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Last Days of the First Amendment

Vicious attacks on the free press and an upside-down view of the separation of church and state put the First Amendment at risk.

Gov. Greg Abbott turned the First Amendment on its head when he signed a bill that legalizes religious discrimination by child welfare providers. The law’s expansive language applies in an almost unlimited number of circumstances. Under the law, if you have a “sincerely held religious belief” against people wearing sandals, you can toss them from your restaurant and send them to the bootmaker.

The law clearly panders to certain extremist sects that believe “religious freedom” means they are free to discriminate against those who do not follow their doctrines. It’s as though they believe Jesus said, “Hey, if you got a stone in hand, throw it! Aim for the head.”

James Madison’s passion for religious liberty was aroused when he discovered his Anglican Church was discriminating against Virginia Baptists. He called their discrimination a “diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution.” That should have been in the bill analysis of HB3859, the “freedom to discriminate” bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Abbott.

It would appear Abbott and supporters of the measure believe that if everyone can discriminate against anyone, it can’t be argued the law violates the constitutional prohibition on the state establishment of religion. This is a bit like Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. It’s clear who’s asking for the right to discriminate, just as it’s clear Trump wants to keep out followers of a particular religion. The Courts have not been kind to Trump on this score.

As for the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and the press, well, Trump and his followers seem to believe that’s “fake news.”

This week, Trump ally Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host, called for government takeover of the American news media. Back in May, Trump was handed a ceremonial sword after a speech to the Coast Guard Academy. Homeland Security Director John Kelly suggested to Trump that he “use it on the press.”

Trump’s vicious verbal attacks on political journalists are never ending. Journalists are “enemies of the people.” Discounting disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s nutty “nattering nabobs of negativism” name-calling, Trump’s assault is unprecedented. So are his many threats to sue media outlets and reporters who don’t accede to his demands.

Here in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his minions have taken to verbally “pantsing” journalists. You can’t make this stuff up. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms staff asked journalists about the brand of their pants to make certain they conformed to a new dress code. Do you know the brand of your pants?

More seriously, journalists are all but banned from the floor of the Senate.

They are confined to a small press table. In a kind of carnivalesque cake-walk, when the Senate’s music starts and the chairs are full, other reporters must go upstairs to the gallery, their access to lawmakers denied.

Trumpists like Abbott, Patrick and the like see enemies everywhere. Are you a journalist? You are the enemy. Do you belong to the approved church and follow its doctrines? You are a heretic and less than a full citizen. Are you Latino? Look out, ‘cause the man is watching and you or your mom, dad, grandma or grandpa might be arrested.

It’s almost worth feeling a bit sorry for the Trumpists in their bigotry and confusion. Not really. For they are in their zealotry trying to strangle the First Amendment, which should be read as a constitutional provision that protects everyone from everyone else, not a privileged few from those they disapprove of.

The First Amendment does not yet “lie a-mouldering in the grave.” We can hope the courts will toss the state’s assault on religious freedom. A free press remains free whatever brand of pants journalists are required to wear. But the First Amendment will not survive unless we see to its survival.

You might want to silence someone or refuse service to someone who believes differently than you. But I’m guessing you don’t want to be silenced or refused service. If so, the First Amendment is your best protection.

As the saying goes, we all put our pants on the same way, whatever brand they are.