Rev. Nate Walker of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia recently joined an Amici Curiae brief for the case Kalman v. Cortes, which charges a Philadelphia man for blasphemy for trying to name is film company "I Choose Hell" productions. In this sermon, Rev. Nate defends Kalman's right to freedom of belief and speech. He will do so by drawing upon the legacy of various Unitarians and Universalists who were imprisoned, exiled and killed for their so called blasphemous beliefs. Given this history, Rev. Nate will articulate how Unitarian Universalists are poised to help overturn the current blasphemy laws in Pennsylvania. For the complete text click here, including footnotes click here.
BLASPHEMY LAWS A sermon delivered by Reverend Nathan C. Walker on February 21, 2010 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
We begin with readings from the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic traditions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Exodus 22:27 makes clear “You shall not revile God, nor curse the ruler of your people.” Leviticus 24:16 states, “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him….” In Daniel 3:39 Nebuchadnezzar makes a decree, “that every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces…” In the Christian New Testament, the Book of John chapter 10:32-29, reads “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Again they sought to arrest him…” A reading from the Qur’an chapter 9 verse 47: “. . . But they uttered blasphemy . . . if they repent, it will be best for them, but if they turn back, Allah will punish them.” In chapter 28 it reads, “And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: “to us our deeds and to you yours; peace be to you.” And now a reading from three legal documents, the first section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which reads: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of the holy Prophet p.b.u.h. by word, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by importation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet p.b.u.h. shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life…” On January 1st of this year, a new blasphemy law took effect in Ireland. According to the updated Irish Statute Book, the criminal blasphemer is defined as someone who “publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion…” , And finally a reading from a Pennsylvania statute which was enacted in 1977 and modified in 1988: “The corporate name shall not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”According to Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon of the University of Pennsylvania, anti-blasphemy statutes remain on the books in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming in addition to Pennsylvania. This ends our readings. Sermon In the fall of 2007, filmmaker George Kalman came to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to establish a limited liability company named, “I Choose Hell Productions, LLC.” A week later an unsigned letter was received at his Downingtown home explaining that his application was rejected because his company’s name could not “contain words that constitute blasphemy.” Kalman called the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a case challenging the constitutionality of blasphemy laws in Pennsylvania. I joined an Amici Curiae brief submitted by the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and my colleague the Reverend Larry Smith, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Mt. Airy. Together we understood that Unitarian Universalist history offers a unique source of religious and civil meaning for this modern legal case. In a sermon offered here last spring we explored the meaning of the language in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that, on its face, denies Universalists the right to hold public office. You might remember the language: it protected only those citizens who “acknowledge the being of God and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Although the U.S Supreme Court deemed this state law unconstitutional in 1961, it remains on the books. However antiquated blasphemy laws may be, they too remain on the books and are regulated by public officials in our state. In countries like Ireland, similar laws punish those who are perceived as insulting the beliefs held sacred by any religion, which is similar to laws in thirty additional countries. In Pakastan if you make a derogatory remark about the Prophet Mohammad you can be imprisoned if not sentenced to death. These practices can be directly tied to scriptural references in the Abrahamic religious traditions , which are often used to make, administer and apply law. Such a practice can threaten the fundamental human rights of freedom of speech and belief. In this same way, the U.S. courts play a critical role to fiercely uphold our Bill of Rights by asking three questions: (1) does the statute have a secular legislative purpose; (2) does primary effect advance or inhibit religion; and (3) is there excessive government entanglement with religion? Legally, it is clear that any statue that seeks to penalize “blasphemy” or language that “profane the Lord’s name” does not have a secular purpose. Rather it advances the religion of the official that interprets the theological language to be blasphemous. Therefore the purpose is to censor free speech in the name of religion, which results in a dangerous entanglement between the church and state. When anonymous agents are allowed to interpret what is and what is not blasphemous they can easily become a theolgal official – a public servant who uses theology to determine law. Now, there could be officials who will make a sincere effort not to enforce such laws. For example, in an attempt to dismiss the Kalman case, a January 4, 2010 memo was issued from Martha H. Brown, Assistant Counsel to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It states, “Effective immediately, the list [of illegal language] has been revised to eliminate the words: “Christ,” “God,” “hell” and “Jesus.”” In removing these four terms, the