Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center
The school year started off with an unpleasant bang in Gainesville, Fla., when a fifth-grader showed up on the first day wearing a T-shirt with “Islam is of the Devil” inscribed on the back.
Administrators sent the 10-year-old home to change clothes. But the next day several other students at two high schools and a middle school arrived wearing the same message. All were told to cover it up or go home.
The local church responsible for the T-shirt, Dove World Outreach Center, is unapologetic about the school campaign. Church members had already erected a sign on church property proclaiming “Islam is of the Devil” to passersby. According to the pastor, the church has a Christian duty to expose Islam as a “violent and oppressive religion.”
Missing no opportunity to drive the message home, Dove World will mark the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with a rally to whip up outrage — not at what some extremists did in the name of Islam, but at Islam itself.
Under the First Amendment, Dove World has the right to proclaim its beliefs about Islam, no matter how much it offends others. But the kids in the congregation may have to wait until after school to put on the T-shirts.
Students do have some free-speech rights in schools. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the authority of school officials to draw the line at student speech that they can reasonably forecast will cause a substantial disruption. It’s very likely that the Dove World T-shirt crosses that line, especially since Muslim students attend Gainesville schools.
Beyond the constitutional issues, however, the controversy points to the larger, more difficult question of how we engage one another in a public square that is increasingly poisoned by hatred and division. Dove World’s anti-Islam initiative is not unique. Post-9/11, a growing number of churches inspired by some evangelical leaders such as Ron Paisley and Pat Robertson have condemned Islam in harsh terms. As Robertson puts it, terrorists don’t distort Islam – they are “carrying out Islam.”
Apart from the fact that these ugly generalizations are distortions of Islamic teachings and wildly misrepresent the views of the vast majority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, Islam-bashing on this scale threatens American Muslims and undermines the common good.
It’s impossible to measure the effect of anti-Islam rhetoric on those who take it to the next level and commit acts of violence. But we do know that attacks targeting Muslim Americans are a significant problem across the country. Last month, for example, a Philadelphia business owned by Muslim Palestinian-Americans was ransacked and covered with angry graffiti telling the owners to “go home.” And in Smithtown, N.Y., a man was arrested for threatening to kill a Muslim mother and her daughter and trying to run them down with his car. Both incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.
Most Americans recognize the problem. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly six in 10 adults say U.S. Muslims are subject to more discrimination than any other major religious group.
Back in Gainesville, some local residents living near Dove World are countering the anti-Islam message by speaking up for their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens. Soon after the first sign went up in July, an interfaith group of Christians, Jews and others gathered in front of the church to protest intolerance and call for mutual respect.
On a national level, many Christian and Jewish leaders — including some leading evangelical ministers — have reached out to Muslims by calling for peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding. In fact, Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren delivered a message of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims to the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in July, around the time Dove World was erecting its sign.
“You know as an evangelical pastor, my deepest faith is in Jesus Christ,” Warren told a crowd of some 8,000 Muslim Americans. “But you also need to know that I am committed not just to what I call the good news, but I am committed to the common good.”
Warren then defined what Americans share across our differences: “America is a country not built on race, not built on a creed, but built on an idea — liberty and justice for all.”
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].