Is protesting outside a place of worship an acceptable way to express yourself?
I've been considering this question today after reading the news of a group in Chicago marched in front of Holy Name Cathedral over the weekend to make Cardinal Francis George aware that they disapprove of his campaign against same-sex civil union legislation in Illinois. The Chicago Tribune reports that about 60 people marched in front of the cathedral in between Masses, holding rainbow flags and signs of support for gay and lesbian Catholics. They were met by counter demonstrators with signs opposing same-sex marriage. In a statement, Cardinal George, the former president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged the emotional intensity on both sides of the issue, but said that the demonstrations were inappropriate:
“No matter the issue, Catholics should be able to worship in peace, without fear of harassment,” he continued. “An open display of prejudice against the Catholic Church because of resentment of Church teachings prejudices civil discourse in our society.”
Would it would be reasonable for gay rights activists to claim the inverse, that the bishops' involvement in civil marriage debates is a display of prejudice by the church against a group of people in civil society? If so, is a protest in front of the Cardinal's church legitimate?
These types of protests aren't limited to progressive or liberal causes.
Each year in Washington, DC, the Red Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle attracts several Supreme Court justices and other government officials, who are greeted by loud and graphic anti-abortion protesters. In this case, the individuals are protesting to gain the attention of worshipers and not church leaders, but the situation is similar: protesters gather to offer their voice to a heated societal debate.
There are certain laws designed to prevent the disruption of religious services, but the types of protests described above don't seem to violate them. So assuming that they are legally protected expressions of speech, are they appropriate? If church leaders involve themselves in emotionally charged political and social issues, is this a valid response by ordinary people? Perhaps these protests are like meeting someone in person whom you have criticized behind the protective shield of a computer screen, now standing in front of you, a bit too close for comfort? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Cardinal George is correct: people are entitled to worship where they want, when they want, without fear of intimidation or harassment. But what is less clear is if church leaders can release powerful statements and lead massive campaigns for and against certain issues without expecting this sort of display.