The Philosophical Basis for Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty has been on our minds a lot lately. The HHS mandate, same-sex marriage initiatives, and recently, the Duck Dynasty controversy with television network A&E, have put the issue squarely before us. In late December, CNA published an article about Camille Paglia, a 1960’s generation “feminist lesbian professor” who is reported to have “harshly criticized” A&E’s decision to suspend Phil Robertson because it violates the right of free speech.

What has occasioned this brief note on religious liberty is Paglia’s denunciation that some gay activists in this country have fallen into “fanaticism.” She also states, “that this intolerance … toward the full spectrum of human beliefs is a sign of immaturity, juvenility.” Her reason for these indictments is striking: “in a democratic country, people have the right to be homophobic as well as they have the right to support homosexuality [emphasis mine].” In other words, a democracy should tolerate every moral conviction, even if it is wrong, as she evidently condemns homophobia to be. Such a claim goes well beyond the issue of free speech, touching more upon the rights of religiously informed moral beliefs within the public square, which is actually a question of religious liberty.

One may ask, however, why CNA reported on Paglia’s public outcry in the first place? Was it to demonstrate that even a self-acclaimed libertarian-styled feminist stands with us in protecting our right to believe as we do? It’s hard to say. What seems clear is that the CNA article could lead unwitting Catholics to conclude that the basis upon which the Church defends religious liberty (or freedom of speech for that matter) is the moral equivalency, within a democratic order, of every conviction. In today’s American context of “tolerance in the name of moral relativism,” it is easy to mistake the Catholic understanding of the right to religious liberty (i.e. freedom of conscience and speech in matters of faith) for Paglia’s position. This is a confusion many Catholics have today—as is evident by the widespread sympathy among self-described Catholics for the cause of same-sex marriage and the HHS mandate.

This confusion is easy to understand given the cultural climate in which we live. This is why a clarification is in order. Let’s begin with the HHS mandate. Against this the Church is defending her right on the grounds that the state has no authority to force anyone—individually or institutionally—to act against religious conviction (conscience) by cooperating in the morally illicit acts of sterilization, contraception, and abortion. With same sex-marriage, the Church does not recognize the authority of government to change the definition of marriage, even within a democracy. The Church has no official stance on the Duck Dynasty/A&E controversy, but presumably the Church would support Phil Robertson’s right to voice publicly the truth of Christian ethics, his awkward and crass articulation of this truth not withstanding. In all three situations, the right of religious liberty proceeds from the prior obligation to live according to the truth about the human good.

There are two principles that situate the Church’s understanding of religious liberty. The first and most important is that all people, as God’s creatures, are “bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it” (Dignitatis humanae, 1.2). This prior obligation originates in humanity’s nature as a truth seeker and in God who is the author of that nature. This is what grounds the subsequent right of conscience. Conscience cannot be violated because the human person is obligated to live according to the truth. This first principle grounds the Church’s stance toward same-sex marriage and the freedom of speech.

The second principle, which follows from the first, is that the dignity of the human person, as such, requires that, “[n]obody … be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters … within due limits. This right is based in the very nature of the human person” (Dignitatis humanae, 2.2). Due limits—what justice requires—pertains to those situations wherein we simply cannot be tolerant of what is being defended (in the name of conscience) because the matter in question is too harmful to society. The condition of due limits presupposes that conscience is in conformity with the basic requirements of natural law. This principle grounds the Church’s position toward the HHS mandate.

But here’s the problem with the language of religious liberty in our cultural context: if defended on the basis of moral relativism, it is easy to conclude that individual predilection becomes the rule and measure of law. This is what Benedict XVI meant when he spoke about the “dictatorship of relativism.” To return to Paglia’s approach, we ought to advocate tolerance for “homophobes” on the grounds that we are all entitled to our own moral perspective, and thus all ought to be treated equally before the law, even if a given stance is felt to be wrong by other parties.  Would Paglia support the Neo-Nazis’ right to publicly express their views? I’m doubtful. Libertarians of her ilk tend to defend consensual forms of behavior more than those inclined toward violence, which in the end only shows that relativism is ultimately a weak foundation for defending any form of human liberty.

