Freedom of Religion is important to Americans. So is freedom of expression. Both freedoms are traditionally guaranteed by the First Amendment, which prohibits government interference in religious freedom either by establishing a religion or by forbidding religious exercises. What was not envisaged was that the “free expression” provisions of the same amendment—from which the freedoms of speech and of the press are derived—could be used to “establish” government attacks on religion. Yet as the Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies unfolded, it became clear that government will not only prohibit many innocent-seeming activities that it judges favorable to a religion, but it will endorse and fund activities that are openly hostile to religion and religious values.

Last August 29, attorneys of the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Virginia, filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the National Endowment for the Arts and its harried chairman, John Frohnmayer, accusing them of taking a position of “open and notorious hostility towards religion.” Thus Rutherford has made explicit, in legal language, what millions of us have sensed.

Specifically targeted was a grant of fifteen thousand dollars by the NEA for the creation and exhibition of a catalogue produced by David Wojnarowicz of New York entitled Tongues of Flame. According to the Rutherford attorneys, “the government-funded catalogue includes an image depicting Jesus Christ as an intravenous drug user and refers to Roman Catholic prelate Cardinal John O’Connor as a ‘fat cannibal.'” “Religious people must no longer be personal targets of cannon fire from National Endowment projects,” Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said.

We have reached the point where things considered acceptable and protected by law if done under secular or antireligious auspices are judged criminal if done for identifiably religious reasons. For example, although state and federal courts have been very generous in granting or extending the Constitution’s right of freedom of speech to various other forms of activities—most recently and notoriously, flag-burning—last February a divided Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a man who “disturbed the peace” by reading the Bible and preaching outside a Hagerstown abortion clinic in May 1988, an offense he perpetrated during three successive periods of two to three minutes each. The Washington Post, a pro-abortion newspaper, came to Jerry Fanes’ defense in a strongly worded editorial. It endorsed dissenting Judge John C. Eldridge’s protests that Fanes “was engaged in free speech in its most pristine and classic form.” Fanes was convicted under an anti-noise statute that specifically bars attempts to “willfully disturb any neighborhood . . . by loud and unseemly noises.” As of this writing he has already served 45 days in jail for his reprehensible behavior.

Most Americans do not, however, believe that every expression ought to be allowed, and certainly not that every expression should be subsidized, regardless of its content. A poll recently published by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Freedom of Expression shows that while people want the freedom to say what they think, they believe that some rather definite limits should be set on public expression and performances, and particularly on government subsidies for the same. The Jefferson Center poll indicated that 90 percent of its 1,500 respondents—supposedly a representative cross section of America—believe the government has no business telling them what to say, and while 74 percent back artists’ rights to display works that might be offensive, 72 percent oppose spending of tax money for “objectionable art.”

This poll reveals that a healthy majority, ranging from about 60 percent to over 80 percent, would grant government the right to censor to some degree public art displays and performances, especially those funded with public money. What is provoking the media uproar about censorship is not fear of the power of a few self-appointed censors, but an awareness of the fact that the general public really does want some standards of decency and civility.