Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Offense, redux

First of all, I apologize for the bad link in yesterday's post. HTML is not beyond me, but typing sometimes is. Major typo in the link means the article wasn't found. My bad, and it's now been fixed in the original post.

To follow up on the story, the Supreme Court has rejected Michael Newdow's emergency appeal designed to stop prayer at President Bush's inauguration ceremony. I noted yesterday that Newdow could simply turn off his television at that point in time, with no harm being done. I doubt he'd be made to feel like a less-than-primo citizen if he didn't watch part of the ceremony. Frankly, I won't be watching any of it beyond what shows up on the local news. Reading additional news stories, though, reveal that Newdow will be attending the ceremony in person, ergo the advice to turn off the television isn't applicable.

Salient point. However, now we're just finding out that Newdow is manipulating the situation just so he can get his day in court. Apparently, he sued to stop prayer from being offered at the last inauguration, to no avail precisely because he couldn't demonstrate any real harm; he could have, in effect, turned off the television. To avoid that legal argument, it appears that he procured a ticket to this year's ceremony and filed suit once more. At least this is how it looks to me, and while I certainly can't read Newdow's mind, his actions lead me to this conclusion.

Regardless of his motivation in deciding to attend this year's ceremony in person, his argument that prayer would "him to accept unwanted religious beliefs." Yikes. Are we truly to believe that prayer in public ceremonies forces attendees to convert, against their will, to Christianity? I think the fact that atheists such as Newdow are still around in this country, despite being surrounded by all us dangerous theists argues against that conclusion.

Beyond whether public prayer at government-sanctioned events is coercive, or is about establishing a state church (which is clearly unconstitutional), though, is the notion of taking offense, or being made to feel "second class" because others pray in public. The obvious rejoinder to such complaints falls along one of these lines: (a) get over it, we're a Christian nation, (b) ignore the message, or (c) you can't infringe on our right to free expression and freedom of religion. While there is some merit to (b) and (c) - (a) strikes me as terribly arrogant and improper - I think a better reply lies in a different approach.

Any feelings of inferiority, or of being looked down upon, are problems with the observer, not the Constitution. Freedom of speech guarantees that someone will be ticked off by something someone else says. That's a given. Whether that someone is you, though, is up to you. That is, no matter how offensive the message, you can choose to not take offense. You choose whether to feel like a second-class citizen, or feel like a full citizen who happens to disagree with the majority. The choice is yours, and the courts are not here to mandate that others stay silent in order to avoid offending you.

When people say things that are "offensive" to me, I generally don't take offense. This has to be a conscious decision, and usually justified by understanding the context of the situation. I don't need to look for the courts to make me feel good; that's my responsibility. I don't have to like every message, or agree with it. How I choose to respond is up to me.

It is true that speech by the government cannot be coercive, or establish a state religion. Inaugural prayers have been around a long time, and it's obvious they do neither. The only real "harm" Newdow can claim is how the prayer makes him feel. That's not the court's problem, that's his.

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