Last week was a tangled mess of free-speech controversies. Anti-Christian smut hung on the wall of a government-funded art museum in Loveland, Colo., right up until a woman offended by the expensive painting destroyed it with a crowbar on Wednesday. The painting depicted Jesus receiving oral sex from a man, taking government-sponsored irreverence and anti-Christian bigotry to new lows.
Also in Colorado, Catholic rosaries were banned at a middle school.
And the “God hates” gays and soldiers protesters defended themselves in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Let’s untangle it all: Government should not fund art, in part because artistic expressions are often religious or anti-religious.
The government has no business using taxpayer funds for crucifixes in urine or paintings of irreverent depictions of Jesus.
Likewise, government cannot fund reverent expressions of religion without breaking the establishment clause.
When government pays for pro or anti expressions of religion, government breaks the law.
• Catholic rosaries, or other personal religious expressions that may be worn on the body, should not be forbidden by government schools unless they forbid all expressions of religion or philosophy that may be worn on the body. To ban rosaries — and not the Star of David or Buddha charms — is for government to take a position against one establishment of religion and not all the rest.
Officials at the Colorado Springs school said they banned the rosary because it has become a gang symbol. But the fashion trends of gangs do not somehow authorize government officials to infringe upon individual rights. Schools may impose sweeping dress codes, which ban all bodily accessories. They may not ban some accessories, based only on the content of the message.
• The “God hates” gays and soldiers funeral protesters push free speech to the limits, taunting mourners with hateful messages. But they are private individuals using private funds. That means they have virtually no limits on what ideas they are allowed to promote, just as a painter has no limits in desecrating Jesus.
The law must protect these people from obstructions to communicating hate. How we feel about the message has no bearing because it’s fully protected by the First Amendment. If the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them, we weaken its defense of free speech for all.
In contemplating recent free speech controversies, keep this general principle in mind: Individuals have broad discretion to communicate as they see fit; governments do not.