August 19th, 2010
12:54 PM ET

Sensitivity or Liberty? Pastor Phelps, ground zero, and our therapeutic nation

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Pastor Fred Phelps is an insensitive man.

He and his followers at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, made a name for themselves in the 1990s by protesting at the funerals of gay people who died of AIDS and, more recently, by protesting at the funerals of military officers. Their incendiary signs read, “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” and "Thank God for 9/11."

Phelps may believe in God's love but he preaches God’s wrath. And he is convinced that God is punishing Americans, in Iraq and Afghanistan and at home, for abandoning biblical morality.

Phelps' followers, many of them members of his extended family, have picketed the funerals of Jerry Falwell, Mr. Rogers and Michael Jackson, and held protests against Mormons and Jews. Oh, and according to Phelps, “Mohammed was a demon-possessed whoremonger and pedophile who contrived a 300-page work of Satanic fiction (the Quran)."

In an effort to stifle Phelps and his parishioners, some states passed laws prohibiting protests near funerals. Another piece of anti-Phelps legislation, the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2006.

On Monday, however, a federal judge, siding with Phelps, overturned Missouri legislation outlawing demonstrations within 300 feet of military funerals.

You might think that Chief US District Judge Fernando Gaitan would have been more sensitive to the feelings of the families of those who gave their lives for this country. If you think having an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks away from ground zero is insensitive, try mourning your son or daughter while religious fanatics are chanting hateful slogans and carrying signs that read, "Your sons are in hell."

But that is not Judge Gaitan's job. His job is not to make sure everyone in America is nice, or happy. His job is to uphold the rule of law. And on Monday he did his job.

“Although plaintiff’s speech may be repugnant to listeners, the court finds that, at a minimum, some of plaintiff’s speech is entitled to constitutional protection,” Judge Gaitan wrote.

In the national debate that has erupted over the Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero, we have not heard enough from the likes of Judge Gaitan. On Friday, President Obama did a credible imitation, but on Saturday he backtracked.

Meanwhile, most of his fellow Democrats (lacking courage) remain mum on what in my view is becoming one of the defining moral and political questions of our time. And nearly every nationally known Republican (lacking shame) is exploiting the horrors of 9/11 for political purposes.

When it comes to the question of the so-called "ground zero mosque," the language of therapy has far too often triumphed over the language of liberty. The same conservatives who urge us to reject moral relativism and judicial activism tell us that what really matters when it comes to the proposed Park51 project is not the Constitution but the feelings of those for whom an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero conjures up painful memories.

"Give me sensitivity," they insist, "or give me death."

And the sensitivity they so urgently demand is never wasted, of course, on the families of Muslims who died in the Twin Towers or on American Muslims today who are being told that they must choose between fidelity to their nation and fidelity to their faith.

I find the words and actions of Pastor Phelps and his family repugnant, disgusting, and insensitive. I do not believe, as their posters contend, that “God Hates Jews.” I do believe, however, in the Constitution, and in the wisdom of Judge Gaitan's ruling.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Barack Obama • Christianity • Courts • Culture wars • Fundamentalism • Homosexuality • Islam • Politics • Religious liberty

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. BradLW

    So many people seeking simple answers/solutions for complex problems!

    This is what the religidiots are so good at doing: "my religious dogma(based on my particular "holy" text) says goddidit therefore it is right; end of discussion(to say nothing of almost a total lack of thinking).

    Phelps and company, as long as they have obtained any required permits(said permits being assumedly based on constitutional statutes), should not be barred from their demonstrations taking place on "public" property. The same does not apply to them trying to hold those protests on "private" property. Unfortunately, in this case, Arlington National Cemetery(or any other national or state cemetery) is/are not "private property any more than the public streets are.

    No matter how much most of us disagree with the lack of sensitivity and outright rudeness involved in Phelps and company's demonstrations, freedom of speech must be protected or we are headed into the great abyss.

    August 27, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  2. Chris

    Did Jonah smell like pússy after living in a big fish for three days? LOL!!!!

    August 26, 2010 at 1:23 am |
  3. Lola

    We get it Mr. Phelps. You're gay and you hate that about yourself. We all get it. Can we move on now please?

    August 26, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  4. Molly

    Free Speech?? Isn't there such a thing as a "hate crime"? Or how about creating a public nuisance?
    Please, let's not pretend Pastor Phelps represents religion. Take off that white hat Rev.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  5. peace2all

    Did Mr. Phelps go far, far away yet....?

