Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Terror and the Limits of Liberty

April 13, 2011

The famous philosopher Immanuel Kant once noted that the job of philosophy is to know its own limits. The same can be said of the enterprise of protecting religious liberty. In the decades that I have spent arguing and debating on behalf of religious freedom, I often found courts of law best able to grasp the core center of those rights when I could assure them that I also knew how to locate the outer boundaries of those rights. Two recent congressional hearings have investigated, from two very different aspects, the question of Islam in America. There can be no greater policy question facing lawmakers than defining that frontier boundary where religious freedom ends and the power of the government begins. That is exactly the question posed by these investigations. The first was launched in the House of Representatives by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and was aimed at exploring how terrorists are attempting to radicalize American Muslims. The second was in the Senate: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired a hearing held on March 29th, as an apparent response to King, on the subject of the threats to civil rights of Muslims. According to USA Today, Durbin was concerned by “rising Islamaphobia, manifested by Quran burnings, hate speech and restrictions on mosque construction.”

The King hearings, by contrast, were held in the shadow of a rising number of acts of Islamic violence targeting Americans within our borders: the primary attack was on 9/11 of course, led by 19 Muslims, and that attack killed 2,749 in New York City, 184 in the Pentagon and 40 in Shanksville, PA. In the last two years, there have been four more attacks committed by convicted or admitted Muslim jihadists: the shooting of soldiers outside a military recruiting center in Arkansas, the “Christmas bomber” who attempted to blow up an airplane with explosives in his underwear, and a May 1, 2010, attempted car bombing in New York City. A fourth incident, the Ft. Hood massacre, is still awaiting trial. Those who cry “foul” over the King investigation point to abortion clinic violence by purported “Christians.” However, two points need to be made. First, until the shooting of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, a lone act, there have been no acts of targeted violence against abortion providers since 1998. Second, there was an investigation of the predominantly Christian based pro-life movement during the Clinton Administration, when then Attorney General Janet Reno launched a politically motivated grand jury investigation into nationally organized sanctity of life activities: the grand jury found no criminal activity.

What are the civil liberty limits of the rights of Muslims, Christians, or any other religious group? In 1969 the Supreme Court gave us some guidance when it said that First Amendment protection ceases where the “mere advocacy” of ideas, even repugnant ones, starts to morph into “incitement to imminent lawless action.” The expression of beliefs is constitutionally sacrosanct: the call for jihad is not. A posting on Facebook last month called on Palestinian Muslims to kill “all of the Jews.” Less violent but also troubling was the website instruction in January by the California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which describes itself as America’s largest Islamic advocacy group, and which called on Muslims to “build a wall of Resistance: don’t talk to the F.B.I.” In response to all of this, the challenge for Christian citizens is two-fold: first, to realize that the constitutional standard of judgment we levy against Islamic activities is the standard that could someday be used against us. But second, and even more importantly, as we articulate the limits of religious liberty in a terror-riddled age, we have to do so in a way that demonstrates the love of Christ toward Muslims, and that is a love that has no limits.