immigrants in the United States ranging from Italians to Irish at the turn of the 20th century on through Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment camps, the Red Scare, and now the Muslim-American community. It is obvious in retrospect that those who advocate or actively participate in discrimination were on the wrong side of history, but it is sometimes more difficult to recognize consequences of wrongful attitudes in the midst of populist uproar. However, once the attitude has been recognized and pointed out, it is immoral to continue down the same path as generations past, knowing where it leads.

The objections to the Cordoba Initiative’s project to build a new community center tend to rest on the notion that there is something inherently offensive and deliberately provocative about the plans. It is often said that the planned location, which is two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center is too close and therefore distasteful. It is also sometimes argued that the location would be acceptable had more time passed since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It is also implied that Cordoba has some kind of nefarious intent for its building. These arguments are as disingenuous as they are vague. How long should Cordoba wait or how far away must they build in order to satisfy their critics? So two blocks is too close—how about 10? 20? Two miles? The same borough? City? County? How many years? One? Five? Fifteen? The acceptable distance in time or space is never stated, probably because it does not exist in the mind of opponents. Similar projects as far away as Tennessee have come under fire, so I doubt the site really has anything to do with it. Cordoba has a track record of providing a moderate voice that condemns extremism and fosters interfaith dialogue.

However, let us take the objection at face value and examine possible motivations for choosing the proposed site. It could be that the location is intended to be a monument to the attackers, demonstrating that Islam somehow has achieved victory in one of the Great Satan’s former strongholds. But for that to be case, one would expect that the people behind the initiative are going out of their way to meet at a site that is far from their normal gathering place. This is not the case. The Imam behind the project has been leading a congregation in the area for 27 years. They were meeting ten blocks away from the World Trade Center long before the attacks took place, and they have remained in the area since. They are as much a part of the area as any other business or organization. One might say that they were twice victims. First, their kin were lost, their homes, stores and houses of worship suffered from damage and debris just like everyone else. Then, they were blamed for somehow contributing or having an affiliation with the terrorists, despite being as different in values, faith and practice from Al-Qaeda as Methodists or Catholics. One could understand a momentary lapse of judgment under such extreme conditions, but as the protests show, it is still going on ten years later.

Which brings us to the point that it perhaps it is too soon to build in lower Manhattan. Applied consistently, this argument is more philosophical than legal or moral. A movement to turn the entire neighborhood into a memorial park of some sort in order to honor the lives and memories of the victims might warrant some consideration. I’ve pointed out in the past that Americans, as a people, have all but forgotten how to mourn. However, there is little precedent, past or present for memorials, nor have there been serious efforts in this regard in Manhattan. Every nation has thousands of former crime scenes and battle sites, and nearly all of them are cleaned up and put back to commercial or residential use. In the case of Cordoba, the objections are not rooted in preservation, but prevention. People do not want a particular group to build a particular kind of facility, but they have not taken the effort to examine the source of their prejudice. It is not fair, logical or even practical to suspect millions of Americans of terrorist ties on the basis of their religion and heritage. We instinctively recognize this when terrorists look and dress like us. We know that the abortion clinic bomber or mafia boss is not representative of his faith or race. Yet, somehow, people that are different are mentally blended and classified as “other.” There is an area where the Golden Rule is sorely needed. Were the shoe on the other foot, would the Palins and Gingriches of the world really want people from a thousand miles away accusing them of terrorist associations because a handful of White Christians committed an atrocity?

The final objection commonly raised is that not Cordoba is something other than the peaceful organization it claims to be. The talking heads continue to imply that something untoward is going on, but their accusations do not pass logical muster. A secret, shadowy group does not go around building a multi-story facility in a conspicuous location. The implication completely ignores the role and judgment of local authorities, which are otherwise the heroes of the Right. Constructing a new building in a major city is no small undertaking. The property must be procured, and the plans approved by zoning boards, commissions studying safety, construction and impact on the area. Throughout this entire process, the government officials of New York City the ones who are most likely to have first-hand knowledge of the individuals behind the project, have approved the undertaking at every step along the way. The planned building is neither not ostentatious or out of place in any way. It is not as if there will be a towering minaret that would be more at home in Medina than Manhattan. It is a simple community center, complete with a museum, library, and swimming pool. This will certainly be an aesthetic improvement over the damaged building that currently occupies the site. If someone has genuine information to back their assertions, it would be more prudent to bring their evidence before law enforcement and intelligence officials than a talk show audience. If there is no evidence, then it is not the motivations of Cordoba that deserve suspicion. Frankly, I have far more reason to suspect the integrity of those who would impugn the character of their fellow citizens for political points than I do of people that have been living peaceful, quiet lives despite unwarranted oppression and discrimination.

It seems to me that the intended purpose of terrorism is the instilment of fear—fear that is profound enough to fundamentally alter behavior and values. By that standard, Al Qaeda seems to be making progress in America even as they are losing on the battlefield overseas. They seem to have an entire political movement playing right into their hands, spreading more fear, hate and discrimination that their own numbers would allow. Our officials have justified torture, warrantless wire-tapping and indefinite detention without charges. A thriving, peaceful community is coming under suspicion for sharing nothing more than similar ethnicity to our enemies. This is disheartening indeed. Much is said about the “shadow of ground zero,” but what of the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? It is bad enough to lose buildings and lives, do we really need to hand over our values as well?