On its birthday and every day, First Amendment matters

Saturday, December 15, 2007

As 2007 draws to a close, the meaning and application of a 216-year-old amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting our basic liberties are issues as contentious as ever.

From presidential politics to local classrooms to our television screens, as a nation we are arguing ever more over the fine points of the simple 45 words of the First Amendment, adopted Dec. 15, 1791, protecting freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.


Cases in point:



  • In Tennessee, a federal court case raises questions on how far schools can go in providing religious groups — in this case, a group of Christian parents — access to school resources and students. The issue: When does such permission turn into proselytizing for a particular faith? 


  • In Washington, D.C., congressional action is pending on bills to provide some protection in federal courts for reporters who decline to reveal news sources, and provide for more public access to federal records. The issue: When does the public’s right — and need — to know what its government is doing override a government’s decision about secrecy? 


  • In Florida, state officials are revising standards and methods of discussing evolution in public schools. The issue, here and nationwide: Whether to include or ignore creationism and intelligent design. 


  • In Wisconsin, authorities declined to press charges against a teacher for posting an online comment sarcastically praising the Columbine High School killers. The issue: When, if ever, does simply offensive speech lose free-speech protection? 


  • In Missouri, state officials and a family group in Kansas that has organized as the Westboro Baptist Church are asking a federal judge to decide if the state can ban the group’s protests at soldiers’ funerals. The issue: Can personal privacy override the right to speak freely in public without government interference? 


    The list goes on, from proposed bans on saggy pants and the “n-word” to government funding of prison ministries, from the legality of Christmas displays in the public square to the content of student speech, school plays and license plates.
    If any one element of the First Amendment is likely to dominate public attention in 2008, it’s the volatile first 16 words — the “establishment” and “free exercise” religion clauses. Beyond local and state battles, that freedom already is front-and-center in presidential politics.
    On Dec. 6, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared the Mormon church would not control his presidency. But then he went on to decry those “intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism,” which critics decried as joining in a civic culture war between believers and non-believers. Rival Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has run television ads describing himself as a “Christian leader” and stating that his “faith doesn’t just influence me, it really defines me.”
    And in an online interview this year, Sen. John McCain drew quick criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups when he said he agreed with the 55% of Americans who believe the Constitution established the country as a Christian nation. He added that he held that belief because the nation’s founders were guided by Judeo-Christian values.
    The 55% figure was one of the findings in the 2007 First Amendment Center State of the First Amendment national survey, which also reported that 28% of Americans believe freedom of religion was never meant to apply to religious groups that most people would consider fringe or extreme.
    Add in non-election issues like fear of radical Islam amid an ongoing terror threat, a renewed challenge to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and a congressional inquiry into “prosperity ministries” — and a raft of headlines through next year would seem, well, preordained.
    More than two centuries ago, Americans debated whether or not the First Amendment (and the rest of the Bill of Rights) really was necessary to determine personal freedoms in a new nation.
    As we go into 2008, it would seem that at least that debate is settled. Now we have another new year to get the details right.
    Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.