The "Right" to Proselytize

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Fort Worth woman who was reading a Bible to her children in the back of a bus so loudly that the driver asked her to stop is preparing to sue the city for religious discrimination.

"Anyone who is loud will be asked to be quiet," said representative Joan Hunter. "That is a standard policy across [the] country in the transit industry."

It doesn't matter what is said, the T has a policy of no loud or abusive behavior.

"It's only if the other passengers will complain, or it's obviously so loud it's distracting the operator, that we will ask them to stop," Hunter explained. [bold added]
The web site of the local news station covering the story includes two video clips worth viewing. The first is a short segment of news coverage basically the same as the written version excerpted above. In this clip, the Bible-reading Christine Lutz's demeanor reminded me a little at times of some angry left-wing activist.

The second clip (which follows a short commercial) is an interview with Lutz and her attorney, Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Legal Institute, which holds itself out as "battling in the courts for ... [r]eligious freedoms", but whose idea of "religious freedom" is belied by its additional objective of litigating about the "definition of family" and the words out of Sasser's mouth near the end of the interview.

After stating that he thinks the T (Fort Worth's transit authority), a government agency, ought to send a memo out to all its employees to the effect that reading the Bible "to their kids or to anyone else" [my emphasis] is okay as long as it isn't "too loud", Sasser dismisses the proper behavior of the T's officials with, "if they don't send that [letter] out, it's not about volume; it's about their allergic reaction to religious speech". (Sasser apparently hopes to use the bus driver's judgement about loudness as a way to imply discriminatory behavior on the part of the driver.)

In a truly free society, the bus company would be privately-owned and could set whatever policies it pleased about passenger behavior, from demanding near-total silence to subjecting its passengers to recorded scripture readings, and Lutz would have no grounds whatsoever to sue.

Unfortunately, we do not live in such a society, so the situation is complicated by the fact of government ownership of the transit company, and Christine Lutz, along with her attorney, are going to try to take advantage of that complication to open the door for Christian proselytizers to begin hectoring anyone they please in public places.

On the one hand, we do have freedom of speech and the government should protect it, as Sasser correctly implies by invoking the First Amendment. But on the other hand, as Sasser conveniently omits, our government is not in the business of promoting religion. Lutz may have the right to read the Bible aloud, but if her volume is deemed excessive, the T has to be careful that its facilities are not being used to promote religion. If the bus driver can be faulted for anything (and if Lutz were not reading at a high enough level that she was actually distracting her), it would only be erring on the side of caution.

Christine Lutz has freedom of speech, but she hasn't the right to use the property of others or, worse yet, enlist the aid of the government, to spread her message. This is what this dispute is really about. The fact that the so-called Liberty Legal Institute is fighting against separation of church and state -- and not fighting for private property rights -- shows that its idea of "freedom" is very different from that of America's Founding Fathers.

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Minor edits.

4 comments:

Scott said...

I think an entire book could be dedicated to issues like this one dealing with the conflict between free speech and public property. From the sidewalk and public transportation to the airwaves and public schools, there will never be anything resembling free speech as long as the right to property is subject to the whim of voters.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are exactly right.

With the confusion about free speech engendered by the government as (1) protector of free speech, (2) ideologically neutral, and (3) owner or regulator of so much or the means of broadcasting speech, we will constantly see either property rights eroded as the government forces people to support viewpoints they oppose in order to "protect" freedom of speech or freedom of speech eroded as the government attempts to be "neutral" at the expense of our right to speak freely.

Jim May said...

Unfortunately, we do not live in such a society, so the situation is complicated by the fact of government ownership of the transit company, and Christine Lutz, along with her attorney, are going to try to take advantage of that complication to open the door for Christian proselytizers to begin hectoring anyone they please in public places.

That's been going on for a long, long time. I remember seeing a sign at the entrance to the Buffalo airport some years ago that explained the presence of Hare Krishnas and such by reference to their "First Amendment rights" and that canvassing etc. were "protected speech." (That being said, I haven't seen such folks in an airport, ever. If that's due to security regs post 9/11, it's not really an improvement.)

The usual counter-argument I supply when some idiot whines about their "First Amendment" rights or freedom of speech when they get themselves booted off private property for beign an idiot, is that the First Amendment also specifies freedom of association, which is the right exercised by a property owner when they refuse a forum to someone whose views are as execrable as this woman's. Public property -- most notably the pernicious "public airwaves" of the FCC -- undercuts fredom of speech by neutralizing precisely that right.

This is why it is no accident that the Left's first political manifestations were socialistic; the defense of property rights was and is the Enlightenment's weakest link. Even the Declaration of Independence reflects the lack of conviction on that count, omitting "property" from its famous list of individual rights.

Gus Van Horn said...

The Hare Krishnas are an interesting, albeit unfortunate, precedent for what this person wants to do.

And thanks for bringing up freedom of association, which is also both applicable to and threatened by this situation.