2011 Winning Essay

"Liberty and Sensitivity: The First Amendment in the Post-9/11 World"

by Thomas Park Beaver
Western Branch High School, Chesapeake VA


In 1977 the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America planned a march through the Jewish community of Skokie in Cook County, Illinois. The marchers would wear Nazi uniforms and swastika armbands. Cook County ruled that the marchers were not allowed to carry out their demonstration, and the case was appealed up through the Illinois court system. Eventually the US Supreme Court intervened and the Nazi march was determined to be protected under  the 1st Amendment.   

Though the National Socialist Party of America did not actually hold its rally in Skokie, it was decided by the Supreme Court that they had the right to protest wherever they pleased – even at great emotional cost to the Jewish citizens of Skokie. So the case of National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie established a precedent: the concept of sensitivity does not enter into American law. It follows that there should be no “sensitivity zone” around the Pentagon.

Parallels may be drawn between the situation in the DC community near the Pentagon and the case of National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie. Non-Muslim residents of the community find the construction of the mosque offensive, just as the Jewish residents of Skokie were outraged by the Nazi protestors. And just as the Nazi protestors were allowed, if they so wished, to march through Skokie; so too are the Muslim residents in this community fully entitled to construct a building that may offend their neighbors.

Yet there are key differences that must be noted. For one, the Muslims in this DC community have done nothing to deserve the prejudice of their neighbors. They are being discriminated against simply because they are Islamic. The Nazis were obvious belligerents in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, but in this situation it is the non-Muslim residents who provoke the Muslims through absurd demands, such as a requirement for the congregation to pay for two full-time police officers. Bear in mind that no other religious institution in this area has received such a demand. Furthermore, the Muslims in this community have been meeting for three years in a rented warehouse. They do not represent some maleficent outside influence; they are already members of the community. In fact, Azziz Scott, a member of the congregation, is on the County School Board and is the president of his home owners’ association. As law-abiding American citizens, these men and women are entitled to construct their mosque wherever they see fit.

Yet this county will not allow it. The amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance, which requires religious centers to provide bright lighting in their parking lots, is an obvious attempt to bar the construction of the mosque. The pretext of the amendment is to reduce crime in the community, but if this were the case, why are lights not required at recreation or senior center parking lots, or other institutional buildings? It seems to me, if the county truly sought to reduce crime, they’d require lights across a broader range of locales. The fact that lights are required only at religious institutions indicates that the amendment is a blatant attempt to inhibit the construction of the mosque. As such, it is a breach of the Liberty Clause of the 14th Amendment, which reads “No State shall... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” And, furthermore, the proposed amendment violates the 1st Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of religion.

That guarantee is contained in the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ....” Indeed, no government should have the power to impose restrictions on private religious uses of property. As early as the turn of the 18th century political philosophers were beginning to understand the necessity of this separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is a multi-faceted concept. On the one hand, a government should not espouse one particular church or religion as its own; on the other, a government may not make restrictions regarding the private exercise of religion. We are concerned chiefly with the latter of these two corollaries. The Muslims who desire to build the mosque are private citizens seeking to construct a private institution. Therefore the government has no right to directly or indirectly obstruct the building of the mosque.

It follows that it is not within the power of the county to impose a special requirement for the mosque to hire two full-time police officers; and it is certainly unacceptable for the county to require the congregation to fund a memorial to 9/11 victims. Perhaps the presence of the police officers would ease tensions between Muslim townspeople and non-Muslims, but the American government at any level should not have the power to dictate the specifics of a private organization to its members. That is authoritarian, intrusive, and anti-democratic. The same is true of the requirement for the congregation to fund the 9/11 memorial. That requirement seems to imply that the Muslims in the community are somehow responsible for the attacks on 9/11. This is degrading to these hardworking individuals who constantly strive to overcome stereotypes and to contribute to their community. Despite the fact that the district associates these law-abiding American citizens with the 9/11 terrorists, the congregation has offered to pay for a widening of the road and the construction of new turn lanes for the streets around the Mosque, so as to reduce traffic problems.

This congregation wants to work with its community. It also wants to practice its faith in a country that prides itself on freedom and liberty. There should be no issue here. If the district continues to hinder the construction of the mosque, the Muslim community should file a federal class-action law suit on the grounds that their right to freedom of religion is being infringed upon.

Updated: May 25, 2011