Bradley Lashawn Fowler, a gay man, claims that Christian publishing powerhouses Zondervan Publishing and Thomas Nelson Publishing infringed his constitutional rights. Fowler alleges the companies’ Bibles’ references to homosexuality as a sin made him an outcast from his family and contributed to physical discomfort and periods of “demoralization, chaos and bewilderment.” According to a local TV station, “his family’s pastor used that Zondervan Bible, and because of it his family considered him a sinner and he suffered. Now he is asking for an apology and $60 million, ‘to compensate for the past 20 years of emotional duress and mental instability.'”
When I first saw this case, I thought it was an example of gay activist overreach. But on closer examination, it looks more like a disturbed guy looking for some combination of attention and lawsuit winnings. The news stories make him sound more coherent than he sounds on his website.
The analysis on his website is riddled with misspellings and illogicalities. Here is a verbatim, cut and paste, quotation from his website, with no changes to his spelling or grammar:
After being raised with a religious background and being taught that being gay or a homosexual was a sin, I learned to keep my sexual identity hidden. And like so many other’s, who too, feel the same, this state of mind derived from religious up-bringing. That’s why I was completely distraught after discovering the term-homosexual-was added to the bible, in 1982, and then removed, in 1994 without any consideration to the many victims who committed suicide or were murdered because of their sexual preference of homosexuality.
One wag in the blogosphere discovered that Fowler has a criminal record going back to the 1980’s. But the fact that he is neither the sharpest knife in the drawer nor the world’s most respectable plaintiff doesn’t make me feel any better. The court seems prepared to take him seriously. The judge wrote, “The court has some very genuine concerns about the nature and efficacy of these claims.” Established, respected publishing houses are being held up for blackmail by the emotional distress of one troubled individual.
It is easy to believe that Bradley Almighty, as he calls himself, was unhappy that people around him regarded homosexual acts as sinful. What is not so easy to understand is why people in general and homosexuals in particular should be protected from every instance of bad feelings. What, if anything, makes the Zondervan and Nelson publishing companies culpable for Bradley’s feelings? What, if anything, makes Bradley’s feelings especially worthy of protection?
Fowler’s claim is that the teachings of the Bible, and the particular translations that Zondervan published, led to violence against homosexuals. Obviously he cannot prove a direct causal connection between the Bible’s disapproval of homosexual behavior and physical violence against homosexuals. But if indirect evidence were acceptable, the pornography industry would be out of business. It is far more compelling to believe that men are motivated to acts of violence against women by the pornography than that Christians are motivated to acts of violence against homosexuals by a few verses in the Bible. The pornography industry will not be pleased with Mr. Fowler if he succeeds in setting a precedent establishing culpability for such an indirect harm.
And speaking of pornography, the famous Hustler magazine case against Jerry Falwell also argues against Fowler’s claims. Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for the emotional distress he endured as a result of a completely fabricated and patently offensive parody suggesting he was guilty of incest and alcoholism. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protection extended to Hustler magazine, and Falwell could not collect damages for emotional distress.
While this particular case may end up just being a spurious project of one unbalanced man, we have every reason to be concerned about the trend it signals. The Canadian Human Rights Commission investigated a priest for teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. The priest quoted the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Papal Encyclicals. A Canadian Evangelical pastor has been ordered to remove material from his website and to never again express moral opposition to homosexuality.
As Fowler’s Michigan case goes forward, we will see whether the First Amendment’s right to the free exercise of religion will get the same deference as the right to free speech. Or, we will find out whether sexual orientation creates such a strongly protected class that even the First Amendment’s right to religious expression and free speech can be trumped by the most thin-skinned and unstable homosexual who happens to present himself to the courts.
Whatever becomes of Bradley Fowler’s particular suit, we can’t brush off the underlying pattern. In the name of tolerance and human rights, the State is being enlisted to squeeze religious speech and to harass people of faith.