Although the First Amendment to the United States Constitution consists of only 107 words, it enshrines many critically important freedoms including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of the press.
The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of more than 15,000 clergy members from a wide diversity of religions, recognizes the critical importance that the First Amendment has played in American civil life. It is, after all, the First Amendment that guarantees that all Americans can worship as they see fit, without intimidation from the government. Or so most of us believe.
Unfortunately, this view is not universally held. Consider Roy Moore, the leading candidate in this week’s run-off primary election in Alabama to determine who will be the Republican Party’s candidate in the general election for a U.S. Senate seat. Moore has made it abundantly clear that he does not believe that first amendment protections apply to Muslims. He’s stated that the United States is a “Christian nation” and claimed that Islam is “a faith that conflicts with the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
The Clergy Letter Project fully repudiates this repugnant view and embraces all religious perspectives as well as recognizing the rights of citizens to hold no religious convictions. The First Amendment does not permit our government to select which religions to value and, as a country, we are a richer society because of our diversity.
Similarly, the First Amendment protects all manner of expression as long as it does not incite violence or is not libelous or slanderous. Here, too, our government is not permitted to decide which forms of expression it finds acceptable or to punish individuals for doing or saying things it finds objectionable. The language in the First Amendment is abundantly clear on this point: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
Regardless of what you might think of a professional athlete refusing to stand when the national anthem is played, the First Amendment addresses this action: “nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.” When the president of the United States urges that an athlete be fired for displaying an act of conscience, he is acting with utter disregard for the Constitution of the United States, the sole document he has taken an oath to “preserve, protect and defend.”
Some have argued that refusing to stand for the national anthem shows contempt for those who have served and sacrificed in our nation’s armed services. An experience I had several years ago places this argument in a broader context.
At the time I was serving as vice president for academic affairs of The Evergreen State College and I was hosting a formal visit by the commander of Joint Base Lewis – McChord, the world’s fourth largest military base. After welcoming the commander, I apologized that we hadn’t invited him to campus sooner since we were neighbors, separated by only about 20 miles.
With a smile on his face, he noted that although he hadn’t previously been on campus, he had met some of our students in 2006 when some participated in a protest at the port of Olympia. Protestors were attempting to keep the Army from unloading military equipment from ships returning from Iraq with some students lying down in front of the commander’s Stryker vehicle. The moment was a bit uncomfortable so I assured him that the students didn’t earn academic credit for their actions.
The commander’s smile broadened and he said, as sincerely as I’ve ever heard anyone say anything, that one of the reasons he loved being in the military was to ensure that people could protest freely. He understood that to attempt to limit this right, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, demonstrated far more contempt for the efforts of those serving in the military than any protest ever could.
The Clergy Letter Project thus proudly stands with this individual and tens of thousands more like him who understand the nature of freedom and who are willing to work to preserve it. By speaking out and affirming the rights of all people, including professional athletes, to peacefully protest what they consider to be social ills, we are proudly upholding the basic tenets of our society.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a political argument, yet another disagreement between Democrats and Republicans. Rather this is an issue which should unite us. Simply put, we don’t get to choose when to protect our rights; they must always be protected or we’ll lose them completely.