Considerations on freedom of expression

Recently, the state of North Carolina enacted legislation that restricts the rights of transsexual and LGBT individuals. The law states that people must use the public restroom that corresponds with the biological sex listed on their birth certificate. Among responses to the new law were companies cancelling their expansion plans in the state, the restriction of official travel by public officials to the state, and cancellation of a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Those who defend the law say it protects religious freedom – the right to express their faith – and that women and children may be at risk of attacks by men posing as women, who would, following this logic, have in theory some justifiable defense for being in the women’s restrooms in the first place.

Opponents of the law have countered that assault is its own crime, and that a civil protection for the expression of identity would do little to deter attackers in the first place.

While this second concern seems validly addressed, the first half of the objection is somewhat trickier to discount on logical grounds. It may be tempting for some to refer to the people who support this law as discriminatory, but I believe the reality of the situation is much more complicated than that.

I do, however, believe that their religious objections do not hold up under close examination and run contrary to the fundamental tenets of both the United States of America and the Christian faith.

The second part of my claim may be taken much more offensively by those to whom it applies, so I will begin with that.

If both currents of Christianity expose what they purport, the objection that a law protecting the civil liberties of individuals runs contrary to the centrality of the faith, by which I mean Christ’s teachings of acceptance and unconditional love of one’s neighbor. If we are to try to make an appeal to the official stance of the ecclesiastical authorities of the Catholic Church, that also falls flat for two reasons.

The first is that history has shown that the Catholic Church’s apologies for past indefensible behavior has been to decry the weaknesses of the human condition and to ask for forgiveness, citing God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection. If the human authorities have made choices that restricted rather than expanded individual liberty in the past, and have been able to excuse themselves at a future date, what is to say that this situation does not fall into the same category?

Secondly, if we compare the actual teachings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels to official church positions, discrepancies will appear as much of church doctrine comes from various writings from the 4th to 15th centuries by scholars and philosophers across medieval Europe who expanded, interpreted, and codified Christ’s teachings under a wide variety of social and political circumstances.

As the church often states, God doesn’t make mistakes, but humans do, especially in the way we treat one another. Additionally, Christ’s disobedience of the Pharisees’ law shows his contempt of organized religion’s hold over one’s spiritual health.

Practitioners of the Protestant faiths find themselves in similar difficulty when one considers the fact that the Protestant faiths, despite their variety, can all be traced to a single moment, that is when Martin Luther preached that the Bible is the only source of divinity.

Furthermore, appeals to the authority of the Old Testament Talmudic law miss the fact that that particular covenant was exclusively with the Chosen People of Israel and that the coming of Jesus ushered in a new covenant, again of unconditional love to all, which seems incongruent to the prohibition of individuals to express their true selves as an iteration of God’s divine love as stated by Christ on a variety of occasions in scripture.

Unconditional means without any pretext. The acceptance of Christ’s teachings cannot coincide with a negation of this precept and stand based on its own internal logic.

For those who prefer to argue on the political spectrum, I would refer to two distinct provisions within the freedoms provided to citizens of the United States by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The first element has been interpreted over the course of our history to intend the freedom of expression. This has been generally defined to mean that an individual can express himself or herself as he or she chooses as long as that expression does not cause a distinct and perceptible harm on other individuals.

The second aspect of this claim lies in the phrase by Thomas Jefferson, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

This, more than anything, expresses that while the government does not prohibit the free practice of religion by anyone, it also does not put one religious preference on a pedestal over any other ideological interpretation of how one should live.

For instance, a religion in which devotees worship a Flying Spaghetti Monster enjoys the same status as those that profess the divinity of Jesus Christ in the face of the law of the land, regardless of whether any of these systems of belief has any objective truth.

One element of the argument remains to be addressed. That is, what inspired me to write this reflection is that I have frequently seen supporters of this law characterized both on social media and in major news magazines as objectively wrong.

This is a characterization that I disagree with because it is possible that one’s interpretation of the religious duties entails the restriction of the civil liberties and freedom of expression of others, as each of us is entitled to his or her own ideas.

However, based on the examinations above, those in possession of such an interpretation would have to make specific choices to justify their position; that is, one would be forced to choose between unconditional love and the free expression of identity on the one hand, and the active repression of others based on principles contrary to those explicitly expressed by the primarily cited moral authorities. (Whether or not these moral authorities practice what they preach could be debated, but it would be better to save that for another time.)

Since we live in a free nation, the choice is free to be made, but as with any choice, any action will provoke an equal and opposite reaction in one way or another, and history flows downhill.

Wilson Riccardo is a freelance writer based in Lock Haven. Email him at wilsonriccardo@gmail.com.