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.
A disturbing factor in the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people and of deaths in police custody is that many of the victims were apprehended for petty offenses. Sandra Bland was stopped for not signaling a lane change, Samuel DuBose for a missing license plate, and Walter Scott for a busted taillight. A trend among municipalities is to issue fines as a means of generating revenue, and this onerous strategy falls disproportionately on people of color, many of whom are poor themselves. Not having the means to pay the fines can land them in jail, resulting in job loss and perpetuation of poverty—and increased distrust of law enforcement (Mother Jones, September/October).