In a free country, citizens will always debate matters of public policy and the proper interpretation of the laws. This is as it should be; the clash of ideas and beliefs, the "marketplace of ideas" is precisely what the founders of this nation wanted to…
In a free country, citizens will always debate matters of public policy and the proper interpretation of the laws. This is as it should be; the clash of ideas and beliefs, the "marketplace of ideas" is precisely what the founders of this nation wanted to protect when they passed the First Amendment.
In order to be productive, however, public discourse and debate must be based upon respect for the truth and an understanding of the issue involved. Otherwise, conflicts generate more heat than light. This is particularly true when the debate involves passionately held beliefs.
So it was disappointing to read the reported comments of J.D. Clampitt, one of the Hendricks County Commissioners who recently voted to post the Ten Commandments in the Rotunda of the county government building. Mr. Clampitt took the Indiana Civil Liberties Union to task for "always protecting the minority against the majority." That, of course, is our mission. Protecting individuals against the tyranny of the majority is what the Bill of Rights is all about.
I frequently go into high school classrooms to discuss the Constitution. I often begin by asking "In America, the majority rules, right?" If hands go up and heads nod, I ask "So you can vote to make me a Baptist, right?"
This causes confusion; they know that they cannot take a vote to determine my religious beliefs. The reason, of course, is that America is not a majoritarian democracy. It is a democratic republic, where many, many issues are decided by majority vote, but where fundamental rights are protected against popular passions by the Bill of Rights.
At its most basic level, the Bill of Rights is a list of things that government may not do, even if government is acting at the request of a majority of citizens.
Proponents of posting religious sentiments on government walls seem genuinely unable to understand why such actions have been uniformly and consistently held unconstitutional. A local television reporter asked me why the residents of Marion, Indiana couldn’t choose to post the Ten Commandments "in their own small community." As I told him, they cannot do so for the same reason that they could not choose to eliminate trial by jury in their own small community. The rights protected by the Bill of Rights are fundamental; they exist to protect unpopular minorities–those whose religious or political views are different or offensive–from the power a majority exercises by controlling the apparatus of the state.
The second remark attributed to Mr. Clampitt may demonstrate the wisdom of those First Amendment restrictions. "When Christians were in the minority," he is reported to have said "we were thrown to the lions. Now that we are in the majority, it is time for us to be the lions."
In America, mercifully, no one gets to be the lion.