As you probably know, a group of Muslims have indicated their interest in building a mosque a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Understandably, folks are up in arms, screaming that it would be an insult to the memory of those who lost their lives on September 11, 2011. I totally understand their reaction. I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up every day only to think about the loved one who was killed on that day. But there is a bigger picture that opponents of the mosque are missing.
This country was founded on several basic freedoms, including the right to practice one’s religion. And I would argue that that freedom extends to the desire to construct a site where your followers can congregate. This debate over the mosque reminds me of the debate over the right of anti-abortion protestors to express their views on the abortion issue. And, the pro-choicers may not like it, but I would generally defend the right of protestors to exercise their freedom of speech, including participating in some rather ugly activity.
Now, before you bust a gut, let me acknowledge that there is a limit to free speech and the fact is that most cities have laws that restrict certain activity. So, for example, most cities have noise ordinances that would restrict the use of bullhorns outside of an abortion clinic. Most cities have stalking laws that prohibit protestors from following someone and putting that person “in fear of bodily harm.” Some cities have enacted laws creating “bubble zones” around an abortion clinic that protestors cannot enter. Meanwhile, however, many people allege that the protestors are “harassing” abortion clinic staff and patients, but “harassment” is much harder to prove. Generally, when the police get a call from a person claiming they were being “harassed,” the police will go to the site and try to resolve the problem without making any arrests. Finally, on the federal level there is the FACE law (“Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances”) which basically guarantees the right of a woman to walk into a clinic unimpeded.
So, there are a crap load of laws out there that can be enforced. And, as always, the police use them at their discretion.
But, back to the bigger picture.
I support the right of an anti-abortion protestor to stand in front of a clinic, as long as they are not trespassing. I support their right to hold up those very ugly aborted fetus signs. I support their right to scream at the top of their lungs as long as they don’t violate the noise ordinances. I support their right to call the patient and/or the clinic staff “murderers.” Indeed, in the mid-1990’s, when the Congress was considering the FACE law referenced above, I worked with the pro-choice Members of Congress and insisted that we insert language in the bill that reaffirmed the protestor’s right to free speech.
I don’t like the fact that the anti-abortion protestors are out there in front of the clinics. I think it is mean spirited, not very Christian like. I think all they do is upset the women who are already in a somewhat emotional state. And the workers in the abortion clinic are understandably sensitive to the anti-abortion activity that is taking place in front of their very eyes.
But in this country, we need to think long term. As in the case of the mosque, we need to remember that the Constitution guarantees some very basic and important freedoms that should not be restricted to accommodate some short term political agenda.