Anti-Gay Worship, Pastor Worley and the Limits of Religious Free Speech

Words have gravity, and in certain contexts, the words we choose and employ have more weight than in others. I’m definitely sensitive to that when I see the traffic numbers on my blog. It’s a public forum, and literally anyone can see what I’ve said.

The church pulpit is an equally heavy responsibility when it comes to the gravity of the words we choose. However, we sometimes become a little bit too comfortable in our familiar surroundings. Even if and when there is a camera present, it’s easy to lapse into the false sense that we’re speaking in confidence to close friends.

I saw such an example of this in a video from offered on the Huffington Post religion page, in which a small child offered a song in his church called “Ain’t No Homos Gonna Make it to Heaven,” which was met by a standing ovation by the adults in attendance.

I would like to think that most, if not all, of the people at that service would be mortified by the fact that this video has gone viral. My guess is they felt as if they were sharing a private moment, which is no excuse, but which often modulates how much – or at least in what way – we express our opinions.

Pastor Charles Worley

Then there’s the matter of Pastor Charles Worley, about whom I wrote two days ago. This piece has gained a good deal of attention, and has sparked some lively discussion as well. The focus of my article was about whether Worley violated his church’s 501(c)3 nonprofit status with the government by telling people who to vote for – or who not to vote for, rather – in the coming presidential election.

But there is a second issue at play here, which is whether Pastor Worley should be personally criminally liable if anyone acts on his words in a way that results in violence toward a member of the LGBT community, whom he roundly condemns. I actually have been engaging in an interesting back-and-forth with my friend, Andrew, about this very issue. Here are some excerpts from what we’ve said:

ANDREW: When does this vitriol — and I’m speaking a straight, white guy here — become a hate crime? I’m all about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but seriously. When is enough enough? If we’re going to use scripture to defend heinous viewpoints, shouldn’t we also be using it to defend ownership of human beings, among other things?

ME: I think there is a distinct legal difference between saying publicly that you advocate for slavery and the actual legal ownership of slaves. For what it’s worth, I support the rights of lots of people to say thing I find repugnant; if they or others act on those sentiments, that’s entirely another issue.

ANDREW: But at the same time, Christian, if you were to find a person who was inclined to, for example, kill gays and you fed him rhetoric about the evils of homosexuality and incited him to murder by giving him a sort of God-sent dispensation, wouldn’t you yourself be somewhat legally liable? If a bartender over-serves a customer who then kills somebody, the bartender is partially liable (legally speaking), so why not the priest who spouts this crap?

ME: I agree if you call for killing, it’s a crime as clearly stated in the law. But this guy is very savvy about suggesting they be rounded up to basically die off by attrition, so he’s calling for mass internment rather than murder. Then again, that’s how the Nazi relocation programs began. I’m not saying it’s perfect logic, but we do have to be very mindful about protection of speech, as I’m sure you’re equally sensitive to as a writer.

ANDREW: My point is that if a zealot is predisposed to murder and then hears his preacher screaming about homosexuality as a sin, homosexuality as the end of the world (etc), shouldn’t said preacher be held criminally responsible when the guy goes out and does what he was incited to do?

ME: I’m just not sure. What about the old hype back in the 80s that Ozzy Osbourne should be liable for a teenager’s death because when he was found dead, he also had a tape of Ozzy in his tape deck and one of the songs was called “Suicide solution?” My question is whether the hypothetical killer is acting of their own volition, given that there is no negative consequence if they don’t act on the leader’s rhetoric (different with someone like Molosevic who would punish soldiers for not carrying out his wishes), or if he has a responsibility (legal, that is; a moral obligation is self-evident, I think) to stem his rhetoric in case someone acts on it.

This is a tough one for me personally, because on the one hand, I want to jump on board with the idea that people simply can’t say such hateful, arguably violent, things. But then I’m equally concerned (if not more so) about the hands into whom we would divest that power to decide what we say is acceptable and what isn’t. For example, I wrote a novel some time back in which two characters set up a faked suicide. But what if a reader get a wild hair after reading that scene and tried to replicate it, but ended up dying in the process? Am I liable for their death in some way?

Consider this from a similar but different angle. Say we rule that legally a public figure – or even more specifically, a minister – can’t say these things, Are they still bound by the same rules if they claim what they’re saying is a fictional performance? Basically if I’m Pastor Worley and you tell me I can’t speak as the leader of my church about rounding up gay people, then I’d just claim I was putting on a play, in which I played the character of Pastor Worley, a guy who happens to share all of my personal views.

Now am I still liable?

If so, does that mean that every comic book, movie, novel and cartoon is now bound to eradicate any images that could be considered violent, hateful, objectionable or potentially could lead someone to imitate them illegally?

You see the problem with determining where the line is.

When the dust settles, I’m personally still inclined toward a more civil libertarian understanding of the broad protection of free speech. Defending the rights of people whose views I despise is hard, but I tend to believe that the further we can keep the government from our rights of free speech, the better.

