Most of us profess to admire people of principle, but that admiration is often distressingly abstract. In real life, people who stand on principle are likely to find that they have stepped into the line of everyone?s fire.
Most of us profess to admire people of principle, but that admiration is often distressingly abstract. In real life, people who stand on principle are likely to find that they have stepped into the line of everyone’s fire.
Two recent examples are instructive. In Pittsburgh, an ACLU chapter decided to honor a well-known obstetrician for his work supporting reproductive choice. A gala dinner was planned, and reservations from the pro-choice community in Pittsburg literally poured in.
While event planning was in full swing, the ACLU was contacted by abortion protesters who had been picketing the clinic run by the honoree. They wanted the ACLU to represent them against police tactics which they alleged were in violation of their First Amendment right to demonstrate. After investigating, the ACLU agreed. Even the doctor–himself a member of the ACLU chapter’s board– voted to accept the case.
A significant number of people in the pro-choice community responded by cancelling their reservations to the dinner. There were angry threats to withhold future support for the ACLU. As the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh chapter told me, “They wanted us to protect their Constitutional rights, but they were far less interested in protecting the rights of those who disagreed with them.”
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union faces similar reactions whenever we accept an emotionally-charged representation. Recently, we were contacted by a disabled Vietnam veteran from Elkhart, who was indignant about that city’s disregard of the First Amendment, embodied in a Ten Commandments display at the entrance to City Hall. He had fought a war and incurred lasting disabilities to protect the Constitution, and his own city government was, in his view, thumbing its nose at the principles he had risked his life to preserve.
There is no question that the Elkhart tablets are unconstitutional. Unlike those instances where government officials have agreed to demands that the Commandments be placed among other documents in nonreligious historical displays, the City of Elkhart is clearly endorsing religion (and a particular religious formulation) in violation of the First Amendment.
There is also no question about the willingness of many partisans–in Indiana as well as Pittsburgh– to invoke the constitution selectively. The disabled veteran has been subjected to incredible vitriol, all in the name of religion, by many of the same people who routinely invoke “freedom of religion” when it suits their purposes.
The First Amendment embodies a simple principle: government neutrality with respect to religion. Just as government may not interfere with students who voluntarily meet at a flagpole to pray, or with parents who choose to impart their religious principles to their children through home schooling, government may not use tax dollars to endorse a religious message, or lend symbolic support to the religious beliefs of some of its citizens.
A principle is a principle. It is either valid or it isn’t. It is difficult to respect people who insist upon the protection of the law when it benefits them, but are equally insistent upon disregarding it when it doesn’t.