Is nothing sacred?

Posted: Feb 15, 2006 11:05 PM

Someone in Alabama is burning down Baptist churches -- at least 10 since Feb. 2, according to USA Today. Shall we ask The New York Times to take responsibility for creating a culturally insensitive environment toward evangelical Christians?

No, of course not; we don't do that. We believe in free speech as well as religious liberty.

But just as I'm ready to sign onto the First Amendment absolutist brigade (buy Danish, anyone?), another news story catches my eye: a disgusting political protest at a soldier's funeral by the tiny cult church that styles itself Westboro Baptist. The pastor there, Fred Phelps, is famous because his group's signs ("God Hates Fags") are so perfectly aligned with the national media's preferred view of morally conservative Christians as hate-mongers that they are always in the news.

His latest crusade? Protesting soldiers' funerals on the grounds that their deaths show God hates homo-loving America. To Google up the ugliness in local media is to reveal at the same time a litany of all that is good and decent in American life.

From the (Galesburg, Ill.) Register-Mail: On Nov. 16, 2005, 20 Knox College students lined the middle of Academy Street to block the family's views of the ugly shouts and signs of the Westboro cult during the funeral procession of Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Wehrly. Gary Reed showed up to help. "I was never in the service, but my father was. A fallen soldier should be supported."

The Nov. 1 Greeley (Colo.) Tribune reports seven Westboro protestors showed up at Army Pfc. Tyler MacKenzie's funeral. Within seconds, about 50 motorcyclists from the Christian Motorcycle Association, Leatherneck motorcycle group and Harley owners group revved up their engines, seeking to drown the protestors' ugly shouts. Others who moved to block the family's view of the protestors included 10 military mothers from the Rocky Mountain Military Moms, members of the U.S. Seagoing Marine Association, Marine Corps League, Combat Vets Association and, a Marine group. "We're protecting the family from them," said Gus Quist, 50, of Fort Collins, who came with the Harley owners group.

In Marblehead, Mass., it was the funeral of Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Christopher Piper of Marblehead, and the police bagpipe band drowned out the protest. The Claremore (Okla.) Daily Progress reported that the American Legions Riders motorcycle club of southeast Kansas used their engines to drown out protests during the funeral of Staff Sgt. John Glen Doles.

Rev. Richard Billings, the pastor who had married Doles to his wife in 1995, eulogized him as a "hero who gave everything for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. ... He will continue to bless all of us with the freedoms he laid down his life to preserve -- here in America, where we can pledge our allegiance to a flag, one nation -- where?"

"Under God," replied the collective crowd.

"This is Oklahoma -- we can still say that here," he said.

Frustrated and appalled legislators in five states are seeking to ban protests at funerals. Sounds reasonable to me. I don't think such a law would be inconsistent with democratic freedom, any more than I believe the First Amendment really does require us to permit flag burning.

And so too I can imagine with much disturbance that (say) a democratic Iraq could choose to ban depictions of Muhammad. It is perfectly possible to protect sacred symbols or sacred moments in ways that do not violate core principles of free speech necessary to robust, democratic life.

What I still can't understand are 12 Danish cartoonists hiding for their lives for drawing cartoons that violate neither the law nor the customs of their own country. Or the people in the United States, from The New York Times to Bill Clinton, who see insensitivity to Muslims as the problem thereby revealed.