list used to determine what is blasphemous is now only comprised of profane curse words, which arguably moots the Kalman case. However, despite this change in administrative interpretation, the law remains the same: corporate names “shall not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” Who is to say that another administrator won’t come along who wants to return to a strict reading of the letter of the law? Take for instance the religious subjectivity of an employee of the Commonwealth who is responsible for applying this Pennsylvania statute. The following testimony of Deputy Parke Decker demonstrates the admitted sectarian approach that theolegal officials took. • Q: And when you see in rejection code 170, when you see the term “Lord” with a capital L, what do you understand that to mean? • A: God in my Catholic upbringing definition, which also is Christian – I should say Christian upbringing, God, like God the Father. • Q: Would you interpret the “Lord” to include anything other than the Christian God? • A: Spelled like this? • Q: Yes. • A: No. No. • Q: So when you are applying rejection code 170, you yourself are basically applying the standards of the Catholic religion; is that correct? • A: Probably. Yeah, probably. Another official, Deputy Joy Drake, was asked, “On what basis would you decide whether the blasphemy provision would apply to a word that might be blasphemous to a non-Christian religion?” The answer: “I would not know.” This clearly demonstrates that not only does the statue itself advance religion, these theolegal officials advance their particular Christian beliefs and are unequipped to protect the right of others who may believe differently. In doing so, they take away not only the freedom of others to practice their religion but to also regulate others speech based on their religious motives. Thankfully the jurisprudence is clear: “The state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.” Despite the legal precedent, the irony of this case is rich. According to the Book of John, Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy. In 1668 the founder of the Providence of Pennsylvania, William Penn, was imprisoned in London for blasphemy ; a century later the founder of our congregation, Joseph Priestley came to Pennsylvania after religious citizens in the Birmingham riots destroyed his home and laboratory. In this context, we must draw upon our civic and religious history to make meaning of the danger of modern blasphemy laws. Take fore example, the Reverend Abner Kneeland who served our sister church in Mt. Airy, the Universalist Church of the Restoration. In 1833, while in Massachusetts he publicly denounced a particular type of Universalist theology: Kneeland stated he believed in “universal philanthropy, universal benevolence, and universal charity…. [and like the Universalists did not] believe in punishment after death.” However, the following fateful words led to his blasphemy trial: He said, “Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes… is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.” In this publication he also called for “equal rights of woman and equality of races and spoke out in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriage.” In rejection of both his theology and his politics, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts charged him with blasphemy, found he had libeled God’s name with malicious intent, and thereby imprisoned him for 60 days. At that time William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison and other dignitaries, “put together a petition for his pardon based on the principles of freedom of speech and press.” I share the stories of Kneeland, and Priestley and Penn, because as Unitarian Universalist in Philadelphia, our history can help awaken in our courts today consciousness of human rights of freedom of speech and belief. Our past provides us a unique lens through which to make meaning about, not only the First Amendment promise of freedom of belief and speech, but also to make meaning of the purpose of our free religious tradition. For example, Eric Isaacson reminds us that “Unitarian Universalists have a particular interest in the issues raised by this [blasphemy] case, in light of [our] denominational history and longstanding rejection of doctrinal orthodoxies and opposition to government control of religion. Unitarians have been despised by some for rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, and Universalists for rejecting the notion of an eternal hell.” I stand before you as a Unitarian Universalist minister who believes that hell is what we make for each other here and now. Hell is not a place but a state of mind, a state of being. But we won’t tell that the officials who allowed five places in Pennsylvania to have “blasphemous” names: Hell Creek, Hell Hollow, Hell Run, Hello Hollow Trial and Hell Kitchen Gap. So if the state can use this sacrilegious term then why can’t Kalman choose hell? When asked why he gave this name to his film company he made the conjecture that life was often hellish and to choose hell “was better than suicide.” Meaning, at some point he was considering taking his own life, recognizing that life was hell: to choose hell, therefore, is to choose life. That doesn’t sound so blasphemous. He is simply recognizing that life is full of suffering and despite such pain life is worth living. And therein lies the moral of this story. Be not quick to judge someone without knowing the true meaning behind their words May we model for our state the practice of deep listening. In closing, the purpose of my participation in filing the Amici Curiae brief is simple. I believe that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is giving our neighbor hell. And in the words of our Universalist ancestor John Murray our purpose is to “give them not hell but hope.” I, therefore, say to the officials of our beloved state, give us all hope that the U.S. Constitution is not an empty promise but a true expression of our collective commitment to build a just and fair union where liberty is not a political slogan but a way of life.
