DOWNSIZING THE FIRST AMENDMENT
by Conrad F. Goeringer
September 30, 2020
Religious conservatives and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani say that the taxpayers
shouldn’t have to fund blasphemy But is the squabble over an art exhibit part of a
larger agenda to restrict free expression, including the right to criticize religious
isten to Mayor Giuliani, Cardinal John O’Connor, or the Catholic
League for Religious and Civil Rights and one would believe that the
venerable Brooklyn Museum of Art has become the equivalent of one
of those seedy peep-shows that used to dot the cityscape near 42nd
Street. One can almost see the museum’s esteemed director, Arnold
Lehman, sporting a plaid jacket and standing outside with smarmy look
as he accosts grandmothers and youngsters... “Wanna’ see some dirty
The “dirty pictures” in question are part of an exhibit at the Brooklyn
Museum aptly titled “Sensations.” Included is a piece by artist Chris
Ofili, winner of the 1998 Turner Prize for art, which depicts the Virgin
Mary with African features and skin, embellished with a clump of
elephant dung and pictures of buttocks. It certainly lives up to the
promise and warning of the exhibition, that it provoke our attention,
jar our sensibilities and prompt us to look at the world in different
But Mayor Giuliani brands the exhibit “disgusting,” “blasphemous”
and an insult to Roman Catholics. The Catholic League for Civil Rights,
echoes the refrain, and plans on distributing vomit bags this Saturday
in a protest outside the museum. Cardinal O’Connor, never shy when
it comes to presenting the Vatican stamp of approval or condemnation
on popular culture, says that he is “grateful to city officials” for taking
steps to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum, and institute a coup
d’etat by obtaining a court order to seize control of that institution.
There is a familiar cant here which declares that since government is
funding the museum, taxpayers -- presumably through their elected
representatives like Mayor Giuliani -- should therefore “have a say” in
determining what is exhibited. William Donahue of the Catholic League
suggests that Catholics, and indeed anyone else who finds the
materials objectionable, should not be compelled to pay for such “art”
through tax money. The same objection crops up yearly when
Congress debates the funding for groups like the National Endowment
for the Humanities; poster kids for the Christian Coalition rise from
their seats in the House or Senate, and begin denouncing some work
of publicly funded art which consists of a crucifix submerged in a jar of
They may have a point. Atheists, after all, usually object to the public
funding of religion as not only a violation of the separation of church
and state, but a form of coercion that requires the nonbeliever to
subsidize religious groups and practices. Surely this is wrong, as
Madison, Jefferson, and the U.S. Supreme Court have opined.
The issue in New York City, though, may not be so much about the
public funding of things which religious groups find “blasphemous”, but
more the fact that such artwork, opinions, or writings are permitted in
the first place. The Catholic League takes aim at a host of
privately-funded events, including films like “Stigmata” and “Priest.”
The League has yet to display what may be its true colors in
demanding that government ban such cultural fare, but it is interesting
to note that in the New York Legislature, at least one bill proposes to
ban anything that “insults” or denigrates the religious beliefs, symbols
or practices of any group.
Mayor Giuliani insists that the city is well within its proper role in
trying to shut down the “Sensations” exhibit, and seize control of the
Brooklyn Museum of Art since its directors have defied His Honor’s
dictates. Museum directors are outraged, and so are civil libertarians.
Whatever merit there is to the argument who pays the piper picks the
tune, these people still see a dangerous form of censorship at work.
Were Giuliani and Cardinal O’Connor to prevail, we would have a
situation where only that which passed the scrutiny of certain
government and religious elites would be displayed in “the peoples”
galleries. Do we want that?
Giuliani could not appeal to taxpayers when he instigated his
notorious “cleanup” of 42nd street and other venues across the city
populated by exotic bars and adult bookstores. Alas, the U.S.
Supreme Court continued its agenda to downsize the First Amendment
by upholding the “right” of New York City (and other government
entities) to zone out of existence private establishments related to the
sex industry. One can presumably locate a religious book shop on
42nd street which peddles literature depicting gays as sinners, or
Jews and blacks as spawns of the devil. Just try selling a magazine,
though, which might have pictures of consenting adults engaging in
some of the most pleasurable acts we can experience in life...
We may be dangerously close to a time when
some political or religious group will actually propose making
blasphemy a “hate crime,” ...
The appeal to the taxpayer -- the argument that Catholics or some
other groups should not be compelled through public funding to pay for
an exhibit of “blasphemous” art, like the one presumably at the
Brooklyn Museum -- is only part of a larger set of clichés and
rationales for chipping away at the First Amendment. The Christian
Coalition and its supporters on capital hill are quite willing to use the
power of the state in regulating or banning forms of communication
which have little or no taxpayer subsidy -- movies, video games, and
television programs. There is no public funding of rap lyrics, but that
has not stopped William Bennett, Delores Tucker or even (at the other
end of the ideological spectrum) Tipper Gore and friends from trying to
censor rap lyrics. No one is compelled to purchase or view these
offerings, and there seems to be a thriving market for them where this
“public” casts its votes in the form of dollars.
It is revealing that Giuliani told the New York Times: “There is
nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting
projects.” By this criteria, the First Amendment is some
feather-weight, anemic statute that only defends only that which does
not need defending -- that which is not provocative, disruptive,
controversial, thoughtful and heretical.
Ideally, the arts community will continue and support the trend of
severing its ties to public funding. Difficult as this may be, artists do
have to become like the rest of us -- paying our own way as much as
possible. The realpolitik of the situation is that purse strings do
constitute a form of control and censorship. Only by breaking this
dependency can the arts, or anything else, achieve any sort of real
independence from the likes of Mayor Giuliani and Cardinal O’Connor.
The problem will not end there, of course; church and state will
continue to appeal to some other chimera as the rationale for
censorship -- “public morality,” whatever is in fashion at the time, is
often a favorite.
It wasn’t that long ago when “blasphemy” was a term found mostly
in history books, horror movies with Inquisition themes such as
burning the witches at Salem, or in the sanctuaries of back-swamp
churches. No longer. We may be dangerously close to a time when
some political or religious group will actually propose making
blasphemy a “hate crime,” as occurred in England when
demanded that the notorious Blasphemy Statutes be enforced against
Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. Back then -- it was only a
decade ago -- Cardinal O’Connor pronounced the novel a blasphemous
“insult” to Christianity even though he had not read a copy. As
Moslems rioted in cities throughout the world, O’Connor joined the
ranks of western, mostly Christian clergy declaring that no criticism or
insult to religious belief should be tolerated. The silence of Catholic
Protestant and even Jewish leaders was deafening when it came to
defending the right of Salman Rushdie to express his thoughts, or of
the public to evaluate them.
“Sensations” may not be great art. Ofili’s painting may not be my
choice for a wall poster, or yours. But do we want Mayor Giuliani,
Cardinal O’Connor, or some group of political or religious experts
deciding that for us? I say no way, Rudy!
As for the First Amendment, the mayor needs a civics lesson. It is
precisely those things which he, or someone else, may find
“disgusting” and “blasphemous” that require the protection of that first
entry into our Bill of Rights. It protects those opinion and expressions
which any of us may find insulting, dangerous, subversive, in poor
taste and, yes, even crossing the line into outright blasphemy.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.