Monday, March 27, 2006
by Wayne Besen
Fundamentalist Christianity has always been a "legalistic" religion, but the term has taken on a whole new meaning as the far right has unleashed its legion of lawyers to bully, harass and intimidate opponents. As the Neo-puritans increasingly lose in the court of public opinion, they are heading directly to the courts.
Blogger Justin Watt, for example, had recently placed a parody on his website Justinsomnia
, making fun of an offensive billboard placed by the "ex-gay" group Exodus International. The Exodus billboard read: "Gay? Unhappy? http://www.exodus.to
." Watt re-created the billboard on his site so it read, "Straight? Unhappy? http://www.gay.com
This was clearly a legal parody of Exodus' ludicrous message and therefore was protected speech. Nevertheless, he and the website Ex-GayWatch
, which reprinted the comical fare, were served with "cease and desist" letters from Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel.
The threats of frivolous lawsuits were conveniently dropped after Watt pushed back and enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups. However, this case underscores the right wing's new strategy of using their vast financial resources to bully opponents who may not have the financial means to fend off a legal challenge.
For example, Viroqua High School in Wisconsin cancelled Diversity Day after the Liberty Counsel sent a nasty legal letter. They offered the bizarre argument that the school was violating the Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment by not inviting fundamentalist Christians and "ex-gays" to denounce homosexuality. Thanks to the Liberty Counsel, the students did not get to hear speakers representing African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans and gay people.
With a taste of success, we are surely going to see more tort terror from the Liberty Counsel and other groups. GLBT and civil rights organizations must ban together and give school administrators the tools to fight off such challenges. If they do not, the right wing may systematically purge Diversity Days across the nation. Here are a few tips on how schools can fight back.Intent:
Diversity Days are clearly intended to foster understanding, open minds and further mutual respect in schools. They are about inclusion, while the aims of Liberty Counsel are about exclusion, and therefore disqualify them from taking part in such events.
They might argue that this is illegal because it does not allow for Christians to take part. This is demonstratively false, as fundamentalists can participate as long as they talk about ways to increase inclusion of Christians on campus. However, they have no special right to deviate from the lesson plan of teaching tolerance, to demean others.Sectism:
There are literally thousands of religions in the United States of America, including many different factions of Christianity. Clearly, a school isn't obligated to invite every last religious group in existence.
A school district can get around Liberty Counsel's complaints by inviting a speaker from a moderate Christian Denomination. Whether Liberty Counsel likes it or not, they represent just one of many versions of Christianity and are no more authentic, than say, the United Church of Christ or the Unitarians.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no law that mandates that a school must choose a speaker representing Jerry Falwell's theological viewpoint. To suggest otherwise, is theocratic arrogance at its worst and what I refer to as "Sectism," because Liberty is asserting that its religious sect is superior to that of other branches of the faith. Nowhere in the Constitution does such imagined religious hegemony exist.Ex-Gays:
Inviting "ex-gays" to speak on campus is the intellectual equivalent of introducing unicorns into a zoology curriculum, just because a few superstitious people believe they exist. The "ex-gay" myth has been thoroughly debunked in every sphere from science to psychology. And the very people who claimed they have changed, usually have reverted back to their former gay selves.
School districts can circumvent the right wing's insistence on inclusion of ex-gays with limited effort. All they have to do is cite the American Psychiatric Association, which says that, "The potential risks of 'reparative therapy' are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior." What kind of administrator would want to invite in a group that could potentially cause so much damage to students? Having ex-gays is the equivalent of brining in Phillip Morris to discuss the "other side" of the smoking debate.
In the short-term, we can expect as much gavel pounding as Bible thumping, with the right wing taking cases to increasingly friendly courts. The Wisconsin war over Diversity Day and the imbroglio over the ex-gay parody are warning shots that the right has launched a new legal strategy. Let's not wait until Diversity Day is called Divinity Day before we respond to this ferocious assault on our mainstream values.
posted by will, at