Laws That Shaped L.A.: Los Angeles and the First Amendment

City Hall with Christmas Lighting (1973). Photo by Joe Messinger, photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

Ed. Note: When Laws that Shaped L.A. columnist Jeremy Rosenberg asked James Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles, for his nomination of a key law, Underdown emailed the below essay in reply. Rosenberg's voice returns to this space next week.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: First Amendment (Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution)
Year: 1791
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: James Underdown

By James Underdown

In Los Angeles, the right of free speech has loomed prominently many times in the city's history- from decades long battles over the Hays Code in the movie industry, to huge protests over wars in Viet Nam and Iraq, to the treatment of immigrant workers. We just saw the Occupy movement exercise the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to peaceably assemble. They were not the first to do so, nor will they be the last.

The wildly free exchange of information in this town has both created (Paris Hilton) and destroyed (Fatty Arbuckle) careers, and even produced cottage industries (think paparazzi, TMZ, The Smoking Gun, and gossip TV.)

As long as the First Amendment lives in Los Angeles it will be wielded in the never-ending quest to freely express ideas.

My focus on this pillar of freedom has to do with the First Amendment's 1st clause, also known as the Establishment Clause, which reads:

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How does this aspect of the First Amendment affect us?

Last December, did you wish people happy holidays or merry Christmas (or neither)? Did you rejoice when you passed a crèche in public, or roll your eyes at the perpetuation of a myth? Should L.A. City Hall overtly display Christmas decorations, crosses (like the one shown in the City Hall photo, above), all religious (even secular) displays, or none of the above?

These powerful words have also had a profound effect on the way Los Angeles treats its religious diversity for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Bill of Rights essay winners (1952). Photo by Jensen, photo courtesy USC Digital Archives
Bill of Rights essay winners (1952). Photo by Jensen, photo courtesy USC Digital Archives

Let's look at what freedoms the First Amendment affords us. Unlike theocracies past and present, Angelinos may publicly worship any religion they like, or be openly atheistic. We may display religious icons on private property, obtain permits for parades celebrating religious holidays, and openly criticize or debate a religious belief.

These freedoms well serve a population that includes both the largest Catholic diocese in the U.S., the 2nd largest Mormon Temple in the world, and the 2nd largest Jewish population in the U.S. Here Christian fundamentalists live beside Baptists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists and many others. One could make the argument that the First Amendment has codified religious tolerance here. L.A.'s current religious diversity is testimony to that.

"But most of us are Christian..."

A Constitutional Democracy like the U.S. is designed to insure the equal rights of minorities - whether those minorities are based on race, gender, religion, or other categories. This means that a simple - or even vast - majority may not impose its religious beliefs on the minority without a fundamental change in the Constitution itself.

But that's good news for Angelinos who sometimes find themselves living in an area where some other group holds a religious majority. Would we really want kids in a Fairfax area public school to be forced to wear yarmulkes to class because the area is predominantly Jewish?

Should people in Latino neighborhoods have to attend Catholic mass on Sunday to use local tennis courts or soccer fields? Of course not. But without the First Amendment and the Constitution as a whole, what would stop local majority rule from forcing such requirements in some areas?

So our freedoms do have limitations. While it's not illegal to pray (silently) in L.A. schools or exhibit public religious displays on private property, it is illegal is for public schools to organize, lead, or promote prayer - or any other pointedly religious activity. Likewise, City Hall and other city government buildings should never display a crèche, a cross, a Star of David, a murti or any other religious symbol on their grounds.

Indeed, no level of government should even give the impression of endorsing a particular religious belief - or even belief over non-belief. But why not? A majority of Angelinos are Christian and would not be at odds with such an endorsement.

By placing a manger scene in front of City Hall (for instance), a municipal government would be using the great weight of government to say, "This is what we all believe, what we all support."

The problem with such an overt endorsement of one religion over all others is that it effectively establishes Christianity as the official religion of Los Angeles and so disregards the many tens of thousands of dissenters. The law-abiding, tax-paying Angelinos who follow some other faith or none at all are implicitly demoted to second class citizens. Where is their icon or statue of Robert Ingersoll?

The Mormon Temple in Los Angeles (c. 1936-1958). Photo by Dick Whittington Studio, photo courtesy USC Digital Library
The Mormon Temple in Los Angeles (c. 1936-1958). Photo by Dick Whittington Studio, photo courtesy USC Digital Library

Maybe the answer should be to allow all comers (and nonbelievers) to put up displays. Imagine a forest of religious icons in front of city hall where Jesus and Mohammed stand shoulder to shoulder with L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Buddha, Bertrand Russell and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Ah but this is a bit unwieldy, and can neither accommodate the hundreds of religious beliefs nor the many strains of secular positions - though it would underscore our diversity.

By keeping above the fray as the First Amendment suggests, the city should allow all to worship in their own way - or not at all - simply by remaining neutral, and catering to no one faith. Government should take no position regarding beliefs, the Amendment is saying.

"Holiday" displays that feature fuzzier icons like Santa Claus and snowmen are less clear as to their appropriateness. The winter solstice celebrations of Pagans and the unchurched have been going on for several thousand years, and so predate most current religions.

Personally, as a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, I'm not offended by people wishing me happy holiday any time of year - for whatever they're celebrating. And I'm all in favor of whooping it up a little during the darkest time of year. The Center for Inquiry has an annual solstice party, after all!

All I ask is that you don't tell me what to celebrate, or use my tax dollars and our government to fund one group's religious belief. That sentiment, which I'd think most Americans would agree on, probably gave birth to the First Amendment in the first place.

--James Underdown (as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

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