Friday, January 9, 2009

Losing speech rights gets personal

When President-elect Barack Obama invited Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, it created a firestorm of criticism by the gay community which is now calling for Obama to retract the invitation. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), wrote Obama and said, "By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table."

What Solmonese really meant was that those who agree with gay activists should have the only voice at the table. After all, Obama invited a gay marching band and Rev. Joseph Lowery, who favors same-sex marriage, will give the benediction. But that’s not good enough for Solmonese who is still smarting from the loss in California where 53 percent of voters kept marriage between two people of the opposite sex.

Warren, known more for his involvement in poverty relief and environmental care issues, is now a lightning rod, because he endorsed California’s marriage protection amendment just weeks before the vote. The strident opposition to Warren’s participation in the inauguration brings into focus what is really going on here; it’s a matter of what can be said regarding the hottest of social issues – homosexuality, and whether those who believe homosexuality is wrong should be allowed to say it.

Solmonese and company, concerned more about insulating homosexuals from opposition, than about the free-speech rights of Americans who disagree with them, apparently want to steer us down the same path Europe and Canada have trodden. And it’s a dangerous one for those who value free speech.

Last year, French legislator Christian Vanneste found himself in hot water when he said homosexuality was "inferior" to heterosexuality and would be "dangerous for humanity if it was pushed to the limit." That statement landed him a nearly $4,000 fine.

Canadian Pastor Stephen Boisson was fined $5,000 last June after writing a letter to the editor criticizing homosexuality. The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal ordered Boisson to "... cease publishing in newspapers, by e-mail, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet... disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals...."

In 2006, John DeCicco, city councillor in Kamloops, British Columbia called homosexuality "not normal and not natural,'' so the Human Rights Tribunal forced him to apologize to a homosexual couple who filed a complaint and pay them $1000.

In 2003, a Swedish hate crimes law was used to arrest Pastor Ake Green for preaching that homosexuality is a sin... in his own church. He was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail (it was later overturned on appeal). So goes free speech in Europe. But what of it in the U.S.?

It was out of concern for his free speech rights to articulate the Biblical view on marriage and human sexuality that prompted Warren to support California’s marriage amendment. Warren said without the amendment "any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn't think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships."

Warren and his wife have both dedicated themselves to AIDS relief. But compassionate outreach to the gay community isn’t enough to pacify gay political leaders who fail to understand that Warren wasn’t invited to serve as Obama’s domestic policy advisor. He was invited to offer a prayer. And if he was in Sweden or France, he’d more likely be fined than allowed to pray at any president’s inauguration.

The debate over human sexuality has shed more heat than light in recent years. Disagreements there clearly are, but when unbridled emotions lead us closer to shutting down someone’s speech, then we’ve made a wrong turn as a nation. Including Warren in the presidential inauguration is a move in the right direction and sends the message that disagreement over the most controversial of issues doesn’t result in marginalization.

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