Attacks on freedom of speech in the United States have become increasingly brazen in recent weeks. Last month American Atheists were forced to take down billboards criticizing the religious beliefs of U.S. presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates has censured a Baltimore sports team for allowing one of its players to voice his support for marriage equality. The Universal Life Church Monastery, however, believes that every private citizen has the right to express their opinion, so long as they respect the rights of others.
The complaint came from House of Delegates Democrat Emmet C. Burns, Jr. in the form of a letter to Baltimore’s Ravens football team. In his letter, Burns, who represents Baltimore County’s District 10, opined that “[m]any of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide” and “try to sway public opinion one way or another.” Burns was referring to Ravens member Brendon Ayanbadejo, who had “contributed a pair of Ravens tickets to a fundraiser for Marylanders for Marriage Equality,” according to Chris Greenberg of The Huffington Post. Greenberg reports that “Burns asked the Ravens to silence the 36 year-old veteran.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with Burns’s argument is the call to silence Ayanbadejo, as many ULC pastors will agree. Burns, who represents District 10 of Baltimore County, is quite explicit in his request, asking the Ravens to “take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from [their] employees” by ordering Ayanbadejo “to cease and desist such injurious actions.” But the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly gives Ayanbadejo the right to express his support for marriage equality–whether through words or by contributing tickets to a pro-marriage equality organization; it does not give government the right to curtail his right to self-expression.
Burns also suggests there is no precedent for marriage equality support in America’s National Football League. According to Greenberg, Burns claims he knows of no other NFL players who have “done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.” But there are two problems with this “appeal to tradition”. First, in actuality, other NFL players already have done what Ayanbadejo is doing: in August, 2012 the San Francisco 49ers helped create a public service announcement with the “Its Gets Better Project” in support of LGBT youth. Second, even if there were no such precedent, this does not prove that being the first to do something is wrong. Obviously, pioneering efforts require pioneers–individuals who pave new roads like ordained ministers in online churches. So it is with those who voice support for social change in a traditionally macho and conservative occupation like professional football
It is easy to find politicians opposing marriage equality, but it is surprising to find one launching such a bold attack on the free expression of private citizens. In his letter, Delegate Burns not only commits a logical fallacy in his appeal to tradition, but he blatantly disregards a fundamental principle of democracy: freedom of speech. This should concern those who decide to become a pastor in the ULC. It is not the role of government officials to pressure private companies into punishing their employees for expressing their beliefs. Just as our church supports the free speech rights of American Atheists, it also supports the free speech rights of Brendon Ayanbadejo and other professional athletes.