    August 21, 2010 at 4:46 am |
  6. Phyllis McKay

    The remedy to hate speech is more speech, not less. And while we're thinking up what to say, remember, "No God and no religion can survive ridicule. No political church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field, and live." Mark Twain.

    August 20, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  7. VonMoore

    Freedom is a wide ocean of possibility, while cultural traditions are narrow, arbitrary, and exist in every community and sub-culture.
    The law must be applied equally to all or it ceases to have legitimacy. Funerals are cultural in origin and essential scope. Many diverse cultures exist in every community, so equality under the law is essential.

    In this case, "dueling" funeral parties have to follow the law regardless of personal feelings.
    There is no law that forces funerals to continue if they are interrupted. The people running the funeral have many legal options to choose from, even though most of them are expensive.

    However, "Disturbing the peace" comes to mind as a historically simple and vague legislative attempt to cover these sorts of things.
    If such a law would obtain in this sort of situation, why haven't these people been arrested?
    Are the law enforcment people just covering their behinds here and diverting attention away from their unwillingness to use common-sense when applying the law?
    Are the law enforcement people involved in this particular case digging in their heels as a way of protesting in an unofficial "strike" action on behalf of their local union? Only their union rep knows for sure...

    At the end of my short and woefully ignorant deliberations, I come to the tentative conclusion that the answer is money once again. Money will buy that burial plot, and safety regulations can keep non-invited guests from disturbing the "work" of the funeral party as they stand around a dangerously deep hole following their personal safety rules.
    Decibel meters can be used to determine harmful levels of noise. Renting large areas for private parties is not impossible, and private property can be defended from trespassers.
    Disturbing the peace can be pretty obvious and the charges have been known to stick, but I don't have all the facts in this case.

    In conclusion, I would say that: either the funeral-goers were clueless as to their legal options, or they are being deliberately obtuse.
    If they are being deliberately obtuse, their motives are probably criminal in intent. If they are clueless, they need help.
    That nobody seems able to think clearly in a situation like this shows how being blinded by emotion can be detrimental to a free society. Manipulating the media can be lucrative. And it's all about money once again...

    August 20, 2010 at 2:16 am |
  8. Mark Loomis

    An acquaintance and I are going back and forth on Facebook over this issue. She made the comment, referring to Muslims, that if they want to build bridges with Americans they should be more sensitive about where they build a Muslim place of worship. How many people are missing the simple point that they ARE Americans??? The community center will serve New York's Muslim community, not that of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Dubai. Since when do we pick and choose whose rights are to be "inalienable"? Thanks for your continued great work, Stephen.

    August 19, 2010 at 11:49 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Mark Loomis

      Nice post Mark.....Well said...


      August 20, 2010 at 2:25 am |
    • JJ

      Yah. Gotta agree. Too many falsely think Muslim and American are mutually exclusive designations.

      August 25, 2010 at 12:33 am |
  9. Stew Shearer

    I agree with the article wholeheartedly. Muslims have every right to build a mosque on private property and to throw a fit about it is both horribly intolerant and leaning toward a violation of the law. It honestly makes even more disgusted with our Senators and Congressman that they would try to incite religious intolerance to score a few points in the polls. What happened to our integrity?

    August 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  10. christopher

    I wonder if someone has a physical reaction directly caused by one of these demonstrations (ie panic attack) would that change the ruling?

    August 19, 2010 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Chris

    Would it matter if the graveyard was public land? I know on many public university campuses a permit is required to hold a demonstraition. By not disclosing publically the date a funeral could one not inhibit the protestors ability to obtain a permit in a timely manner? Just curious.

    August 19, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
    • sealchan

      I would err on the side of disclosure and not try to avoid having protestors or block opportunities for protestors to participate.

      August 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • Chris

      No matter the circumstances surrounding their death, be it war, a car wreck, cancer, or a heart attack: If it were MY son/daughter I would err on the side of 'I would like to remember them in peace."

      August 20, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  12. sealchan

    "Liberty" vs "Sensitivity" does seem to be a line that our society, via the media, is trying to come to terms with. Where is the line drawn between expressing criticism and hate, between inciting criminal activity and expressing impassioned discontent?

    One principle might be that pre-organized events should be given the "space" to take place as intended without others interrupting or overspeaking said event. This is fair as those who wish to stage an event also have the right to free speech. The common system of obtaining a permit for a public gathering should provide a venue for resolving these issues in advance.

