Dear PoP – Why are religious groups allowed to proselytize on the National Mall?

Photo by PoPville flickr user pablo.raw

“Dear PoP,

When I’m running or walking on the Mall I often see various religious groups ranging from Scientology’s big yellow tents, which are typically down there at least once a month, to the Falun Dafa folks that often hang out across from the Air and Space Museum, and the Christian group that built a giant replica ark on the Mall last year. What’s the deal? Surely they had to have applied for a permit with the NPS somewhere, but does this strike anyone else as odd and why don’t more people seem to be bothered by it?”

Hmm, I’d think our founding fathers would be ok with this as it demonstrates our country’s tolerance and freedom of religion. What do you guys think – is the Mall an appropriate place for religious groups to proselytize?

30 Comment

  • Personally, I care more about freedom of speech that about worrying about some guy thumping his Bible or dancing with a snake or whatever. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m sure there’s an argument coming from the perspective that it’s a NP, but I don’t think the government should be in the business of censoring speech – especially on public lands.

    Also, I don’t think the Founding Fathers were as open and tolerant as they’re fondly remembered to be. If you were a Falun Dafa participant, a Scientologist, or even just a plain ole Catholic, I don’t think they’d necessarily throw their arms wide for you.

    • Not entirely true at all. They were very open to Jews and George Washington wrote a rather famous statement upon the opening of a synagogue:

      To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


      While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

      The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

      The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

      It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

      G. Washington

  • I kind of feel the same way about this as I do about granting tax-exempt status to certain religious/cultural orgs – if the organization does not violate anti-discrimination laws, and the event is open to the public, then they should be able to apply for NPS permits just like anyone else.

    Organizations that take advantage of their privately-run status to discriminate against certain members of the population can say whatever the hell they want, but they should hold their events on privately owned land.

  • It’s called the Constitution. See Bill of Rights, First Amendment.

    • wow. what an incredibly oversimplified and completely unhelpful response. are you a Teabagger, by any chance?

      • I’m going to go with Native American on this. It really is pretty simple. Glen Beck can do it, Jon Stewart can do it and so can any other person or group–and the government can’t restrict the speech of religious groups on the mall simply because of the content of their speech.

        Sure, it’s much more complicated than that–but that is the simple answer.

        • I’m none too keen on religion in general, but I don’t have a problem with any religious group worshiping, demonstrating, or proselytizing on the Mall, whether they discriminate against certain groups or not. As long as they’re not causing a disturbance or doing anything dangerous, it’s their First Amendment right to be out there and do as they please. I’d argue that the Mall is perhaps one piece of public land where that type of activity should be even more protected, being America’s “front yard” and all.

      • No, I’m actually extremely liberal…like anarcho-socialist liberal. And as the JD indicates…I’m a lawyer.

        It really is that simple. Public space, gov’t cannot restrict a private citizens speech due to content.

        Now, Scientologists, who buy their way into their religion could be construed as commercial speech…

        • look at me, I have JD in my name. w0000 haha

          i kid, i kid, i know… it’s like your WHOLE identity and everything, I shouldn’t even joke about it.

      • What’s the difference between a speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King and some action from the Scientology people? We can’t discriminate between things we don’t approve and things we do when we’re talking about the First Amendment. This is a very fundamental principle of American law, and even those of us who aren’t lawyers have understood this concept since our youths.

        Native American JD is right. I don’t know why pointing to the Constitution makes someone a “teabagger”. Do non-teabaggers or their opponents dislike the First Amendment?

        The Mall is the place for this sort of thing. If Scientologists were in my front yard, I’d call the police. If they’re on the mall, I might be amused by them and feel some pride in the American experiment.

  • Just walk around them and watch out for the Lions…

    After all the mall is a public park, not a government building. Big difference.

