Ever wonder whether you have a right to prevent others from causing a disturbance near you while you worship or conduct religious rituals? As a Chicago lawyer I have had the privilege of advising and representing leaders of Chicago's religious community using the Constitution's First Amendment Freedom of Religion protections. I have also had the privilege of defending the First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights of people prosecuted for their words. Nothing, be it a local ordinance, a police action, or a federal law trumps a Constitutional protection; it is as close to absolute as you can get in the law. So, what happens when the exercise of two constitutional rights, Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech, conflict with each other?
Consider the recent case of the Chicago Church of Scientology. In late 2010 a group of protestors picketed the Scientology's Chicago Church during one of its religious services. The Church called the police citing their First Amendment right to conduct religious services as well as a Chicago law that banned protests within 150 feet and 30 minutes of a religious service or house of worship. One of the protestors was arrested. He challenged the Chicago law saying that it violated his First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech and he won. The City of Chicago recently announced that it will no longer enforce the law that blocked protesters from causing a disturbance outside of places of worship or near religious services.
Church of Scientology spokeswoman Rebecca Cusano thinks it ironic that protestors are "crying freedom" when their protests are interfering with Scientologists' free exercise of religion. The ACLU on the other hand says that is normal for a protest to be aimed at an audience that would strongly prefer not to hear the message and that the Constitution protects the right of protest.
First Amendment law and recent court opinions indicate that they are both right. Chicago's decision comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Westboro Baptist Church case holding that members of that Church could picket military funerals with signs such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers", "Priests Rape Boys," and "You're Going to Hell." The Supreme Court reasoned that, while the First Amendment protects the right to Freedom of Religion, our nation also chooses to protect Freedom of Speech, even obnoxious speech, in order to encourage public debate. The recent Westboro Baptist and Chicago Scientology cases indicate that American courts will protect First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights even if they might disturb religious services and rituals.
The Founding Fathers believed not only in the moral correctness of protecting the right to Freedom of Speech and Religion, but also in its practical benefits. Freedom of speech encourages a "marketplace of ideas" that, while heated at times, aids in the search for truth. Similarly, Freedom of Religion creates more peace and prosperity than religious intolerance. As Thomas Jefferson said: "[W]e have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries." Until humankind can rid itself of abusers of power, the First Amendment's Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech protections provide the best defense against tyrants and overreaching government. Still, while the law might permit even obnoxious speech, common sense and decency dictate that Scientologists should be left alone to freely worship and army dads should be left in peace to lay their dead to rest.