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Blasphemy, free speech and the 'black mass'

Published on -8/31/2014, 4:39 PM

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Nothing does more to erode public support for the First Amendment than public stunts deliberately designed to offend people of faith.

Think Fred Phelps and his minions waving hateful signs outside churches during military funerals. Or Terry Jones shouting, "Islam is of the devil," and setting fire to the Quran.

No wonder so many Americans think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees -- 38 percent according to the most recent survey from the First Amendment Center.

Just when you think offensive speech attacking religion has hit rock bottom, along comes a new candidate for the Rogue's Gallery of culture war provocateurs.

Meet Adam Brian Daniels, the leader of a satanic group called Dakhma of Angra Mainyu (don't ask) and organizer of a "black mass" to take place at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City next month.

Everyone from the city's Catholic Archbishop Paul Coakley to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has denounced the planned event -- to no avail. The First Amendment protects the right of any group to rent space in the Civic Center, as long as they obey the law.

A black mass, for the uninitiated, is intended to be an inversion of the Catholic Mass -- a ritual designed to mock the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that involves nudity, bodily fluids and disgusting acts not printable in a family newspaper.

On his website, Daniels promises to tone down the ritual to keep from breaking Oklahoma laws concerning public nudity, sex acts and other elements of the ritual. He originally planned to desecrate a consecrated host he claims to have acquired from a priest in Turkey.

But after Coakley filed suit to recover the host (arguing all wafers blessed by a priest belong to the Catholic Church), Daniels backed down, handed over the host, and agreed to use black bread instead.

Not surprisingly, the specter of Satanists mocking the Body of Christ at the Civic Center puts Oklahoma City officials in an uncomfortable spot. Although the city police can ensure Daniels and his group don't break any laws, city officials have little choice but to rent Daniels the space.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding the city halt the black mass. Some have called for the city to invoke Oklahoma's blasphemy law prohibiting "profane ridicule" of any religion.

But the city has no legal grounds for stopping the event.

It's true blasphemy laws remain on the books in Oklahoma and several other states as vestiges of a bygone era. But under the First Amendment, blasphemy is protected speech.

As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in 1952, "It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine." (Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson).

Before seeking ways to use the engine of government to censor speech attacking religion, people of faith would do well to remember that state power invoked to silence speech they don't like today can be used to silence speech they do like tomorrow.

After all, what is "blasphemous" in the eyes of one faith could be "religious conviction" in the eyes of another. The danger to religious freedom lies in giving government the power to determine who is right.

An odious event like the black mass might strike many readers as an obvious line to draw on free speech. But however ugly and messy, freedom of expression is not free if it doesn't include the right to offend.

History teaches laws prohibiting "blasphemous speech" are little more than vehicles for censorship of unpopular viewpoints -- religious, political and artistic. Even today, in some 30 countries around the world, blasphemy laws still are used by governments to persecute minority faiths and dissident voices.

In a free society that would remain free, hate speech should be countered -- but with more speech, not government censorship.

Consider how small demonstrations by Phelps and his followers inspired huge counter-demonstrations of citizens determined to drown out his ugly message. Or how the hateful rhetoric of Terry Jones prompted people of many faiths to band together in support of American Muslims.

The same dynamic will no doubt play out in Oklahoma City where the hideous black mass -- if it takes place as planned -- will be an opportunity for thousands of decent and caring people to rally around the Catholic Church by raising their voices in condemnation of a small, marginal and hateful group.

"Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself," wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Errors cease to be dangerous, he added, "when it is permitted freely to contradict them."

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.

chaynes@newseum.org

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