Religious Liberty, Free Speech Necessary Pre-Conditions for Great American Experiment

05/20/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

co-authored by Annette Lamoreaux

We have watched with dread and sadness events unfolding in Garland, not only because American values are being invoked in the name of bigotry, but also because our Muslim neighbors are paying the price for a situation not of their making.

Now that ISIS has opportunistically taken credit for the shootings, it's harder still to make sense of what happened. The two shooters -- the only people who actually know why they did it -- are dead.

But even as the law enforcement investigation continues, our commitment to free speech, to religious liberty, and most importantly to community should never waiver.

It is certain that the local Muslim community carries none of the blame for Sunday's outcome. In fact, this community's response to both the plans for the event and the attack was restrained and dignified, showing by example what a real commitment to the principle of free speech looks like.

Leading up to the event, area Muslims had urged their allies and followers to simply ignore the event, and most did so -- there weren't even protesters outside the contest. And in the aftermath, Muslims across the country denounced the attack, reminding us all that violence is not part of their religion.

Garland itself looks much like the rest of Texas: young and culturally and racially mixed. Of the 235,000 people who live there, just over 70 percent of them are under the age of 50. Whites make up about 36 percent of the population, while Hispanics are 37 percent and Blacks are 14 percent. A number of ethnic groups make up the Garland population, including a sizable Vietnamese population. The area's state representative is a Chinese American, Angie Chen Buton.

Dallas area cities and suburbs tend to be religious with Catholics, Baptists and Methodists comprising nearly 40 percent of the religious adherents. The other 60 percent worship in the temples and mosques and churches of a wide variety of religions from Latter Day Saints to Assemblies of God, to Judaism, to Calvinism to Church of Christ to Islam.

This is the face of Texas. This is us.

Although Pamela Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative are fond of invoking the First Amendment to silence critics, the truth is that their free speech rights are simply not the issue. Our First Amendment protects Geller and her ilk from government censorship of speech, no matter how noxious and reprehensible.

But nothing in the First Amendment requires Texans to refrain from pointing the finger at the American Freedom Defense Initiative, blaming them for trying to provoke a violent response and deliberately engaging in rhetoric that demonizes Muslims and the Islamic religion. To the contrary, because government cannot censor, we must engage to defend our values.

The worst outcome would be to let outside provocateurs -- from either side -- harm what has been a successful integration of large numbers of religious minorities into our community, creating fissures.

Religious liberty and free speech are the necessary pre-conditions for this great American experiment. They alone are not sufficient. Civility and respect for the equality of our neighbors are also essential to a democratic and vibrant society.

Throughout our history, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims have all been victims of fear and discrimination. In the end, tolerance and fairness generally have prevailed. So should it here.

There should be no tension between free speech and religious liberty. The ACLU has a long history of defending free speech and the rights of all religious denominations -- from majority faiths to unpopular religions -- to establish places of worship, to protect Americans' right to pray or to choose not to pray. It is the American way, as George Washington said, "which gives bigotry no sanction."

Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A & M University School of Law in Ft. Worth. Lamoreaux is an attorney in private practice in Houston. Both are members of the board of directors of the ACLU of Texas; Lamoreaux is Vice President-Legal.