The Rev. Karen Brau and her flock at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., don’t get too worked up about the sacredness of religious symbols. This year they are covering up crosses so that a Jewish congregation can use the large 19th century church for High Holiday worship.
And when a crucifix is desecrated, as in the 1987 Andres Serrano artwork “Piss Christ” that is stirring up controversy again with its appearance in a new show this week in New York, Rev. Brau says she feels sadness. But she tries to understand what is motivating the action.
“Is the person who desecrates a cross with urine, are they coming from a place of having experienced some of the horrors that church has done over time to people, whether it be the Crusades or burning of people, or some of the stuff now with the Catholic church and abuse?” she asks.
At the same time, the pastor sympathizes with Muslims who were angered by the “Innocence of Muslims” Internet video that insulted their holy prophet because Muslims see it as an attack on their faith.
“And so when you look at it in that way, I think I do have understanding as to why it would garner this reaction that seems very very pointed,” she said.
Many Americans may have conflicting feelings about the “Innocence of Muslims” video that has sparked deadly protests in the Muslim world. But even Muslims in the United States know that in this country blasphemy is not punished.
Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, condemns the Egyptian American Coptic Christians who made the film.
“These Coptics, unfortunately, took advantage of the freedom offered to them by our society. Had they been living elsewhere, maybe they could not have wreaked this havoc and caused all this turmoil,” he said.
But that’s exactly what is intended by the First Amendment to the Constitution, according to Robert Destro, director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
“Our government is not supposed to take sides in religious disputes,” says the professor, who has written the leading law school textbook in the United States on the subject of religious liberty.
“If there is a problem between believing Muslims and whoever made this video, which most of us have never seen, then that’s a problem to be worked out privately among them,” he says, adding that American Muslim scholars have also said that is the response the Quran prescribes to the faithful.
“They’re supposed to confront the person and admonish them in a good and charitable way,” he said.
American law only allows speech to be restricted that is a threat to public order, and the controversy over “Innocence of Muslims” is a religious dispute, Destro says, because it was made by someone whose apparent aim was to criticize Islam.
But some legal scholars are now arguing that in a globalized world it may be necessary to reconsider what American law counts as incitement. Destro says any limiting of free speech would be dangerous.
“The very idea that we start to say to people your thoughts are illegitimate, where does that stop?” he says. “It’s very easy to say we should protect other people’s sensibilities. But it’s very easy for governments to turn that into a tool of political or religious oppression.”
Destro says America’s First Amendment is based on a religious belief: that only the Almighty can judge whether a person has chosen the right path to Him. And it goes further than European countries, where certain forms of hate speech are restricted.
Destro offers a hypothetical example: “In the United States, if I wanted to deny the Holocaust, I will never go to jail for it,” he says. “I will be embarrassed, I will be shunned, I will be ridiculed for having made those kinds of statements, but those are moral judgments made by my fellow citizens.”