We should be careful in the present public discourse around religious liberty. If we employ relativism to defend this right, we can be assured that this same rationale will come back to bite us.  The Catholic position on religious liberty is not based on the principle of “neutrality” or indifference toward every point of view. The HHS mandate, same-sex marriage, and the Duck Dynasty controversy are all quite different issues, but the Catholic stance on them proceeds from the same principled obligation to truth. In the case of the HHS mandate, the state cannot command us to violate the divine law. In the case of same-sex marriage, the state cannot redefine the meaning of marriage. In the Duck Dynasty controversy, people have the right to give public expression to moral truth.

All this might lead one to wonder, does the Catholic Church believe in tolerance? The answer is yes, but not on the grounds of moral relativism. Tolerance is rooted in the prudence to know which socially significant evils can co-exist with civility and the common good (due limits), and which cannot, lest they profoundly undermine the commonwealth. We tolerate evil as evil, not as “just one perspective among many.” We also recognize that some evils cannot be tolerated.

Michel Therrien


Dr. Michel Therrien is President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Previously he taught moral theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He also taught at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA for seven years, serving there as Academic Dean for four years. His areas of scholarly interest are Thomistic virtue ethics and Catholic social teaching.

  • pat

    Outstanding essay. Thank you. While I think you might be selling Camille Paglia a little short in assessing the limits of her tolerance, nevertheless you draw a very clear distinction between the underpinnings of relativistic tolerance and religious freedom. Again, well done.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Paglia is silly- to say we ought to tolerate “homophobia” says nothing about the truth. Her subtle Trojan horse is to mislabel properly understood sexuality as “homophobia.” To be “pro-same sex marriage” and Catholic is a contradiction in terms.

    Phil Robertson’s message, which the Church does have a position on is hate the sin love the sinner- We are to tolerate all human souls, but to be intolerant of bad ideas and bad behavior- Paglia’s ideas are a moral train wreck.

    • Steve Frank

      Many of Paglia’s ideas certainly are a moral train wreck….she is pro pornography and supports lowering the age of consent. But I’ll give her credit for her intellectual integrity and her willingness to call out her fellow liberals for their hypocrisies, particularly when it comes to their very illiberal attempts to silence all dissent against current liberal orthodoxy.

  • Don

    Nicely done Mr. Therrien. I’m always somewhat surprised (although by now I shouldn’t be) by how liberals immediately take to demagoguery when moral questions are raised. And I’m also somewhat surprised by how Christians so easily crumble to that tactic. The history of the 20th century supports your position and we must all take notice.

  • Alexander

    I agree with all of this, but if I were a secular person, I wouldn’t find it remotely persuasive. We need to be articulating reasons why a secular person should respect religious liberty.

    • ColdStanding

      Yes, through de-secularization. Aka their conversion and entry into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

    • cestusdei

      Many are not interested in reason or logic. They are motivated by emotion and propaganda.

    • Adam__Baum

      “We need to be articulating reasons why a secular person should respect religious liberty.”

      You cannot.

      You need to reflect upon the fact that what underpins much of modern secularism is atheism. Atheism is a religion, because religion is a body of doctrine that, among other things posits the existence and nature of a deity (or deities) without incontrovertible physical proof of it’s claims.

      Atheism, in asserting that there is no deity, is asserting a statement about deity, albeit that a deity or deities is non-existent. This not only does not have incontrovertible proof, it cannot since it is impossible to prove nullity. That’s why it is ferocious and intolerant and seeks to drive theistic religious symbols, thoughts and practices from the public square.

      It may be very edifying to the ego to assert the absence of God, in order to be freed from the requirements acknowledging God would entail, but the soul is left wanting and it simply cannot bear any challenge to a nihilist position.

      Make no mistake, this is going to get worse. The additional challenge will be from people who are not rejecting faith, but will have no personal or family history of faith. It will be incredibly appealing to them to look at the competing claims of the worlds religions, note their fundamental irreconcilability and dismiss them all.