That includes the pulpit, and yes, even the congregation who offers a standing ovation to a boy singing about gay people being kept out of heaven.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://revericatcheson.blogspot.com/ Rev. Eric Atcheson

    I’m all for free speech too, but regarding whether or not we are to work at “determining where the line is,” well, that ship sailed long ago.  The US has already declared several categories of expression to not be protected speech, including incitements of violence in the Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire.  That piece of case law is pretty clear–it doesn’t have to end in murder, because such incitements inherently breach the peace and so should not be considered protected speech.  Justice Samuel Alito (not a fellow I often agree with) powerfully and compellingly upheld this viewpoint in his dissent in Snyder v. Phelps.

    So if someone hears a pastor say from the pulpit  that gays, or racial/ethnic groups, or women, etc. are deserving of violence simply because of who they are, and then that person commits an act of violence against one of those demographics, I think that legally, there is a reasonable case for trying to hold that pastor (in addition to the perpetrator) criminally, if not at least civilly, liable.

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com/ Christian Piatt

       ahh, but he was quite careful not to explicitly call for violence. it was dehumanizing and certainly could have been implied but he didn’t say it.

      • http://revericatcheson.blogspot.com/ Rev. Eric Atcheson

        But I have to think that, legally, rounding people up against their will on the basis of their sexual orientation pretty obviously constitutes violence.  Think of how the Korematsu decision on the internment of Japanese-Americans is viewed today.

  • Liesl L Gray

    So I guess rounding people up and leaving them to die is the passive-aggressive’s incitement to violence? 

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com/ Christian Piatt

       He certainly dances along the fine line, which is why it was worth two posts this week, I think.

  • Redblood

    That someone taught that innocent child to sing that song makes so so very sad.  Mr. Worley and the fact that he is a pastor influencing people also makes me really sad.

  • okpage58

    I will only say that any and all of those who attend this church are fools…

  • Mroge

    It is an interesting dilema.  I don’t know the legalities of this, but I will say that one good thing has come out of this: “The Good Rev” has shown his true colors as a bigot and a fraud.

    As far as the kid’s song is concerned, I think it is sad and wrong. I am afraid that my speakers are out and I cannot listen to it, but unless he is singing about killing gays I think it does fall under free speech.

    The problem is that people do have a right to their beliefs, even if they are misguided. Many Christians do believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I don’t expect them to change their minds about it.

    What I do expect that is that in a free country that they act like civilized human beings and respect other people, even if they disagree with their life choices.

    No one would seriously suggest stoning adultorers in this day and age, and neither should should they advocate killing gays.

    Jesus never advocated killing ANYONE, much less gays.

    • dekem

      Some people – specifically me – have changed their minds about whether practicing homosexuality is wrong. I did it publically on my blog, revising a previous post.

      Allowing freedom of speech can allow people to dig their own grave when thinking people can see how outrageous their views are

      • mroge

        I am glad that you have changed your mind. I used to be anti-gay too but not to the point of lecturing them or advocating violence. I have been in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs for many years. The Bible has been a hard puzzle for me because of all the contradictions in it, and yes I do think that it makes harsh judgments about a lot of things, including gays. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot accept it as the inerrent Word of God.

        There are many things that just don’t make sense in this day and age. I cannot believe that God would condone stoning adulterers, making women marry their rapists, slavery, and killings gays. We critisize other religions for doing the same things and yet it is in our own Bible as well.

        I believe that Jesus was a reformer who was trying to reform some of those injustices, and I believe that in that spirit he would not condone violence and discrimination against gays or anyone else.

        I still can’t say that I am a Christian in the traditional sense, but I do believe in the compassion that Jesus showed others.

        What is your blog address? I would like to see it.

  • LightByGrace

    A friend of mine once said that to truly support liberty you must be willing to defend that of those you disagree with the most. There are lmitations to free speech such as that which incites panic (shouting fire when there isn’t) or violence (fighting words, etc)…I don’t know if the bigotted reverend’s opinions on gays could be exempt from protected speech or not. But I also lean toward keeping the govt as far away from our freedom of thought/opinion as possible.

  • JESSEJJ

    The pastor kept saying ” think about it” and made reference to intimate acts.  I guess you would say that all that filthy thought is his own. The sin is his. Nobody makes him think those things and I do believe that most decent people would not walk up to each other and make filthy remarks about their intimate life. That is unacceptable in our society and to degrade people in that way is the last thing our Savior Jesus Christ would have done! To say such disgusting things in the name of Christ is something unbelievable to me. To wish such things upon others is a terrible thing. How many millions of people died because of people like Pastor Worley! He not only mocks gay people, but all those people who actually lost their lives in such camps and in my opinion, he mocks God. Wouldn’t you say that such hate comes from a being that is opposite to God? Life is so short and what a shame to see people use in such a horrible, demeaning way


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