Anti-Gay Viral Videos and the Limits of Religious Free Speech

June 5th, 2012
Pastor Charles Worley of Maiden, N.C.

Words have gravity, and in certain contexts, the words we choose and employ have more weight than in others. I’m definitely sensitive to that when I see the traffic numbers on my blog. It’s a public forum, and literally anyone can see what I’ve said.

The church pulpit is an equally heavy responsibility when it comes to the gravity of the words we choose. However, we sometimes become a little bit too comfortable in our familiar surroundings. Even if and when there is a camera present, it’s easy to lapse into the false sense that we’re speaking in confidence to close friends.

I saw such an example of this in a video offered on the Huffington Post religion page, in which a small child offered a song in his church called “Ain’t No Homos Gonna Make it to Heaven,” which was met by a standing ovation by the adults in attendance.

I would like to think that most, if not all, of the people at that service would be mortified by the fact that this video has gone viral. My guess is they felt as if they were sharing a private moment, which is no excuse, but which often modulates how much—or at least in what way—we express our opinions.

Then there’s the matter of Pastor Charles Worley, about whom I wrote two days ago. This piece has gained a good deal of attention, and has sparked some lively discussion as well. The focus of my article was about whether Worley violated his church’s 501(c)3 nonprofit status with the government by telling people who to vote for—or who not to vote for, rather—in the coming presidential election.

But there is a second issue at play here, which is whether Pastor Worley should be personally criminally liable if anyone acts on his words in a way that results in violence toward a member of the LGBT community, whom he roundly condemns. I actually have been engaging in an interesting back-and-forth with my friend, Andrew, about this very issue. Here are some excerpts from what we’ve said:

ANDREW: When does this vitriol — and I’m speaking as a straight, white guy here — become a hate crime? I’m all about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but seriously. When is enough enough? If we’re going to use scripture to defend heinous viewpoints, shouldn’t we also be using it to defend ownership of human beings, among other things?

ME: I think there is a distinct legal difference between saying publicly that you advocate for slavery and the actual legal ownership of slaves. For what it’s worth, I support the rights of lots of people to say thing I find repugnant; if they or others act on those sentiments, that’s entirely another issue.

ANDREW: But at the same time, Christian, if you were to find a person who was inclined to, for example, kill gays and you fed him rhetoric about the evils of homosexuality and incited him to murder by giving him a sort of God-sent dispensation, wouldn’t you yourself be somewhat legally liable? If a bartender over-serves a customer who then kills somebody, the bartender is partially liable (legally speaking), so why not the priest who spouts this crap?

ME: I agree if you call for killing, it’s a crime as clearly stated in the law. But this guy is very savvy about suggesting they be rounded up to basically die off by attrition, so he’s calling for mass internment rather than murder. Then again, that’s how the Nazi relocation programs began. I’m not saying it’s perfect logic, but we do have to be very mindful about protection of speech, as I’m sure you’re equally sensitive to as a writer.

ANDREW: My point is that if a zealot is predisposed to murder and then hears his preacher screaming about homosexuality as a sin, homosexuality as the end of the world, etc., shouldn’t said preacher be held criminally responsible when the guy goes out and does what he was incited to do?

ME: I’m just not sure. What about the old hype back in the ‘80s that Ozzy Osbourne should be liable for a teenager’s death because when he was found dead, he also had a tape of Ozzy in his tape deck and one of the songs was called “Suicide solution?” My question is whether the hypothetical killer is acting of their own volition, given that there is no negative consequence if they don’t act on the leader’s rhetoric (different with someone like Molosevic who would punish soldiers for not carrying out his wishes), or if he has a responsibility (legal, that is; a moral obligation is self-evident, I think) to stem his rhetoric in case someone acts on it.

This is a tough one for me personally, because on the one hand, I want to jump on board with the idea that people simply can’t say such hateful, arguably violent, things. But then I’m equally concerned (if not more so) about the hands into whom we would divest that power to decide what we say is acceptable and what isn’t. For example, I wrote a novel some time back in which two characters set up a faked suicide. But what if a reader got a wild hair after reading that scene and tried to replicate it, but ended up dying in the process? Am I liable for his death in some way?

Consider this from a similar but different angle. Say we rule that legally a public figure—or even more specifically, a minister—can’t say these things, Are they still bound by the same rules if they claim what they’re saying is a fictional performance? Basically if I’m Pastor Worley and you tell me I can’t speak as the leader of my church about rounding up gay people, then I’d just claim I was putting on a play, in which I played the character of Pastor Worley, a guy who happens to share all of my personal views.

Now am I still liable?

If so, does that mean that every comic book, movie, novel and cartoon is now bound to eradicate any images that could be considered violent, hateful, objectionable or potentially could lead someone to imitate them illegally?

You see the problem with determining where the line is.

When the dust settles, I’m personally still inclined toward a more civil libertarian understanding of the broad protection of free speech. Defending the rights of people whose views I despise is hard, but I tend to believe that the further we can keep the government from our rights of free speech, the better.

That includes the pulpit, and yes, even the congregation who offers a standing ovation to a boy singing about gay people being kept out of heaven.

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