Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Faith-Based Institutions, Ceasing and Desisting

As readers of this blog know, I see the development of blogs as forums for free discussion of political and religious issues around the world as an extremely positive development. For some time now, the traditional media have been selling us short, when it comes to telling all the stories we need to hear. The media (which are increasingly corporate-owned and corporate-dominated) decide who will or will not come to the table of public discourse—who has an official voice, and whose voice simply will not be heard, because it is not “official.”

Stories and voices we all need to hear, in order to be a more healthy human community, just don’t make it to the table, because of media censorship. As Scott Ritter’s dissection of the role of the traditional media in shoring up the government on today’s Alternet site indicates, the mainstream media all too often engage in self-censorship, when it comes to digging for stories that place the media crosswise with powerful political and corporate interest groups (see http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/87625/?page=entire).

Blogs serve an extremely important function in a human community seeking to foster participatory democracy. Blogs permit the airing of stories—of truths—that won’t be told in the mainstream media. They also elicit free discussion of information and decisions crucial to all of us, as we seek to build a more inclusive society, a society in which everyone has a place at the table.

As a question I asked on this blog on 3 June indicates, I’m interested not merely in political and corporate censorship of such free speech, but also in censorship emanating from religious bodies (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/06/and-pilgrimage-continues_03.htmlContinues). As that question notes,

And, finally, a question: if any readers anyplace know of instances in which churches or church organizations have ever sought to use legal threats to shut down blogs discussing theological issues and issues pertaining to social justice, I’d appreciate hearing about this attempt to suppress free speech. I’m gathering information about the claim of churches or church institutions that they have the right to buy the free speech of scholars, theologians, or citizens in general, and in doing so, to censor what a scholar, theologian, or citizen might write on a blog.

Given my research into these issues, I find a report on yesterday’s AMERICAblog both interesting and alarming (see http://www.americablog.com/2008/06/blogger-arrests-increasing.html). This posting cites a recent University of Washington annual report which indicates that since 2003, 64 people have been arrested for publishing their views on a blog.

In 2007, arrests of bloggers increased dramatically: in the last year, three times as many people were arrested for blogging about political issues than in the preceding year. These bloggers exposed government corruption or human-rights abuse. The University of Washington report sees the rising number of arrests as “testament to the ‘growing’ political importance of blogging.”

The majority of these arrests have taken place outside the global North—in nations without a strong history of democratic ideals or democratic institutions. I would like to submit, however, that the fact that such arrests aren’t frequent in “democratic” societies cannot give us cause to relax our vigilance about the free speech of citizen-journalist bloggers.

I remain particularly concerned about the attempts of religious groups in North America to seek to control or shut down open discourse about the intersection of religion and politics. In our nation with the soul of a church, such discourse is vital not merely for church life, but for our political life, as well. Churches and other faith-based groups wield an inordinate amount of influence on our political sphere. For that reason alone, churches and faith-based groups require careful monitoring—especially when they use covert legal tactics to suppress free speech.

If anyone believes that such attempts by faith-based groups to suppress bloggers’ free speech are not possible in our democratic society, I recommend a series of postings on Justin Watt’s Justinsomnia blog. In September 2005, Mr. Watt published a parody of a billboard that was then being placed in major American cities (Houston, Orlando, etc.) by the faith-based group Exodus International.

The website of Exodus International notes its religious affiliation. The website’s organizational purpose statement says, “Exodus is a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian organization promoting the message of Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ (italics in original; see http://exodus.to/content/category/6/24/57/).

In February 2006, Mr. Watt received a cease-and-desist letter from one Matthew D. Staver, Esq., of Orlando, representing Liberty Counsel. This legal organization is affiliated with Liberty University, founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell. Anyone who doubts its deep ties to the religious right need only consult the homepage of the organization, and look at the glowing endorsement of the organization by “great Christian leaders” (see www.lc.org/index.cfm?pid=14096).

Liberty Counsel’s cease-and-desist letter demanded that Mr. Watt immediately take down his blog parody of Exodus International’s billboards inviting people to leave the gay lifestyle. Fortunately—for all of us who believe in free speech and who are monitoring any attempt of faith-based organizations to censor free speech about religious and political issues—Mr. Watt resisted.

In fact, he contacted ACLU, who assisted him in combating the threat from Liberty Counsel. And he prevailed. The story drew quite a bit of media attention that shone a spotlight on covert attempts of faith-based organizations to seek to suppress free speech about political and religious issues. For a summary, see http://justinsomnia.org/2006/03/my-first-cease-and-desist-letter/. Mr. Watt’s postings indicate that his was not the only blog to receive such a threatening cease-and-desist letter from Liberty Counsel at this time: Ex-Gay Watch also received one.

Why focus attention today on a story that is now several years old? I am doing so, in part, because Mr. Staver and Liberty Counsel are surfacing again, now that California is permitting gay marriage. On 12 June, Liberty Counsel filed a petition with the California Court of Appeal to stay same-sex marriage licenses in California. The petition was denied (see Jesse McKinley, “Same-Sex Marriages Begin in California,” NY Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/us/17weddings.html?scp=1&sq=liberty+counsel&st=nyt).

In my view, in the wake of yesterday’s re-implementation of gay marriage in California, we are likely to see more and more attempts of faith-based groups to use any means possible—including threats to suppress bloggers’ free speech—to try to turn back the California Supreme Court decision. It is a time for vigilance, particularly for those living in battleground places like Florida, the state in which Liberty Counsel is now based. Florida is a state in which the lives of gay human beings are still being used as political tokens by the religious right, which has succeeded in placing an anti-gay initiative on the Florida ballot this election cycle.

It is a time in which churches should also be vigilant, since the suppression of free speech is never really in the best interest of churches. What must be protected at the cost of chicanery and thuggery is of dubious value. One would hope that the churches’ formulation of their beliefs and values would be compelling enough on their own merits, and would not require unethical bolstering by the legal system to compel others to endorse these beliefs and values.

Churches should also be concerned about these initiatives, particularly in battleground states like Florida, because—well, isn’t it obvious?—human beings should never be used as a means to an end. When gay human beings are being used as political bargaining chips in political games, something is wrong.

And churches should be speaking out about that, not participating in it.

Shouldn’t they?

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