The Rev. Jason Poling is Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.
Every once in a while I encounter something that forces me to question some of my most deeply held beliefs. Sometimes it's being told about an experience I don't think ought to be able to happen. Sometimes it's a person doing something totally unexpected that somehow works out for the good. And sometimes it's a bunch of bigoted jerks disrupting a military funeral.
For a small church in Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church has a presence that looms large over our area. Their 2006 protest at the Westminster funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder prompted a lawsuit which will make its way to the Supreme Court this fall. For those who are unfamiliar, WBC's membership consists primarily of the pastor's relatives, and its activities consist primarily of stretching the limits of First Amendment protections and going to court against their opponents.
This spring WBC announced that it would protest at the funeral of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Apparently a young woman's violent death presented an opportunity to address the issue of pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church by waving signs and shouting slogans with content unsuitable for a family blog.
I couldn't have been prouder that someone from our congregation was on site to hold up sheets and tarps to protect Love's family from seeing the WBC protesters (who, as it turns out, never showed). Much the same service was provided to Snyder's family by the Patriot Guard Riders, a corps of motorcyclists who fire up their Harleys at military funerals to drown out the voices of WBC protesters.
My libertarian streak runs deep and wide. Generally speaking I'm inclined to note that it's the right to free speech, not the right to not be offended, that is enshrined in the First Amendment. So on the question of offensive South Park episodes, as I argued on this blog several months back, a person who doesn't like how his prophet is being portrayed should change the channel rather than threatening violence against the show's creators.
So when people want to protest outside a political event, or a rock concert, or a Wal-Mart, or even an abortion clinic, I see that as an exercise of free speech that the people who don't like it have to tolerate anyway -- in this country, that's how we roll. To have true freedom of speech means to allow speech that is inconvenient, that is unwanted, that may be upsetting.
Yet at the same time there's a lot of sense in carving out space for civility and decorum in the midst of these freedoms in a few circumstances. And if there's any place where speech might legitimately be curtailed, I have to say as a pastor that it's at a funeral. I'd probably want to include weddings as well. It's not unreasonable for a free society to say, "You don't have the right to not be offended. But you do have the right to bury your son in peace," without people yelling across the street that his death should be celebrated as God's vengeance on America for its various moral failures.
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