1st Amendment protects civil rights of all

A few weeks ago, a Ku Klux Klan group and the New Black Panther Party rallied on the same day at the State House in Columbia and some legislators want to take action to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Never mind that they have many more serious matters to deal with such as highway funding and legislative ethics.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, a dairyman/businessman from Gaffney, says “Common sense is needed in determining the who, when and where for demonstration activity.” Peeler spoke at a legislators’ meeting reported by Jamie Self of The State newspaper. Peeler was quoted as saying he plans to introduce legislation setting State House rules on demonstrations.

He also mentioned practices at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, but those rules likely are not as restrictive as Peeler envisions. U.S. Capitol Police rules for rallies are quite flexible, as they should be.

“Groups of 20 or more are supposed to apply for a permit. But if they show up without one, police try to accommodate them,” Self reported. Groups may reserve space at the same time, side by side. And the kicker: “All demonstrations, regardless of their cause, are welcome as long as protestors do not break the law.”

There were no serious problems on July 18 when the KKK group, from North Carolina, and the New Black Panther Party were on the State House grounds at the same time. As much as the KKK is out of step with the times and the feelings of most folks, it would be a serious mistake to attempt to prevent such groups from having a rally on public grounds.

The right to assemble is protected by the First Amendment, along with religion, speech and press. These are precious American freedoms and they apply to all individuals and groups, no matter their points of view, color of skin, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Atheists and agnostics have the same civil rights as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’” writes the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law School. “This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.”

And while many of the nation’s founders were profoundly religious men, they crafted the blueprint for the country with protection against the dominance of any one religion. Much of the angst over same-sex marriage misses that important point.

The Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage was about equality under the law. Nothing in the ruling requires ministers of any faith to perform same-sex marriages, which expands liberty because state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages restricts the freedom of pastors and churches in whom they may join in holy matrimony. The ruling expands civil liberty for all, not only those wishing to legally marry partners of the same gender. It’s axiomatic that morals cannot be legislated; nor can they be adjudicated.

Striking the Confederate battle flag on the capitol grounds – which led to the July 18 side-by-side rallies of opposing forces – was not about individuals’ freedom to display the flag on their pickups, at their homes, outside their businesses.

The rub was officially flying the battle flag on public property. Without question, the Confederate flag is for many divisive, a symbol of violent racism; just as clearly, for others it stands for pride in ancestry or Southern heritage. The Associated Press (Mark Scolforo and Jeffrey Collins) reported, “Others see it as a symbol of their right to challenge authority in general, and the federal government in particular.”

One may appreciate the legislative concern over opposing forces having rallies on the capitol grounds at the same time. The potential for misbehavior provides no demonstrated need to tinker with the First Amendment.

It is not coincidence that the cherished first freedoms are at the top of the Bill of Rights. The right to assemble cannot be limited for one or two groups, no matter how far on the fringe of society, without limiting the right for everyone.