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Addressing the Freedoms of Speech and Religion
By Joshua DuBois
Thank you for your participation in the We the People platform. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. The right to free exercise of religion means that in America, people of faith are free to worship as they please, while nonbelievers are free to abstain. The government will not favor one set of beliefs over another, and all of us are granted the right to discuss, debate, or ignore religious issues as we choose. At the same time, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech means that in our democracy, the government cannot categorically prohibit speech just because it is offensive, no matter whom it offends.
President Obama spoke directly to this issue a few months ago, when he addressed those who ask "why we don't just ban" expression that is deeply offensive to the faithful. As the President explained:
[T]he answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day -- and I will always defend their right to do so.
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Of course, our respect for the constitutional freedom of speech does not remotely mean that we agree with or endorse those who attempt denigrate the religious beliefs of others. To the contrary, President Obama has also made it clear that "the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths" and that "we reject the denigration of any religion."
Joshua DuBois is Special Assistant to President Obama and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships