Free Speech and the Bible Museum

Exposing religious zealotry is undermined if we are overzealous ourselves.

An effort by the pro-LGBT group Truth Wins Out (TWO) to block the opening of a private Bible museum in the Nation's Capital is a misguided assault on constitutional protections that properly protect everyone, including LGBT Americans and their opponents.

A July 16 New York Times story reported on plans by Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green to convert a building near the National Mall in D.C. into a Bible museum:

Specifics of the exhibits have not been released, but the traveling show of Mr. Green's collection offers some clues. It included theatrical experiences such as hologram recreations of biblical scenes, re-enactments of fourth-century monks transcribing the Bible by candlelight in St. Jerome's Cave and a multimedia "Noah's ark experience."

TWO's Wayne Besen wrote on July 16:

Truth Wins Out strongly urged Washington, DC officials today to reject plans to build a National Bible Museum only blocks from the National Mall. The project ... would make a mockery of surrounding museums, which are based on research, history, and scholarship.

Citing Green's ties to the secretive National Prayer Breakfast group "The Family," Besen wrote:

A Green-funded museum would likely proselytize and promote one radical strain of Christianity, at the exclusion of more tolerant ... versions of the faith. National Mall museums should be about genuine scholarship, not divisive, sectarian efforts to evangelize.

I agree with those two sentences, but the planned Bible museum will not be on the National Mall, nor will it be surrounded by the Smithsonian and other museums. The site at 300 D Street SW is two blocks south of the Mall. What is the radius of the Evangelism-Free Zone Besen would impose on privately owned property in the vicinity of the Mall, and how could he legally justify it? He does not say.

D.C.'s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), of which I am president, defends the First Amendment freedoms of everyone, including our opponents. (See this, this, this, and this.) That includes their right to spend their own money to advance their own expressive purpose. It does not include a right to subsidies from taxpayers; but the creators of a privately funded museum on private property do not lose their constitutional rights on account of its being "only blocks from the National Mall."

Our entire country is a free speech zone. Besen's statement is rather shocking and recalls his disregard for our opponents' First Amendment rights years ago when he worked for the Human Rights Campaign and supported censoring "ex-gay" public service announcements in the D.C. Metro system. Using the government to suppress ignorant and obnoxious viewpoints is not only heavy-handed and improper, it is unnecessary since we have the better arguments and science on our side.

In the 1980s, what was then GAA persuaded the D.C. government to deny a street closing and a bond issue sought by Georgetown University for its law school until the university stopped discriminating against a gay student group. In that case, Georgetown sought special privileges that amounted to a public subsidy, not a permit to which anyone is entitled who meets the requirements and pays the designated fee. Georgetown was engaging in anti-gay discrimination in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, not merely expressing disagreeable or ignorant views.

There is both confusion and disagreement regarding the proper limits of government regulation that might impinge upon free speech. I have written previously about GLAA's support for D.C. Bill 20-501, the Conversion Therapy for Minors Prohibition Amendment Act of 2013. That bill is designed to protect youth from discredited and dangerous practices disguised as licensed health care. It is narrowly crafted, and is a far cry from using occupancy and other standard city permits to suppress speech. Our opponents have a right to their propaganda, as we have a right to counter it with the truth.

Reporter Lou Chibbaro of the Washington Blade, who sought my comments for a story about the museum, told me that the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) said it is only reviewing an application for the building intended to house the museum (currently home to the Washington Design Center, which is moving downtown) to be declared a historic structure. Chibbaro also said that the HPRB staffer he spoke with said he did not believe a new zoning designation was needed for a museum.

In the late 1970s, when I first became involved in what was then GAA, we were fighting the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for the right to run our "Someone In Your Life Is Gay" ad campaign on Metro buses. We won that fight, because WMATA is quasi-governmental and is therefore barred by the First Amendment from picking and choosing the viewpoints it will accept in advertising. We cannot deny others the same rights for which we fought 35 years ago.

I want to stress that I think Besen is doing important work. His Center Against Religious Extremism states:

A nefarious multi-million dollar campaign, designed and executed by American fundamentalists, is underway to drag the world back into the Dark Ages. ... The Center Against Religious Extremism (TWOCARE) is a Truth Wins Out program designed to monitor, counter, and ultimately serve as a bulwark against this ignoble enterprise.

TWOCARE's monitoring efforts are valuable, but do not require suppressing the First Amendment rights of those who oppose us. As the ACLU says, the proper response to offensive speech is more speech. I respect and appreciate Besen's efforts to expose anti-gay junk science and religious extremism. I would support GLAA joining him in opposing, say, recognition of a National Bible Museum by Congress. I would also support public education efforts to thwart any designs by the Hobby Lobby owners to fool people into thinking their museum is in any way connected with or comparable to the museums on the Mall. At the same time, I recall Ben Franklin's maxim: "A fool and his money are soon parted."

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