A common complaint that is often heard is, “That offends me!” Generally such a statement is not a mere statement of fact, but is tantamount to saying, “My rights have been violated.” The idea of, “You support homosexual rights” or “you’re against homosexual rights” might offend someone and that someone might then seek to have you silenced, somehow theorizing that you have infringed upon his rights. Or in the case of religion (where this phrase is most often in use) someone might say that religious discussions offend him, which is code for, “You don’t have the right to say this/you’re infringing upon my right.”
What people forget is that while offense might ruin public decorum or impede understanding between two opposing sides, the right to not be offended isn’t a right. If a government employee says, “I believe in Allah and the five pillars of Islam,” while that might offend you, that doesn’t mean your rights have been violated.
The First Amendment does not say, “Citizens shall not talk about religion if it offends someone” or “government employees shall not talk about religion if it offends someone.” For those curious about what the First Amendment states (such as Christine O’Donnell), it says (in part):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Now, what in there says that you have the right to not be offended. Understandably the First Amendment would prohibit the government from telling you what religion to believe or what not to believe, or it would prohibit the government from making you pay taxes to a religious institution (or to an anti-religious institution). But what in there says you have the right to avoid offense?
The thing is, we’ve become so anti-religion that any mention of it and we automatically think a right has been violated. If a congressperson says, “We turn to God for hope,” automatically we believe that the government is forcing us to adopt a religion to the exclusion of all other religions. If a teacher says, “I don’t believe there is a God, but there are multiple viewpoints that you should consider when you look at the issue yourself,” no one’s rights have been violated. It might be offensive, but this certainly doesn’t mean rights have been violated.
The idea of having a separation between Church and State is a good one so long as the State doesn’t overpower the Church in having this separation. The First Amendment addressed religion because the Church overran the State, which then imposed taxes and fines on those who didn’t agree with the Church. In rebelling against such a monster, the State has subdued the Church and made sure she has no voice in public discourse, that is, the State is overrunning the Church, which is now attempting to silence any religious voices in public debate. This was not the meaning of the First Amendment. It seems our courts and legislatures have forgotten that the Government is composed of individuals and those individuals do not give up their rights just because they work for a publicly funded institution. So long as they’re not forcing people to convert to a specific religion (or to give up a religion), they are within the bounds of the Constitution. A judge can invoke God, Allah, or whatever she desires when making a ruling because the judge is still an individual, not some part of a cyborg collective called the Federal Government. A legislature can base his vote on his atheism (or on his theism) so long as the law he votes on doesn’t lead to the promotion or exclusion of a religion. A teacher can talk about religion with his students so long as he doesn’t bash those who disagree. The reason for this is that in every scenario, the individual is still an individual; to require the individual to give up the right to discuss religion or to force the person to abandon his religion actually goes against the First Amendment.
But this stands for any views, even on non-religious issues. Such an open interpretation is going to lead to debate and verbal conflicts, but who is to say such debate is a bad thing? Certainly people will be offended, but the Constitution doesn’t promise them the right to not be offended. When we silence people because we’re afraid of offending people we inherently lower education. Differences aren’t voiced, people decide not to learn, and the education for everyone lowers; what reason do I have to study Islam if I’ll discuss Islam in a public setting? Alternatively, what reason do I have to study my own religion (outside of those who agree with me) if I’ll never have to defend my religious views to those who don’t disagree?
So stand against the idea that we somehow have the right to not be offended. If someone espouses a religious viewpoint that you disagree with, respect that the person has the right even if the person is a government employee. Enjoy the fact that you live in a country where multiple religious narratives can co-exist without violence or fear of oppression. But most of all, even if offended, realize that while you have no right to not be offended, the person offending you by talking about God (or how God doesn’t exist) has every right in the world to espouse his views.