OPINION: Exercising our First Freedom without Fear

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Written by Jason Miller, Director of Operations & Special Projects for Interfaith Alliance

For me, speaking out for justice is a requirement that’s part of me living out my Catholicism in my everyday life–implementing both faith and good works into my practice.

That’s why, despite the horrific recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Tulsa, and elsewhere, I was happy to meet up with some former colleagues for the recent March for our Lives rally.

David Hogg had just given a rousing speech and it appeared that the rally might be coming to a close. The oldest in our group said that her back hurt and that it was time to walk back to the metro. I suggested we take a selfie first, and just as we did, a moment of silence was held by the 40,000 or so people on the National Mall.

During the moment of silence, I heard someone screaming. My group and I were far enough away that I couldn’t make out what they were saying—just that it was coming from near the stage. Suddenly, the entire crowd in front of us started to run towards us, away from the stage.

I have been known to freeze during moments of panic, but thankfully, as we were all huddled together from the selfie, I kept my wits about me and told everyone to stay on their feet.We started to run together as quickly as we could, as I did my best to keep multiple senior citizens on their feet.

And just as quickly as it had started, it was over. Seconds later, a voice from the stage told us to stop running and remain calm, as no one was in danger. But the damage was done: people were sobbing, discombobulated, and quickly started to head towards the metro. There were more speakers to come, but the rally was over nonetheless.

At Interfaith Alliance, we’re committed to protecting religious freedom for all Americans—even those we might disagree with on important issues. With that first freedom of religion comes freedom of speech. But these freedoms are not unlimited. Religious freedom, for example, protects personal religious expression and practice—so long as it does not harm third parties. The same can be said about freedom of speech. It’s clear that by causing panic, the individual who did that was essentially yelling fire in a crowded theater.

Since Saturday, we’ve learned more about the man and his motives. The police have arrested and charged the man responsible. According to a police affidavit, the man yelled “I am God” during the moment of silence, but three witnesses say they heard him yell “I have a gun.” Reportedly, the man’s motives were not ideological or malicious, but the fear he inspired was still very, very real.

There is a reason that people were quick to run from the perceived threat. It’s because too many communities have experienced gun violence firsthand, and many more wonder if they might be targeted next. 

Americans have the first freedom right to assembly and should be able to do so without fear. Whoever yelled during the moment of silence disrupted that right, and unfortunately, will have me thinking twice every time I go to a similar rally from here on out–but it’s not going to stop me from continuing to exercise my first amendment rights.

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to advance true religious freedom.