      • Steven Piper

        Dear Adam:
        All this business about atheism being a sort of anti-religion is all well and good when viewed abstractly, but in reality self-admitted “atheists”, like the proverbial cat come in many shades of gray. Many are simply atheists by default, i.e., they simply don’t find sufficient proof in the physical world that to warrant belief in a deity. As a Thomist I see no reason to attack them for their wont of faith. However, there is indeed a species of “atheist” who does deserve our opprobrium and THAT is the pathological god-hater who bristles at the sight of any all religious symbols in the public square, It’s the Richard Dawkins of this world we shconfront not some poor schmo who can’t find his faith.

        • Adam__Baum

          “they simply don’t find sufficient proof in the physical world that to warrant belief in a deity.”

          Assuming one can define (in)adequate evidence, Then that’s an error of logic. It is impossible to prove nullity and therefore, if you take that position, agnosticism, not atheism should be the resultant position.

          I made that as analytical and nonjudgmental as possible. If you consider that an “attack”, I can’t help you.

  • Christine Hebert

    Thank you for putting into words what I have struggled to articulate.” We tolerate evil as evil, not as “just one perspective among many.” We also recognize that some evils cannot be tolerated.”

  • I’ve always had a hard time with the difference between relativism and prudence, kind of like the difference between subtlety and lying. How can one tolerate evil of any sort?

    • Adam__Baum

      No, you don’t have a hard time with the difference between subtlety and lying, you have an obstinate refusal to acknowledge that human communication is a complex thing, with all sorts of inflections, connotations and other attributes that change the nature or degree of what is said. We are not automatons disgorging data from a hard drive, but frail human beings.

      We all have varying degrees of capacity to understand what others are REALLY saying, but we don’t dismiss what evades our limits as deception. No wonder Christ made that comment about having ears but hearing not.

      If you would stop confusing subterfuge with subtlety, this might be less of a challenge for you, but that would mean dismounting your pride.

      You remind me a lot of some of some sola scriptura bible thumpers.

      • And you continue to remind me of morally relative economists, like Hayek and Marx.

        Human communication is a complex thing because it has been designed specifically to enable the telling of untruths.

        A great example is the common usage of the mathematically precise word “normal” to often describe things that are significantly not.

        • Adam__Baum

          Putting Marx and Hayek in the same sentence is just another sign of your intellectual disorder.

          • They are both materialist atheists and moral relativists.

            • Adam__Baum

              And you have a mental impairment, but you aren’t in the same category as John Nash.

              • Atheism is a flaw in philosophy, and economics is only about philosophy, not about science, so the philosophy matters more.

          • Sid

            Actually, there is nothing wrong with lumping Hayek and Marx together. The Church has clearly, resoundingly condemned liberal modernism. That includes liberal economics. And both Hayek and Marx qualify as liberal economic thinkers, whose views stand under condemnation.

            The fact that they belong to different wings of liberal economic thought does make for some interesting and informative academic pursuits, but doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the realm of divine truth and the order of grace.

            • Adam__Baum

              That you want to lump them into the attribute “liberal” (a term that increasing has so many contradictory meanings, as it make it impossible to apply) doesn’t mean they belong together, but it does

              First off, the Church (most recently by the present Pontiff) has said Marxism is wrong. It’s so bad it’s been rejected by name.
              While Marxism is wrong, calling Marx an economist is an error. He was a social architect, who used economic terms to propose a vile fundamental transformation of humanity. He sought to eradicate private property, religion, the family. His thought is completely and irrevocable opposed to the Church.

              I’m really tired of this blithering nonsense.

  • tamsin

    Hello Mr. Therrien, I have a couple of questions,

    1. Let’s begin with the HHS mandate. Against this the Church is defending her right on the grounds that the state has no authority to force anyone—individually or institutionally—to act against religious conviction (conscience) by cooperating in the morally illicit acts of sterilization, contraception, and abortion. With same sex-marriage, the Church does not recognize the authority of government to change the definition of marriage, even within a democracy. Why not just say, “by cooperating in the morally illicit acts of sterilization, contraception, abortion, and accepting the authority of government to change the definition of marriage, even within a democracy”? Hasn’t the forced recognition of same-sex marriage passed into the same realm as forcing doctors to perform abortions? If you do not recognize others’ marriage as marriage, you can lose your job, your means of livelihood. It seems this train has left the station, and needs to be listed among the morally illicit acts, unless…

