After the Supreme Court struck down a lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church that would have cost them $5 million for their despicable protest at a military funeral, Sarah Palin noted sardonically on Twitter that the court seemed to value the public hate speech of the Phelps cult more than the normal expression of religion in the public square. The media jumped to the conclusion that Palin sided with Justice Samuel Alito in his lone dissent in Snyder v Phelps, but Palin rebutted that argument in a conversation with the Daily Caller:
“Obviously my comment meant that when we’re told we can’t say ‘God bless you’ in graduation speeches or pray before a local football game but these wackos can invoke God’s name in their hate speech while picketing our military funerals, it shows ridiculous inconsistency,” Palin told TheDC. “I wasn’t calling for any limit on free speech, and it’s a shame some folks tried to twist my comment in that way. I was simply pointing out the irony of an often selective interpretation of free speech rights.”
Palin’s original statement, posted the day of the ruling, read: “Common sense & decency absent as wacko ‘church’ allowed hate msgs [email protected] soldiers’ funerals but we can’t invoke God’s name in public square.”
I don’t see that as an endorsement of either position, actually. It looks more like a poke at an arguably inconsistent standard applied by courts on religious messaging. It’s arguable because in the legal sense, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Offering a benediction at a public-school graduation is an act by the government itself (through its control of the school), while the protests of the Phelps cult are conducted by a private entity on public land.
For instance, if I want to hold a prayer vigil in a public park to express my opposition to abortion, the government cannot stop me from doing so, as long as I meet the legal requirements for the assembly (usually requiring a permit). The Tea Party demonstrations at our state capital in Minnesota always include a benediction, even though we are on public ground, which is permissible because the Tea Party is a private organization and not part of the state. Only if the state legislature were to hold an event where a benediction is said would it possibly run afoul of the courts.
However, in truth the issue of graduation benedictions is less that of the courts and more that of nervous administrators. In practice, legislatures regularly open with benedictions, football teams gather for prayer, and so on. When those cases do make it to court, though, Palin is right that the courts will often see so much danger in a simple prayer that it makes their defense of Phelps’ protests seem very inconsistent at best, and hypocritical as well. We need more free speech, not less, and a prayer at a graduation will do a lot less damage to the national fabric than the ghoulish evangelism of Phelps and his cult.
Update: Commenter HondaV65 has it right: “We’re all over the place on this stuff – and that is Palin’s point.” And she’s correct, which is why we should defend speech rather than demand restrictions, as Palin says today.