The flap over the lawsuit filed against the state by the Virginia-based Christian Action Network revives an ongoing debate over the nation’s core values. They’re all there — freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to freely conduct enterprise, albeit as a nonprofit group.
The nation’s Founders may have seen these freedoms in absolute terms, but over the next 200-plus years, the guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been circumscribed by court decisions.
The Christian Action Network applied to the state for a license to solicit funds in Maine, but did not wait for approval before sending out a letter seeking donations. CAN claimed in its literature that public grade schools and universities are allowing Muslim indoctrination of students, reporting that they have provided prayer rooms for Muslims and included overviews of the Muslim religion in curriculums. The organization also identified Gov. John Baldacci as the person responsible for public education in Maine, which the state Attorney General’s Office said was done without the governor’s permission.
The state later denied CAN’s application for a fundraising license and fined it for proceeding without approval and for using the governor’s name without permission.
CAN’s literature certainly can be seen as inflammatory. It claims a school in Nyssa, Ore., teaches students how to say Muslim prayers and asks them to dress up as Muslims. A high school in Columbia, S.C., CAN claims, requires students to create a pamphlet to teach people about Islam, and that they were told by a guest speaker that “all religions are based on Islam.”
Of course, it’s easy to imagine the context that puts these school decisions in a very different light. In teaching culture and religion, teachers often use dress-up days. And rather than quiz students on the basic tenets of Islam (or Judaism, or Buddhism), they use creative exercises such as creating a pamphlet to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge.
Setting aside a room for Muslim students to use as a prayer room is hardly radical. Schools in Maine commonly allow Christian outreach groups to use facilities to meet with children (with parental permission), and classrooms are used for Christian Bible studies, before and after the school day.
On its Web site, CAN claims the state imposed the fine because the letter contained “an inflammatory anti-Muslim message.” It also charges the state with “censoring the letter for its alleged ‘anti-Muslim’ message.”
CAN’s literature seems designed to outrage Christians and those suspicious of Muslims, which in turn could motivate them to donate. As calculated and cynical as this may be, it should not incite the heavy hand of the state. If the Attorney General’s Office is holding CAN to the letter of the law, it better have a record of holding other, more palatable groups to that same standard.
At the same time, groups like CAN must understand that freedom of speech and religion is not absolute. Just as demonstrators must secure parade permits to protest in the street, the organization must play by the rules.