    2. Tolerance is rooted in the prudence to know which socially significant evils can co-exist with civility and the common good (due limits), and which cannot, lest they profoundly undermine the commonwealth. So, is the recognition of same-sex marriage a socially significant evil that can co-exist with civility and the common good? Is that where we are headed with this? Will recognizing same-sex marriage as marriage, in order to keep your job, be okay? If I’m a brand-new kindergarten teacher, and I need to read Prince and Prince to kindergarteners, with a smile of my face…

    I feel like there has been a whole lot of thinking about the ramifications in Massachusetts, but the rest of us are not being let in on all the details of capitulation, yet.

  • Evagrius

    Prof. Therrien has very capably explained a Catholic concept of religious liberty that no longer has any application in the United States (or any place perhaps outside of Liechtenstein, where a Catholic Prince still has an absolute veto on all legislation). Why? First, the traditional Catholic understanding of religious liberty is, as Prof. Therrien explains, limited by “[d]ue limits—what justice requires—pertains to those situations wherein we simply cannot be tolerant of what is being defended (in the name of conscience) because the matter in question is too harmful to society.” Second, “[t]he condition of due limits presupposes that conscience is in conformity with the basic requirements of natural law.” These two conditions are no longer satisfied in the United States. First, “we” Catholics are not now nor have “we” ever been in control of any government in the United States. “We,” therefore, are not now, nor were “we” ever, in a position to exercise prudential tolerance over other anyone else’s religious practices. Second, the persons who now do control the state no longer recognize “the basic requirements of natural law.” The Catholic notion of religious liberty evolved in a time when Catholics (or at least Christians) ruled, i.e. during the era of Christendom, in the centuries following the Theodosian decrees proscribing paganism. The unstated assumption of our notion of religious liberty is that Catholics (or at least Christians) are the ones exercising prudential tolerance over others. As a claim on a non-Christian ruler’s tolerance, the Catholic notion of “religious liberty” is an abject failure. For todays secularists (and apostate ‘Catholics’ such as Kathleen Sebelius), traditional Catholic morality “is too harmful to society” to be tolerated. The same goes for Islamic states; for Muslims, Christianity is also “too harmful to society,” to be tolerated under any conditions other than Dhimmitude. Following the collapse of Christendom, we are not reliving the time immediately following the Edict of Milan, we are reliving the times of Julian the Apostate. Theodosios showed us the way out of that intolerable situation. Will any one follow his example today?

    • publiusnj

      Evagrius is right that Catholics are not now and never have been the US entity that can confer or deny religious liberty on others. Henry VIII had taken religious liberty away from the Catholic Church in the 1530s and that was reinforced under his son’s regents. Despite a short restoration under his daughter Mary, toleration of Catholicism was taken away again in the 1560s. With the exception of limited toleration under the two restored exiled Stuarts–Charles II and James II who did convert to Catholicism and tried to confer toleration on it in the 1670s and 1680s–nowhere in the British Isles or the English American Colonies was there any toleration for Catholicism up until 1789 except for a 15 year period in Maryland prior to the Establishmant of the Radical Protestant Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

      In 1789, the First Amendment was passed, and that has been cited by many as the Triumph of Religious Liberty in the former American Colonies. Supposedly, the Puritans and Pilgrims came to the US yearning for religious freedom. Hardly. In fact, those radical Protestants were simply seeking to impose their own form of religious polity on the Anglican Protestant Church of England. Their lack of tolerance for other religions is well demonstrated by their Anti-Catholic Massachusetts legislation of the 1640s.

      In fact, the First Amendment was designed simply to allow states to retain their state-wide establishments of religion, such as the Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts, by prohibiting “CONGRESS” from making any nation-wide establishment of religion. States continued to have state-wide establishments into the 19th Century. What really undid state establishments was the fissiparous nature of Protestantism. That is: unless enforced by state controls, Protestant sects tend to separate because of the individual intepretation of Scriptures (the same rule that enabled protestants to break with the Catholic Church). By the time of the Bill of Rights, the American Protestant Church(es) had already gone through a First Awakening that had already undermined what unity there was among American Protestants. By the time of the 19th Century Awakening, Protestant unity was effectively destroyed and the state establishments had become anachronisms.

