National experts join local leaders in exploring First Amendment
Nina Totenberg headlines conference at Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
Local faith leaders and community members gathered this week for a national perspective on the First Amendment. Keynote speakers, panelists and attendees of the Sept. 23 program highlighted current struggles with the freedom of religion and its place in American jurisprudence.
“We are fighting for our spiritual lives,” said Rev. Richard L. Freeman Sr., of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock. The need to protect the First Amendment is “critical,” he continued. “If we don’t fight, our children or grandchildren will pay.”
Beyond issuing a call to action, Freeman explored his own relationship to the First Amendment when describing himself as both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.”
In faith, Freeman is “pro-life,” but as an American citizen he is “pro-choice,” he explained to more than 200 listeners at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Katz Auditorium.
Wrestling with such tension is part of the American tradition, explained Michael McConnell, the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
McConnell noted that at this country’s founding, as evidenced by the inclusion of Moses Seixas at George Washington’s 1789 inauguration, the founding fathers made clear that the value of religious liberty was more than simply tolerating the actions of others.
Inviting Seixas to publicly march in a parade, and providing him with kosher food during a feast, exhibited the intentional nature of recognizing religious minorities. “The deliberate effort of inclusion and accommodation set the tone,” said McConnell, for American tradition.
But recent events have demonstrated the difficulties of such inclusion as it’s played out in modern American jurisprudence, McConnell said, pointing to the Supreme Court’s decision that a bakery could refuse to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple’s marriage, or its ruling prohibiting a Muslim prisoner from growing a short beard.
Those concerned with the preservation of the First Amendment, said Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent, would do well to pay attention to current cases like Espinoza v. Montana Department of Taxation, in which the Montana Supreme court decided that religious schools cannot benefit from public tuition aids. At the same time, looking at the decisions of past justices is also instructive, she explained, recommending James F. Simon’s “FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal,” John Jeffries’ “Justice Lewis F. Powell: A Biography” and Jean Edward Smith’s “John Marshall: Definer of a Nation.”
Rabbi Ron Symons, of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, which brought Totenberg to speak, asked his guest why all of her recommendations were biographies.
“I think biographies are a great way to learn history,” she said. “It’s a rare history book that you don’t skip part of. But biographies, if they’re well-written and well-edited, are really a great way to give an insight into America. Hamilton is probably the best example of somebody who was almost forgotten in modern American history and now is such a force because of a biography and play — but first came the biography.”
When a conference attendee asked Totenberg to return to the subject of the current Court’s makeup and discuss whether any of the justices are capable of listening to one another, Totenberg replied that they have “some ability to listen.”
“I do think this group of people are more locked in than previous courts have been because of who they are, and who appointed them and why they were appointed,” she said.
It’s all quite different from when Totenberg began covering the Court decades ago.
“The country wasn’t as polarized, the nominees weren’t as polarized, the people weren’t as polarized and the issues that came before the Court weren’t as polarized,” she said. “In fact, the most polarized cases they tried to stay away from as much as possible. When I was young, up in Court it was the Vietnam War, and they didn’t go anywhere near dealing with a case that challenged the legality of the Vietnam War. It ultimately had to deal with issues involving the draft but it really did everything in its power to stay away from that.”
Totenberg was the highlighted speaker at the Center for Loving Kindness’ day-long program, which also included an address from Witold “Vic” Walczac, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and a panel of local faith and civic leaders moderated by Shannon Perrine, of WTAE.
“Nina Totenberg we knew would just help us better understand what’s going on in the Supreme Court now, and how it is that we can understand what was, what is, what will be and what we should be looking out for,” said Symons.
Although the “intention of this conference was to bring a national perspective on the First Amendment, at the end, our work is local, our work is regional,” said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of Pittsburgh’s JCC.
So it made sense that the concluding panel included Som Sharma, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, Majestic Lane, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, Imam Hamza Perez, Rev. Janet Edwards and Father David Poecking.
“Every single one of them wants religion, the values of religion, to be at the forefront of how it is that we build community without it offending someone else,” Symons said. “If we can seek out, through the Center for Loving Kindness and all the networks that we’re a part of, a way to identify those core values that drive us and that bring us together, as opposed to the things that divide us, and still celebrate and embrace the joy of what it means to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh or Baha’i or whatever your faith is, that you don’t give up on your faith and your ritual, but that you understand how we’re all connected to one another, even beyond the ritual, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
The idea is collaborating, said Schreiber, “together with partners with whom we work with, with whom we’re in relationship, so we’re all working together for a better Pittsburgh that also makes for a better Jewish community.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.