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Property Rights as a Tool for Religious Freedom

I'll be leaping from a glimpse into the bizarre nature of the Canadian national psyche, to the topic of religious speech in public spaces, all snapshots from a trip I took to the State of Washington. By no small coincidence, the Amtrak coach we were on was commandeered by a Canadian driver. We passengers were rendered a captive audience.  

It's time we give up the Canadian illusion about the ugly American and the genteel Canuck. Our Canadian driver pounded us non-stop with his anti-U.S. stand-up shtick. But the more the man intensified his verbal assaults, the more his targets, the American passengers, showed their good nature; smiling graciously as this deranged pooch snapped at their national heels.  

Ever notice how whenever we Canadians exercise our passive aggression Americans always respond genially? Americans only ever have nice things to say about us not because we are nice, but because they are. But let me abandon the Canadian national bathos, and turn to the issue of religious speech in public spaces, a topic spurred by a debate over the Seattle airwaves as to whether public displays of religiosity should be tolerated.  

The scene is a ballgame; the crowd consists of the standard boisterous fans. Along come the Christian spectators who are soon moved, much to the consternation of the secular fans, to prayer. Tolerance for diversity is pretty much daily pabulum. Thus the reaction of the public and media to what is clearly unpopular speech must surprise. Even a local columnist with impeccable Christian credentials proceeds to deride hymns of praise in public arenas. It's hard to imagine such a reaction were a contingent from the Seattle Buddhist Temple to have bobbed down the stadium aisles; a touchdown for Christianity somehow being deemed more oppressive than a pitch for other faiths.  

Pledging allegiances to the Lord among National Football League players in the U.S. is in no way new. These public displays have variously been condemned, supported or dismissed, with Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's vice-presidential candidate, being the latest to make public references to his faith. Being a Jew, he doesn't proselytize. Lieberman, however, isn't mum about his core beliefs, a stand that has won him approval, although not from all. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League, an organization that is devoted to religious liberty and to fighting anti-Semitism, has criticized Lieberman's religious expression.  

George W. Bush and Al Gore never missed an opportunity to remind voters that "they are in Jesus' corner," with Gore generally being given more catechismal credence from the Democrat-loving media. Point being that the degree to which religious reference or display is tolerated, depends on arbitrary factors like the public's affinity to the speaker (huge with the Hollywood-endorsed Dali Lama) and to the speech, rather than on any principled position.  

The American Framers intended to separate state from religion; but they did not intend to prohibit people from freely expressing their faith. Flowing from this, prayer that is ordained by a public school authority or a government ministry would be categorically coercive and unacceptable. Conversely, individual expressions of reverence in public schools can hardly be seen as coercive or infringing of anyone's religious or agnostic rights. Try as they may to portray certain speech as "progressive," and other speech as fit for troglodytes, bureaucrats are in no better position to define what speech is appropriate in public spaces.  

Let them attempt to explain why "Go #8, the Lord is with you," must be silenced, while "Go #8, you SOB, get that ball"---must not. Both forms of speech occurred in a public place, both parties paid the same entrance fee and both have an equal right to be in attendance.  

There is a workable solution. Say all sports arenas were privately owned with no exception, and suppose that ownership actually meant the absolute right of the owner to decide what kind of speech would be tolerated on his property. If prayer at ballgames became a source of discontent, a property owner could specify that in his stadium, it would not be tolerated. Implicit in purchasing a ticket at this venue is voluntarily contracting not to pray publicly. Another entrepreneur would endeavour to cater for the Moral Majority and would specify that a ballgame on his property is accompanied by hollers of Hallelujah, take it or leave it. Consumers could choose either forms of association, but would have to honor the terms of the respective contracts. Elegant and fair, the solution requires absolute rights in private property, absent any form of government interference with contractual arrangements.  


 ©2000 Ilana Mercer
  The Calgary Herald
  September 21



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