In the 1990s the U.S. Supreme Court decided a handful of religious liberty cases on the basis of the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The most significant of these was Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995). In that case, the University of Virginia had denied funding to a religious student publication called Wide Awake. The case began with a focus on the establishment clause, and it might have been based on the free exercise of religion—but it ended up being about free speech.
On June 28 a handful of fundamentalist hecklers from the Church of Wells disrupted services at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. As reported in national and local media outlets, security removed the activists after they shouted at the popular preacher and they were arrested. While that June Sunday was not the first time the Wells hecklers visited Lakewood, it represented a bold and memorable confrontation with America’s smiling pastor.
It is easy to dismiss the Wells hecklers as fundamentalist partisans whose messages appeal to a small number of like-minded followers.
Last month, The Atlantic published an online piece by staff writer Megan Garber, “How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals.” The article documented how comedy today in both its standup and situational genres is expanding beyond its minutiae focus of the 1990s in favor of a harder-hitting, message-based style evident in the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Schumer.