Plan to burn Quran at church draws outrage
MIAMI — Florida pastor Terry Jones will undoubtedly offend and infuriate many
people around the world if he follows through on a plan to burn Muslim Qurans at
his church this weekend.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will protect him, in the same
way it allows the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses and for protesters to torch the
The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in several landmark rulings that speech
deemed offensive to many people, even a majority, cannot be suppressed by the
government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or incite
violence, legal experts said.
“Are you just saying something or are you trying to incite violence? That
kind of becomes the dividing line,” said Ruthann Robson, a constitutional law
professor at West Virginia University. “You can speak, and express an opinion,
and do it in a symbolic way by burning something, but you can't do it in a way
that would incite violence.”
The incitement exception comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in
v. Ohio (1969), where the Court held that a Ku Klux Klan’s leader’s
speech did not incite violence. The opinion said that “the constitutional
guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or
proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such
advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is
likely to incite or produce such action.”
Jones, 58, pastor of about 50 followers at Dove World Outreach Center in
Gainesville, has drawn condemnation from the White House, the top U.S. commander
in Afghanistan, the Vatican, Muslim groups, military veterans and interfaith
religious organizations for his plan to burn Qurans this Saturday, Sept. 11, on
the ninth anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.
Jones remains undeterred, saying he wants to dramatically emphasize his
belief that the Quran is evil because it promotes violence and radicalism. “We
are still determined to it, yes,” Jones told the “CBS Early Show.”
Muslims consider the Quran the sacred word of God and insist it be treated
with the utmost respect, along with any printed material containing its verses
or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad.
Yet under U.S. court decisions, burning Qurans to make a point probably isn't
In one applicable Supreme Court ruling, Texas
v. Johnson (1989), the justices struck down laws in Texas and 47 other
states that prohibited desecration of the U.S. flag. That case grew out of
flag-burning by otherwise nonviolent demonstrators outside the 1984 Republican
National Convention in Dallas.
In that 5-4 decision, Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority: “If
there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the
government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society
finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Steven Schwinn, law professor at the University of Chicago, said any law that
attempted to prohibit Jones from burning the Qurans would likewise be deemed
“When the government is in the business of suppressing speech, even in the
form of action, the regulation is likely to be overturned if it's
content-based,” Schwinn said.
In another key case in 2003, Virginia
v. Black, the Supreme Court struck down part of Virginia's law against cross-burning because that portion said all cross-burnings were presumed to be intended to intimidate and to constitute a true threat.
The Virginia law was so broad, the justices said, that it would allow
authorities to “arrest, prosecute and convict a person based solely on the fact
of cross burning itself. As so interpreted, it would create an unacceptable risk
of the suppression of ideas.”
“The First Amendment does not permit such a shortcut,” the justices
One wild card in Jones' plan is his failure to obtain a fire permit from
local officials. Jones has said he plans to stage his bonfire anyway, and
authorities said yesterday he would likely only be issued a citation for the
violation unless the fire got out of hand.
Constitutional experts said the First Amendment's free-speech protections
would not apply to a violation of local regulations, so long as the regulations
do not single out a specific kind of conduct.
“Denying him the permit had nothing to do with the content of his speech and
enforcement of the law presumably has nothing to do with the content of his
speech,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, a professor at the nearby University of Florida
College of Law. “If I set a bonfire in my front yard here in Gainesville,
presumably they would do the same thing.”
Jones says he has received more than 100 death threats and has started
wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip since announcing his plan to
burn the holy book on what he has called “International Burn-a-Quran Day.”
Supporters have been mailing copies of the holy text to his Gainesville
church to be incinerated in a bonfire.
Gen. David Petraeus took the rare step of stating a position as a military
leader on a domestic matter when he warned in an e-mail to the Associated Press
that “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists
in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite
Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top commander in Iraq, said today he feared
extremists would use the incident to sow hatred against U.S. troops overseas.
“This feeds right into what they want,” Odierno said on NBC's “Today Show.”
Odierno now heads of U.S. Joint Forces Command.
Jones responded to the AP that he was also concerned but was “wondering, When
do we stop? … How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?”
He added, “Instead of us backing down, maybe it's time to stand up. Maybe
it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their
Although Jones refused to cancel the protest, he said he was still praying
Jones gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of
his church declaring “Islam is of the Devil.” But his Quran-burning idea
attracted wider attention. It drew rebukes from Muslim nations and at home as an
emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near the
ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
The Vatican today denounced the planned Quran-burning as “outrageous and
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting yesterday with religious
leaders to discuss recent attacks on Muslims and mosques around the U.S. called
the planned burning idiotic and dangerous, according to the Justice
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added her disapproval at a dinner
in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during the Muslim holy
month of Ramadan.
“I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful,
disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths,”
David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told CNN this
morning: “The reverend may have the right to do what he's doing but it's not
right. It's not consistent with our values … I hope that his conscience and
his good sense will take hold.”
New York Mayor Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, said yesterday that although
the book-burning demonstration would be “distasteful,” the minister had the
right to do it.
“In a strange way, I'm here to defend his right to do that. I happen to think
that it is distasteful. I don't think he would like it if somebody burned a book
that in his religion he thinks is holy,” the mayor said after a news conference
about the progress of the reconstruction at the World Trade Center site.
The mayor emphasized that Jones' planned act was protected by free speech
rights. “We can't say that we're going to apply the First Amendment to only
those cases where we are in agreement.”
In recent weeks, the mayor has been defending the rights of Muslims to build
a house of worship about two blocks north of the site of the attacks led by
Islamist extremists that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly
Local Gainesville religious leaders criticized Jones. At least two dozen
Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city have
mobilized to plan events — some will read from the Quran at their own weekend
services. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the
church on Sept. 11.
Gainesville's new mayor, Craig Lowe, who during his campaign became the
target of a Jones-led protest because he is openly gay, has declared Sept. 11
Interfaith Solidarity Day in the city.
Jones dismisses the response of the other churches as “cowardly.”
In Afghanistan, Jones' planned burning provoked outrage.
“It is the duty of Muslims to react,” said Mohammad Mukhtar, a cleric and
candidate for the Afghan parliament in the Sept. 18 election. “When their holy
book Quran gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, I
think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are
seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world they will
Kabul resident, Rajab Ali said, “If this (burning of the Quran) happens there
will be chaos in Afghanistan and being a Muslim, if we don't defend the Quran
then what else we can do?”
The Quran, according to Jones, is “evil” because it espouses something other
than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It follows
the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest
itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in
spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
The world's leading Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University
in Egypt, accused the church of stirring up hate and discrimination, and called
on other American churches speak out against it.
Last month, Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in
Jakarta, threatening violence if Jones goes through with it.