Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The cracker speaks

If you've been held incommunicado for a week and your router is out, it is possible that you don't know about PZ Myers and William Donohue starring in Crackers, The True Story of Transubstantiation.

MNO gave a good account of the incident, but here's the soap opera digest: A college student has a Catholic communion wafer put in his mouth in church; he doesn't swallow it, but somehow manages to take it back to his room. It doesn't seem all that, well, transubstantiated. Word gets out; the Catholic Church goes ballistic, and the student is forced to, er, cough up the wafer.

PZ gets the news and says, in effect, "That's nothing compared to what I would do with one of those crackers!" Spot thinks he means a wafer, not a Catholic!

Enter William Donohue, a bulky Catholic knight whose job it is to remind Catholics how put upon they really are. Sir William wants PZ's head.

Spot has no desire to rehash the debate further. He does have a hypothetical question based on the dust up, though:

Let's say that the college student described above had not returned the communion wafer, but had instead sent it, by registered mail, to PZ. PZ performs all kinds of experiments, and maybe even rituals, on the wafer, and ultimately feeds it to his zebra fish, even though they are thought not to fancy human flesh. What are the legal consequences to PZ?

I'm gonna go out on a limb here, Spot, and say that PZ can probably be prosecuted for destroying what Sir William believes is a venerated object.

Oh callow grasshopper, seldom have you been so far from the mark.

"Venerated object" is the term that a Texas (where else) statute used to describe the kind of stuff for which you could be prosecuted if you "desecrated." The statute was addressed primarily to buildings, including houses of worship, public monuments, cemeteries, and to state and national flags. Now, desecrate is an interesting verb:

1. to divest of sacred or hallowed character or office.

2. to divert from a sacred to a profane use or purpose.

3. to treat with sacrilege; profane.

From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006.

Under this statute, a protester in Dallas, one Gregory Lee Johnson, was charged and convicted for burning a US flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention.

Ultimately the US. Supreme Court, by the distressingly narrow margin of five to four, affirmed a Texas appeals court's reversal of the conviction, saying that the flag burning was "symbolic speech" or "expressive conduct."

So the flag was talking, so to speak, just as the cracker in PZ's experiments would be.

Spot, they should have charged Johnson with violating the opening burning law!

Right you are grasshopper. That probably would have stuck.

The principal that symbolic speech is protected under the First Amendment was affirmed in U.S. v. Eichman in 1990, also by the same margin, holding the Flag Protection Act of 1989 unconstitutional. You are urged, boys and girls, to follow the link to see who lined up on which side in that one. It may surprise you.

In Texas v. Johnson, linked above, the Supreme Court addressed, and rejected, arguments that the statute was directed to preserving the peace, as onlookers would likely - and there was evidence they were; they were Republicans, after all - be enraged and incited to beat the perpetrator of a desecration into the pavement.

Here, the fact that William Donohue has incited some drooling cretins to make death threats against PZ, makes no difference to the 1st Amendment analysis, either.

As long as you get your hands on them legally, PZ, defile away.

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