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When speech stirs the melting pot, anger boils over

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Charles C. Haynes
February 13, 2010

A civic morality tale is playing out in Lancaster, Calif., where two city officials have stirred considerable controversy because of their remarks about religion.


City Councilwoman Sherry Marquez started the ruckus last month by posting comments attacking Islam on her Facebook page. Reacting to an alleged “honor killing” of a Muslim woman last year in New York, Marquez wrote that “this is what the Muslim religion is all about—the beheadings, honor killings are just the beginning of what is to come in the U.S.A.”


Although Marquez deleted this and other negative comments about Islam an hour and a half later (an eternity in Facebook time), her words spread—and the backlash began.


Only days later, Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris added fuel to the religious fire when he told a crowd of mostly Christian pastors that “we are growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that. I need Lancaster residents standing up and saying we are a Christian community and we’re proud of it.”


Not surprisingly, many Lancaster residents found Marquez’s remarks about Islam wrong and offensive—and charged that her statements triggered threats of violence against Muslims in the community.


Parris also was roundly criticized for being deeply mistaken about what kind of city Lancaster is supposed to be under the Constitution. People of many faiths (including some Christians) reacted with hurt and anger at what they perceived as the mayor’s attempt to impose his religion and marginalize minority faiths.


As the debate continues, residents of Lancaster are lining up on both sides. Dueling Facebook sites have been created to argue for (200 fans) and against (173 fans) removing Councilwoman Marquez from office.


In my view, the remarks of Marquez and Parris were civically irresponsible. As elected representatives of all residents of Lancaster, their duty is to lead and unite—not divide and conquer. But if their religiously loaded comments were over the line, some of the reaction may be over the top.


Soon after the mayor’s speech, the Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force announced an investigation into the remarks of both city officials. Darren Parker, chair of the task force, explained to the Antelope Valley Press that the group “has the ability to deem an incident under its jurisdiction a hate crime or a hate incident based on evidence that has been presented to the task force.”


On Feb. 8, the group met to hear resident complaints about Parris and Marquez and then voted to send letters to both, formally “condemning” their remarks. Although Parker assured me in a phone interview that this action isn’t intended to censor speech, I can’t help but worry about the chilling effect of a publicly funded task force condemning the speech of elected officials.


Well-intentioned as the task force action may be, it appears to go beyond its stated mission to address “hate crimes.” Religious and political groups on all sides have every right to criticize or support statements by public officials. But a human-relations organization created by government and funded with public money should take care not to morph into the speech police.


Ironically, a Muslim member of the task force had to defend himself and his religious community last year when gay activists filed a complaint accusing local Muslims of distributing homophobic literature.


That’s the problem with government-sponsored groups monitoring and punishing speech that some people find offensive: What is hate to one is religious conviction for another. Deciding between the two is no business of government.


The Lancaster debate cooled off a bit this week after Parris and Marquez issued apologies at a hastily called press conference. Parris was effusive in his apology to the various faith leaders present. Marquez uttered a terse “I apologize” and walked out.


Deeper questions about religious identity and diversity remain, not just in Lancaster but in towns and cities across America facing new challenges in a changing nation. In our search for answers, let politicians say what they will—and trust the court of public opinion to hold them accountable.


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: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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