      Yet the hatred of Catholics that the Anglicans and Radical Protestants had built up among the Protestant Faithful continued. Thus: the Public School Movement; the burning of Catholic Convents, the Know Nothings and the Blaine Amendments. Given the relative power of the Church over the Catholic faithful during the years when Catholics lived primarily in Northeastern cities, anti-Catholicism receded during the period from 1884 (Republican Candidate Blaine’s famous 1884 campaign slogan was that the Democrats were” the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”) through 1960. With the dispersion of Catholics throughout the country and into the suburbs and the collapse of Main Line Protestantism, though, Catholicism has become attackable again. And it is being attacked.

      • Evagrius

        Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

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  • Paul McGuire

    My problem with cries for supporting religious liberty is that they never seem to extend beyond the religion of the person objecting to persecution. If you support religious liberty you should support the rights of peoples of all religions. Instead, I see the same people who cry religious persecution have no problem when the rights of Muslims are restricted or when the rights of Mormons are restricted.

    Right around the time we had this whole debate about religious liberty we also had a decision out of Utah that essentially said that it was unconstitutional for the state to prosecute one man for claiming that he was religiously married to multiple wives (though he was only married to one wife legally). And yet rather than praising this decision as supporting religious liberty, the same people were out there claiming that this was another example of judicial activism.

    It is precisely such hypocracy that makes it difficult for me to take seriously cries for religious freedoms. Just as the state has no authority to force religious people to violate their convictions, religions have no authority to force the non-religious to follow their rules.

    • Adam__Baum

      You are twisted.

    • publiusnj

      We, the Christians of the West that constitute a large majority of all the people in the US, have been besieged by Islam for most of the past 1400 years (since Mohammed’s folowers exploded out of Arabia in the 630s). Now, due to significant efforts by Charles V, the Knights of Malta and the Holy League in the 16th Century and the coalition that fought before the gates of Vienna in 1683, the West got a reprieve and put Islam on the defensive for the next 270 years or so, freeing the Balkans and even conquering much of the Islamic World in the 19th Century. While the West occupied North Africa and the Levant, it never sought to impose Christianity on the Muslims, nor to reduce them to dhimmitude. Today, try wearing a crucifix or carrying a bible on your way into Mecca or Riyadh, or try building a church throughout much of the Middle East and you will find that the freedom we in the West unquestioningly accord Muslims in our countries is nowhere to be found. And if Muslims begin to constitute greater and greater proportions of the US population, are they going to be miraculously converted into militant secularists who view all religions alike and barely tolerate any of them?

      Hardly; they will want to proclaim Sharia Law here just as in Dar-al-Islam. Yet, Paul McGuire boldly refuses to take Western Christian cries for their own liberty “seriously.” He uses the outre religions, Islam and Mormonism, both of which have an attitude toward monogamy that the US Supreme Court has condemned as inconsistent with the Christian nature of our country, to justify ignoring the mainstream’s rights. Clearly, we are on a slippery slope leading to a secularist reading that religion is okay inside worship spaces but has no place in the public square, and certainly not in the health care plans of religious hospitals (actually, we are already there in many places in this country).

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        In Europe, many Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are manifesting their confidence in the Republic and proclaiming their adherence to its values.

        The president of the Muslim women’s movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Sluts nor Door-mats] Sihen Habchi, in a forceful attack on “multiculturalism” has demanded “No more justifications of our oppression in the name of the right to be different and of respect toward those men who force us to bow our heads”

        Rachida Dati, herself a Muslim and former French Minister of Justice (garde des Sceaux) told the National Assembly that “The Republic is alone capable of uniting men and women of different origins, colours and religions around the principles of tolerance, liberty, solidarity and laïcité making the Republic truly one and indivisible” Likewise, Fadela Amara, another Muslim and former Secretary of State for Urban Policies has declared that “For this generation, the crucial issues are laïcité, gender equality and gender desegregation, based upon living together in harmony throughout the world, and not only in France”

        All three are firm supporters of the principle of the Jules Ferry Laws that public education should be obligatory, free, and lay [obligatoire, gratuit et laïque].

