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Marci A. Hamilton

Why The Obama Administration Should Have Strongly Opposed the UN Religious Defamation Resolution


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Islamic countries recently have been pushing the United Nations to adopt a resolution that would make "religious defamation" a civil rights violation. Their theory is that it should be a human rights crime for anyone to speak negatively about a religion. Their aim is to bring the world community to their side in condemning the public criticism of Islamicism in any and every context, including that of political cartoons.

Their latest gambit has been to introduce a UN resolution against religious defamation. Instead of stoutly and loudly rejecting such a dangerous principle, as it should have done, the Obama Administration joined Egypt in crafting a misguided compromise resolution. The new Resolution, unfortunately, was adopted unanimously.

That was a grave mistake, which may take a heavy toll on free speech and prevent the rightful condemnation of terrorist groups that act under the guise of religion.

Why the U.S.'s Compromise on the "Religious Defamation" Resolution Was a Mistake

Instead of outlawing religious defamation, the Resolution the U.S. supported states the following:

"The Human Rights Council. . .

4. Also expresses its concern that that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents;"

According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the original proposed resolution against religious defamation was unacceptable to the United States because "[t]he protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions." However, according to the Associated Press, Clinton also "said that the United States was opposed to negative depictions of specific faiths" – which sounds very much like an anti-free speech position.

There are many reasons to be concerned about where the Obama Administration has drawn the line on this issue. First, in light of the threat posed by groups embracing a militant and violent form of Islamicism, and in the memory of 9/11 and the other atrocities worldwide that have been committed by members of this movement, the religious defamation Resolution afforded the perfect moment for the Obama Administration to say that even religious groups must be publicly condemned at times, and with the most forceful rhetoric, when religion and terrorism unite. (Of course, this point does not apply to Islam alone; a Christian anti-abortion group that condones the murder of women and/or their doctors similarly does not deserve protection from sharp criticism.)

Instead of merely acceding to the compromise resolution, the Obama Administration, through Secretary of State Clinton, should have first attacked the proposed religious defamation resolution full force, and then reminded the world of what Americans think of militant Islamicism with its drive to destroy America and all it represents.

To take a position in favor of suppressing speech about religions—especially at this time in history--is to choose to put aside one of our most important weapons against death, oppression, and tyranny. Offering a "middle ground" cedes far more ground than the Islamic countries supporting the resolution– especially those who are host to militant Islamicists yet fail to effectively combat them -- deserve on this point.

A Possible Consequence: Chilling Speech by the Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse, FLDS Child Abuse, and Other Wrongs by Religious Groups and/or Their Members

The second problem with the Administration's position is that the language of the compromise resolution, and Clinton's comments quoted above, threaten to chill certain kinds of speech that are urgently necessary for the public good. While there is no question that the First Amendment does not protect words that incite imminent violence, the resolution also suppresses speech that incites "discrimination" or simply "hostility" -- which is far more troubling.

A current example makes the point. There is a vibrant movement going on across the United States composed of those who have been sexually abused by clergy, and of their supporters. The members of this movement are pushing for legal reforms for all sexual abuse victims. In the course of doing so, they are – as they must be -- heatedly criticizing the churches, synagogues, and faiths that are involved, for their negligent and reckless mishandling of pedophile clergy and their repeated sacrifice of children's wellbeing, safety, and futures in favor of the public image and wealth of the religious organizations. If ever hostility had been earned, this is the time and these are the groups.

The Catholic bishops' response of choice is to accuse those publicly criticizing them in this arena of being "anti-Catholic." According to them, the statute of limitations reforms that are either passed or pending in several states, which benefit all victims of childhood sexual abuse, are really motivated by anti-Catholic bias. They have said this over and over, both in the general press and in their own publications. Meanwhile, the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints have followed the same path as they have tried to deflect attention away from the institutionalized rape – statutory and otherwise -- of girls by middle-aged men by claiming religious persecution, not law enforcement, as authorities' true motive.

Speaking Out Against Certain Religious Groups' Actions Is Often Necessary, and Sometimes Vital

The truth is that the bishops are victims of their own narcissistic worldview. And it is that very worldview that causes them to mislabel the crucially important contemporary public debate about childhood sexual abuse as merely the incitement of discrimination and hostility against them. The Obama Administration now seems to be condoning the very same confusion of free speech and alleged discrimination.

Under the language of the Resolution and under the bishops' worldview, many of my columns and op-eds, and both of my books, would be subject to government suppression. So would the dozens of other books written about the crisis. For the basic claim being made by the bishops is that the very focus on child sex abuse in the church constitutes anti-Catholicism. That kind of outright censorship is not something America should proudly support; it is something America should loudly condemn. Publicly-expressed hostility against the policies that produced child sex abuse victims in religious organizations is not defamation, but rather a demand for the acknowledgement of a long-suppressed truth.

Moreover, such speech is the only way to force recalcitrant institutions to change their entrenched practices to protect children. Many religious traditions share a theology of secrecy, which requires the organizations and their members to keep from the public information about bad behavior inside the institution. Thus, keeping outsiders from criticizing religious groups often means that there will be no pressure to reform criminal and immoral practices. The result is the perpetuation of cycles of oppression and violence. Thus, this "middle-of-the-road" resolution, crafted by Egypt no less, only aids and abets the forces worldwide that seek to keep, and often succeed in keeping, women and children enslaved, undereducated, and controlled.

The Obama Administration has been a persistent disappointment on issues involving religion. This early foray into the international fold is not only disappointing but dangerous. Let us hope the Administration remembers America's free speech values, and recalls the dangers of religious extremism, before it is too late. When religious institutions and groups go far astray, they surely deserve criticism – just as secular institutions and groups do. It is only in theocracies where such groups are above criticism.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.  Her email is

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