Special thanks to Eric Isaacson, Edwin J Greenlee, Jeffrey Pasek, and Stephanie Gantmas for their legal research and advice. Translations taken from Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society, 1985. Mark 2:5-7 in the Christian New Testament reads, “He’s blaspheming! What can forgive sings but God alone?” Matt 26:65, 66; Mark 14:63, 64; John 10:33 In the books of Luke and Matthew it reads “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but [Acts 7:51; Heb 10:29] the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:31; Luke 11:14). Mark 3:29 says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Later in Mark 14 “they all condemned him as deserving death.” Brigadier (Retd.) Nazir Brigadier, Blasphemy in the Light of the Qur’an, reprinted from Vol. XXII, No. 1 Hamdard Islamicus, Karachi, Pakistan, 1998 Qur’an 28: 55 For a contemporary trial related to this law see, Pakistani Christian Sentenced to Life Under ‘Blasphemy’ Law, Compass Direct News, 27, January 2010. Retrieved on February 17, 2010 at http://europenews.dk/en/node/29417 It goes on to say, “thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and… intends, by the publication of utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.” See Mackey, Robert (2010) Attempt to Break New Irish Blasphemy Law, “The Lede.” January 4, 2010, The New York Times News Blog. Accessed February 17, 2010 at http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/new-irish-blasphemy-law-broken/ It’s interesting to note that David Quinn, a former editor of a Catholic newspaper in Ireland, told NPR the new Irish law may have been introduced not to placate Ireland’s Christian majority, but because “there was a fear that we might get a Danish cartoon-style controversy in Ireland — that some newspaper might publish something that Muslims found highly offensive — and it might have repercussions for Irish trade in the Muslim world.” Accessed on January 3, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122225249 15 Pa.C.S. §1303(c)(2(ii) Gordon, S. B. (2010) >>>> See Freedman, Samuel G. (2009) A Man’s Existentialism, Construed as Blasphemy, New York Times “On Religion”, March 21, 2009. See Rev. Nathan C. Walker, Separation of Religion and State (sermon delivered October 18, 2009 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, citing the Penn. Const. Art I §4 protecting from disqualification only those who “acknowledge the being of God and a future state of rewards and punishments.”) Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) See readings. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Pennsylvania’s 1968 Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. See Rev. Nathan C. Walker Religious Freedom (sermon delivered April 5, 2009 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, which classifies three types of abuses of religious freedom: censorship, coercion, and religious-based violence.”) Walker, N.C. & E.J. Greenlee editors, Whose God Rules a Theolegal Nation? forthcoming 2010. October 29, 2009. Exhibit B in the “Brief Amici Curiae of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and Reverend Larry Smith and Reverend Nathan C. Walker,” pp. 28-29, 40. Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 107 (1968), quoting Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 393 U.S. 495, 505 (1952) Hans Fantel, William Penn: Apostle of Dissent 101 (William Morrow & Co., 1974). John Thomas Scharf & Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, at 1404-06 (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1884) See also the blasphemy trial of Charles Reynolds, a former Methodist minister in Morristown, New Jersey who argued against the infallibility of the Bible in On Trial for Blasphemy, New York Tiems, May 20, 1887 and the Trial of C. B. Reynolds for Blasphemy by Madalyn O’Hair accessed on February 17, 2010 at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/blasph01.htm See See “Kneeland, Abner” in Gordon Stein, editor, The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, pp. 379-380. Amberts, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985. See “Abner Kneeland” by Stephan Papa and Peter Hughes in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography. Ibd. “It was sincerely felt that, while one [Unitarianism] abandoned the foundation of the Christian faith, the other [Universalism] destroyed the foundation of Christian morality.” Leonard Woolsey Bacon, A History of American Christianity 226 (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1897). As a consequence, “the conflict against the two sects called ‘liberal’ was waged ruthlessly, not as against defective or erroneous schemes of doctrine, but as against distinctly antichristian heresies.” Id. at 227. In addition to Freedman’s article, see Morlock, Jackie (2009) “I Choose Hell…” NBC Universal, Inc., February 18, 2009. Accessed on February 17, 2010 at www.nbcnewyork.com/news/weird/I-Choose-Hell-Productions.html.