        • Clovis

          That is an awfully small data set (three) drawn from a very narrow class (the political elite) of one country (France) to support such a sweeping generalization: “Europe, many Muslims.” The examples you cited are celebrated exceptions to much larger general trends. Moreover, for far too Muslim women, following the path of your examples is deadly, as evidenced by the far more numerous ‘honor killings’ that occur in Europe each year. Meanwhile, les zones de non-droit continue to be ungoverned by the Republic, apart from occasional incursions of the CRS during times of peak violence (e.g. the seasonal burning of cars). For a better analysis of the larger trends, I would recommend Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis.

        • Menschenrechte

          What point can you possibly be making by citing the support of your three examples of the Jules Ferry Laws? These laws were overtly and expressly anti-Catholic. Their express aim was the suppression of Catholic religious education in France, and resulted in the expulsion (literally) of the Catholic teaching orders in France, beginning with the Jesuits, but also including the Benedictines, Capuchins, Carmelites, Franciscans, Assumptionists,etc. +20,000 members of these Catholic religious orders were expelled from France and at least 3,000 schools were closed. These laws were part and parcel of the Third Republic’s war on Catholicism, analogous to Bismarck’s Kulturkampfe in Prussia. These laws were condemned by Pope Leo XIII and opposed by the French Bishops. It is no surprise that these laws are supported by thoroughly secularized former Muslims, but what do they have to do with an authentic Catholic notion of religious liberty or with traditional Islamic concepts of dhimmitude?

    • Sid

      Kudos, Paul, you touch upon the crumbling foundation of the entire fatuous religious liberty enterprise.

      Religious liberty has no meaningful roots in the classical Catholic tradition and it’s not hard to see why. Once one declares that the civil, legal, and political realms are to engage in some indifferentist mindset regarding competing claims to truth and values, there is no real objective dividing line as to which errors are to be permitted and which ones should not be.

      The only objective dividing line is between truth and error. Which is why the Church has traditionally championed truth to be supported, affirmed, and assisted in the political and legal arenas, whereas error was not recognized as ever having such rights.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Miss Paglia is merely repeating an argument formulated by the jurist Hans Kelsen (1881-1973) As elegantly expressed by Helen Silving (who rejected it), “The metaphysicist and the believer are bound to impose their eternal truth on other people, on the ignorant, and on the people without vision. Theirs is the holy crusade of the one who knows against the one who does not know or does not share in God’s grace. Only if we are aware of our ignorance of what is the Good may we call upon the people to decide.”

    Jacques Maritain famously retorted, “It is impossible more accurately to summarize a set of more barbarous and erroneous assumptions. If it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own, and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence, the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts. In reality it is through rational means, that is, through persuasion, not through coercion, that the rational animal is bound by his very nature to try to induce his fellow man to share in what it knows or claims to know as true or just. And the metaphysician, because he trusts human reason; and the believer, because he trusts divine grace, and knows that “a forced faith is a hypocrisy hateful to God and man”, as Cardinal Manning put it, do not use holy war to make their “eternal truth” accessible to other people, they appeal to the inner freedom of other people by offering them either their demonstrations or the testimony of their love. And we do not call upon the people to decide because we are aware of our ignorance of what is the good, but because we know this truth, and this good, that the people have a right to self-government.”

    That has always been the true Catholic position.

  • Ruth Rocker

    I do wish people would stop using the non-word “homophobia” which means fear of same. If absolutely necessary, please use “homosexualphobia” which is actually what is being discussed. And I don’t really think it should be a phobia in any case. Most people aren’t scared of homosexuals and their life styles, just repulsed and disgusted by it.

  • J D


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  • Well it all comes down to what you mean by “due limits” I suppose. But there is no issue of Free Speech with Mr Robertson. No one has limited his right to free speech. Freedom of Speech does not give him a positive right to time on a private television channel. It doesn’t give me the right to insist you publish my comments either.