    Similarly, it is, perhaps, not unfair to provide a venue for a discussion with all relevant and interested parties regarding the Islamic center near Ground Zero. I would, perhaps, disagree with a liberty always trumps sensitivity stance. A discussion would at least give the parties a chance to explain to each other what motivates them and try and see how much common ground they share. In spite of all the politicians that want to use this debate for their personal and party interests, a discussion is not a bad idea. Discussion can be a powerful thing for all involved and change the minds of those whose minds are open.

    August 19, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
  13. Reality

    No doubt the "reverend" Phelps will send his marchers to NYC to protest about the near-Ground Zero horror mosque. As much as I detest this fellow, I just might join him.

    August 19, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • peace2all


      Hey buddy..... Regardless of your views on the nyc community center/mosque.... I would sincerely think you would not want to be anywhere near this heartless-idiot......


      August 20, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • BradLW


      you really do work both sides of the street don't you?

      August 27, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  14. NorCalMojo

    Comparing muslims to Phelps doesn't help their case. I haven't heard anyone say that they don't have a right to build it. They're saying that it's an ugly, offensive and provocative gesture. (Much like Phelps' message)

    August 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  15. Sandbur

    Just waiting until the Phelps clan needs to conduct a funeral...

    August 19, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
    • peace2all


      LOL..!!!!!!!!!!! Now THAT was funny... Priceless....


      August 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • TammyB

      Great idea! Wonder if Phelps would find that kind of protest inappropriate? Or would he stick to the same free speech rights as he uses now? Interesting if that happened.

      August 19, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
  16. Frogist

    Free speech is free speech. They may say hateful things but they have the right to say it. We cannot legislate on whether something feels bad but on the law of the land.

    August 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
    • peace2all


      Well said....


      August 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • beesquare

      Free speach must be encouraged. Let's get it all out in the open, then see which speeches can stand the light of day.

      August 20, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  17. VonMoore

    As I read the article, I could imagine the little wisps of steam that must have come out of Stephen Prothero's ears as he wrote it.
    Almost a rough draft, Prothero ascribes "Give me sensitivity or give me death" to others, yet the words sound more like they are coming from him, the author.
    At the end, after railing against the terrible insensitive people involved, Prothero gives a grudging nod to the "wisdom" of the judge who ruled against "sensitivity".
    Keep this man from joining a lynch mob.

    August 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
    • VonMoore


      Sorry for the lame critique. It's way past my bedtime. I should have quit while I was ahead.
      Good article, btw. I left that out of my post as well. Didn't want your head to get any bigger. 😛

      August 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  18. TammyB

    I don't think legislation limiting protests to 300 feet from a funeral is all that uncalled for. There is plenty of legislation (usually zoning/business/commercial) that limits certain types of businesses from being built by schools, or other kinds of businesses. They weren't trying to outlaw the protests, just keep them at a distance, and really, not that far, from cemetaries where funerals were being held. I don't understand how that violated their rights to free speech.

    August 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
    • peace2all


      I could be wrong here..... but your using of 'construction/zoning' legislation as an equivalent to 'freedom of speech' is not an adequate analogy.

      Construction/zoning legislation near schools etc.. as I understand it is, one of the main reasons, to protect children from literal PHYSICAL harm.

      Free Speech is not physically harming someone. Therefore they are not the same thing.

      Although, I certainly don't agree with the hate-filled speech of Mr. Phelps, who I saw, as he came into my town, by the way, as he was protesting all the sinner's, etc.. etc... free speech is not the same as construction laws.


      August 19, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • TammyB

      @peace2all....Yes, my throwing the "schools" in there was a bad analogy, but my point being that legislation just to keep protests 300 feet away from funerals is not unreasonable since it gives both privacy to families of the deceased and it gives the protestors their right to free speech. I kind of look at it the same way that protestors are sometimes kept a certain distance from public buildings, or international conferences, etc. They are still free to exercise their right to free speech, but from a short distance as to not inhibit the people they are protesting. I am not disputing that people don't have the right to free speech...just that there must be some win/win situation where people can still protest and the right to privacy at a funeral can be protected as well.

      August 19, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
    • peace2all


      Your last post certainly makes more sense.


      August 20, 2010 at 2:23 am |
  19. peace2all

    Gotta say....... Very well written, truthful and factual article Stephen. Some people may not like, as they will be responding 'emotionally' instead of thinking it through and considering the law.

    But again, well said....


    August 19, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
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