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December 9, 2012

Question:  Does freedom of expression trump freedom of religion?

A big question that opposes two sorts of freedom: expression (writing, speech, dress) and religion. But is it really so? “Freedom” is desirable in some circumstance, but not in others. As is often said, too much freedom can infringe on human dignity and become licence or enslavement: sexual bondage, for example. A few weeks ago, in San Francisco, a group consisting mainly of men wanted the freedom to move about stark naked in public places, including shops and restaurants. For a number of sound hygienic reasons, the authorities reacted quickly with a proposed bylaw to stop such “freedom.”  One person’s freedom violates another’s.   

Even the much touted “freedom of speech” has, and must have, its limits. The classical example is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when no fire exists. There are laws against hate speech because it incites to violence and targets minority groups or other religions. Religion limits some forms of speech with good reason. Vicious speech, gossiping and backbiting have become in our day media entertainment. Many earn their living by indulging the public taste for sensationalism and scandal-mongering. 

Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith wrote: “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.” Backbiting and all forms of hurtful speech were forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh. He wrote that they harm the soul of both perpetrator and victim: “Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.” This last line is borne out by the fact that in many cultures vendettas have gone on for centuries because of a vicious remark made by one leader against another.

 Freedom of religion must mean the freedom to freely choose or to change one’s religion. When one accepts a religion, one chooses to be governed by its laws. If a person feels that the religion in question violates his freedom, no one should oblige him to join or stay.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen December 9, 2012
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