Saturday, August 02, 2008



Moral senseSigh.

Scientists rightly get upset when nonscientists start telling them what science is and what science reveals. Yet scientists and their allies seem to feel it is perfectly okay to opine on the law.

PZ Myers has posted a letter from the Center for Inquiry that it is sending to the president of the University of Central Florida, John Hitt, in support of Webster Cook, the young man whose ongoing dispute with the school's Catholic Campus Ministries led to the Great Frakin' Cracker Flap. The letter makes a number of incorrect or at least unwarranted assertions.

Webster Cook went to a communion ceremony on campus, not at a Catholic Church, and was given a communion wafer by the celebrant of the ceremony. When Mr. Cook failed to engage in the prescribed ritual, some in the congregation demanded the wafer's return; he refused to do so. ...

Even looking at Webster Cook's actions in the worst possible light, they amount to nothing more than conduct that some would consider blasphemous. Blasphemy falls within the Constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech. ...

An enlightened university education reinforces the virtue of free speech's role in a civil society. While offensive to a portion of the population, Mr. Cook's actions were in no way illegal; however, if carried out, the threats of physical violence leveled against him are indeed illegal.
The fact that Cook went to a communion ceremony on campus, instead of at a Catholic Church, is irrelevant to a legal analysis of his act, as long as Catholic Campus Ministries was given access to the university's facilities on the same basis as any other non-university organization allowed to meet on campus. This is merely the other side of the coin enunciated in the famous Supreme Court case, Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District. The state cannot deny a religious organization access to government facilities when it gives access to non-religious organizations. Nor can the state force the religious group to limit itself to non-religious activities while it is properly on government property. Assuming the constitutional tests were met, the communion service was a valid use of the space and any space legitimately used for religious ceremonies is, both logically and legally, a "church" for the duration of those ceremonies.

Nor is freedom of speech unlimited. I cannot use a bullhorn to give a speech outside your bedroom window at 2:00 a.m. and Bill Donahue cannot barge his way into PZ's classes and loudly declaim on the proper respect for the Eucharist. Entering a church with the intent of "disrupting" the service, say by holding a sit-in or heckling the priest or otherwise interfering with the religious ceremony, may qualify as forms of speech but they are also acts that violate the competing rights of the congregants to peacefully assemble for their own purposes. There is no doubt that the state can and should protect the rights of people to meet in peace, by ejecting and, if need be, arresting protesters who disrupt services that do not meet the relatively narrow legal definition of "public forums." Similarly, the state can take steps after the fact to punish such acts.

This requires no enforcement of rules against blasphemy or imposition of respect for religious ceremony on others. It merely requires respect for the rights and persons of our fellow citizens and our laws. Protesters are still free to exercise their right to speech in other meaningful places and times and by other appropriate means, such as by picketing outside the church on the public sidewalk.

Thus, Cook's acts were potentially illegal, depending on the nature of his intent. That is best determined by hearing all the circumstances involved ... something that the news media has notably failed to provide. Certainly, the confident assertion that Cook has done nothing illegal is unwarranted, either legally or empirically.

Finally, it surprises me that supposedly rational people would advance the non sequitur that threats were made against Cook, as if that was relevant to judging his act. Under a civilized system of law, two wrongs do not make a right. Cook's act must be judged on its own merits or lack thereof. Subsequent bad acts by others in no way justify his act or excuse what he did or didn't do.

I should say that I am in favor of writing to the university to urge that no significant punishment be imposed on Mr. Cook. From what little we know, his act warrants no more than, at worst, a reprimand and an admonishment not to disrupt any services again. Much worse should be imposed on those who directly or indirectly threatened his life, if any of them should be found.

Mostly I am in favor of people bringing more light and less heat to this whole thing.

Finally, it surprises me that supposedly rational people would advance the non sequitur that threats were made against Cook, as if that was relevant to judging his act.

Lemme guess - rhetorical, right?

I'm pretty sure it doesn't.
Disappoints? ... saddens? ... frustrates?
Thanks, John, I always enjoy reading your rigorous legal analyses of these cases and it encourages me to try to be more objective and disciplined.

One minor point, did you mean to say Bill Donohue can't "disclaim" or did you mean "declaim"?
Ack! Damn spell checkers! Fortunately, I can hide the evidence! ;-)
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