The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

No, President Obama, "we"–and especially you–are not obligated to condemn insults to religion at all, much less do so with same vigor we–and especially you–must defend freedom of speech


Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, President Obama made a startling claim:

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another's religion, we're equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean the rest of us shouldnt question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

I addressed related issues recently:

I'd venture to say that many religious doctrines, including those of my own religion, are objectively very silly. Some religious beliefs are dangerous, either to the believers themselves (consider, e.g., Christian scientists who refuse medical treatment) or to others. They deserve to be criticized, and if that criticism takes the form of satire, so be it.

That doesn't mean that one need, or should, go around gratuitously offending religious people. In fact, good manners, not to mention societal harmony, may often require being at least publicly respectful of religious doctrines one finds silly or repugnant. But nor does it mean that offending religious people while pursuing a sincere effort to seek or expound the truth should be banned or even discouraged.

But even if you don't buy that argument, it's appalling that Obama used the "equally obligated" language, because he has an actual legal obligation to defend the "legal right of a person to insult another's religion." It's called the First Amendment of the Constitution, part of the law the president must "faithfully execute." On the other hand, not only does the POTUS have no obligation to condemn attacks on religious belief, the First Amendment, both in its speech and religion clauses, suggests that it's inappropriate, albeit not actually illegal, for the head of the U.S. government to get involved in religious disputations.