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Ethics and Religion Talk - What If There Were No first Amendment?

If there was no first amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and your religious tradition was in charge of the country, what laws, if any, would you pass restricting different kinds of speech?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Unitarian Universalists are strong believers in separation of church and state. Therefore, it would be seen as completely wrong to create any law to serve our religious beliefs above any other religion. We are a nation of many religions, but we are a nation of one government. The laws of the land should apply equally to all citizens, never holding one religion’s belief over others. 

We also believe in the first amendment guaranteeing free speech. So as troubling and offensive as free speech might be at times, we would support a person exercising that right. We do not have to agree with the speech, and we understand a person may face consequences for their action, such as voicing hate speech.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

For a Christian like myself, the Commandments of the Decalogue define the boundaries! While the first three commandments refer to humans and their relationship to God, the last seven commandments refer to human relationships with one another. My restrictions on freedom of speech include but are not limited to respecting elders, respecting life, living a chaste life in language and actions, not stealing from others, respecting the reputations of others (including avoiding calumny), respecting neighbors, and avoiding envy.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

It’s a stretch to envision the United States brought into subjection to the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Some of my colleagues do look back to the Prohibition era and sigh for what might have been. In theory Reformed Presbyterians have no objection to our denomination being established by law as the national church. In practice, I suspect we’d soon discover we had a tiger by the tail. Efforts to police the heterogeneous opinions and unruly conduct of our fellow citizens would consume all our time and exhaust our resources. To say nothing of being dragged into the endless controversies of the times!

My own judgment is, the American solution of separating church and state is to be preferred to any effort made to impose Christian beliefs and morals on an otherwise-minded population. The right of free speech gives me liberty to preach the gospel without let or hindrance. The fact that I have to work harder to make myself heard above the cacophony of so many conflicting voices is a small price to pay.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

If there was no first amendment I would hope that American Hindus would band together with others to create one. If we take a look at India as an example, they do have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, but they were introduced early in the republic’s establishment as a means of appeasing Muslims, who take these things very seriously. Hinduism doesn’t have a history of repressing speech. 

It is true that we have been offended by certain merchandizing campaigns or products that are disrespectful of our faith, such as using deities to sell burgers, or placing Ganesh on underwear. But we deal with these by establishing dialogue with companies and educating them, not ever hoping for legal recourse.

My response:

Judaism contains some strong restrictions against speech, true or false, that damages someone’s reputation, roughly falling in the categories of gossip and slander. The newspapers in communities which take this seriously, typically those of a subset of traditional Orthodox, are largely devoid of negative news stories, the majority of which are critical of named individuals. There is an exception in Jewish law for circulating information intended to protect others from harm, so that theoretically publishing the name of a serial sexual predator would be allowed, but I don’t know whether this actually happens in those communities. In practice, I’ve found newspapers from those communities lack the power to transform and elevate the community by holding government accountable to the people, as do traditional reputable news outlets.

Some aspects of what has become Jewish law were created in a context in which Jewish didn’t have the power to enforce those laws widely because Jews were subject to the legal system of the government or sovereign in which they lived. In the state of Israel, the first Jewish experiment in creating a broad society incorporating Jewish values and laws in nearly 2000 years, the legal system is a mixture of Turkish, British, and Jewish law. The founders of the state recognized that a legal system incorporating some Western rights, such as that of free speech, would ultimately create a better society than traditional Jewish law alone.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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