  • Public streets and parks have been traditionally considered to be public fora by the courts, and the First Amendment generally forbids viewpoint discrimination in terms of what kinds of speech may be permitted or forbidden. The First Amendment, however, does permit time, place or manner restrictions in a public forum so long as the restriction is content-neutral; that is, does not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

    If the Federal Government can forbid religious proselytization on the Mall, then it can also forbid Frank Kameny from handing out flyers saying “Gay is Good.” The fact that OP was offended by the religious handouts is irrelevant as it more likely than not that the average person is more likely to be more offended by a flyer saying “Gay is Good” than a Southern Baptist handing out a flyer saying “Families First” or “Jesus loves you,” notwithstanding the fact that the readership of PoP would lean towards the opposite viewpoint.

    • You had me until “more likely than not…”

      An intellegent person might have choosen a better example.

      “Come out” of dark.

      • I’m not so sure it’s a bad example. I think it’s quite possible that the average American would find a pro-gay flyer to be more offensive than a pro-Jesus or pro-family (whatever that means…) flyer.

      • This is one of my favorite types of blog comment–the swipe at another’s intelligence that is itself riddled with first grade level misspellings. LOL.

    • I just spent 3 weeks writing a paper on the Traditional Public Forum Doctrine, and was aaaall excited to spit it all back out, but you just HAD to steal my thunder DiD… 🙂

      Very well put though.

  • of course we could be fascist-like bullies and pull out the “9/11 ‘mosque'” argument that “just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that you should do it”. We can get all mobbed-up and burn stuff. Show those Scientologists and Falun Dafa a thing or two about how we do things here in Murica

  • I am less concerned with what groups people are with than I am with the impact it does physically to the Mall. They really need to up the user fees for people putting up tents, arks, huge stages and the like. Then take this money and help rebuild the mall – it is litterally crumbling under the weight of all this use.

  • I think folks here are overlooking why permits are required. Its not so the government can keep track of whose engaging in free speech, its so the government can be sure that there is sufficient trash, security, etc. So when Glenn Beck brings 20,000 of his lemmings to the mall that’s a whole different issue from a few religiously-inclined folks who want to tell you about their lord and savior — whoever that may be or how much it will cost you to find out.

    Bottom-line — go run up the tow path if you don’t like some religion with your workout…that’s where I run and for good reasons like this.

  • I’m kind of amazed that this question was even asked. That’s all I’ve got.

    • It’s an issue of the separation between church and state I think.

    • I agree. The failure of commenters on this blog to grasp even the most elementary understanding of constitutional principles never ceases to amaze. If you believe that a person’s right to free speech ends once the speech offends you, please deport yourself to China immediately.

  • Was anyone there for the last July 4th fireworks? There was a guy with a megaphone chanting about Jesus while everyone else was silently watching the show. It was really creepy and disrespectful and ruined the experience for everyone who had killed themselves trying to get there. But there were plenty of cops around and no one tried to stop him, so it must have been within his rights.

    • Caroline, thank you so very much for speaking for “everyone” that attended the festivities! I’m so glad that you’ve taken it upon yourself to speak for me!

      • Fine, not everyone. But certainly everyone within earshot of myself, for one, who I heard complaining bitterly about it. I’m glad the maniac’s rantings and raving enhanced the experience for you!

  • It’s “freedom of” religion not “freedom from” religion. I’m not personally religious but if it bothers you, tough. This is everyone’s country and we all have rights. They have the right to proselytize when and where they wish, no matter how outlandish we may view it to be.

  • A more useful question to ask regarding these big assemblies on the Mall is why, when liberals/socialists gather, do they leave so much garbage strewn everywhere? The Glenn Beck people left the Mall cleaner than it was when they arrived.

    The scene after Saturday’s rally was abominable. It was like vandals had sacked our capital:

    If you can believe it, these animals even trashed the WWII memorial:


    Meanwhile, after the 8/28 Glenn Beck rally, with a crowd ten times the size, you couldn’t find a single piece of garbage littering the Washington Monument grounds, even if you spent all day trying!

    Why, the stark contrast in these pics/video is almost a perfect metaphor for what each respective group seeks to do to the country!

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