Just 45 words setting out five essential freedoms as part of the Bill of Rights, the amendment has been around for — as of next Dec. 15 — 220 years. But several newly inaugurated state leaders have stumbled in word or fact over how to live up to that guarantee of our basic rights.
Among the gubernatorial faux pas:
• Just minutes after being sworn in, Alabama’s new Gov. Robert Bentley explained to a church crowd on Jan. 17 that non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters – creating concerns that non-Christians wouldn’t receive equal treatment from state government.
• New Florida Gov. Rick Scott is excluding the public from traditionally open events, such as a post-inaugural party and formal dinners at the governor’s mansion. News reports also say he allows only select reporters to attend events, and responds slowly or not at all to public-records requests.
• Lincoln Chafee, the new Rhode Island governor – and a former Senator, who should know better – banned state employees from appearing as guests on talk-radio shows. Calling such shows divisive, Chafee said they sought only profits and ratings, offered more entertainment than news, and were a diversion from state business.
• New Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right after the New Year, retreated from original plans to hold a family-and-friends-only inaugural party and swearing-in ceremony at his home after running into widespread criticism.
That’s a lot of closed doors — and perhaps closed minds – against the ideas and ideals that (1.) a free press represents the public (also known as voters, taxpayers and citizens), and (2.) that church-state separation means public officials and the government ought not publicly to endorse or criticize one faith over another, or give the impression that private faith will distort public policies . . .
The nice thing about being a new governor is that most of your term is still ahead of you. Why not take just a few seconds to re-read the First Amendment, and then make some policies and headlines in support of religious liberty, free expression and open government?
I know that it’s very hard to be a public official in the world of vicious, hyper-politicized, 24-hour news cycles, but hey, rules is rules, and the First Amendment is the first one for a reason: without it, nothing else can stand.