The Richmond Register

November 5, 2012

Activists should stick to the attainable

By Bill Robinson
Register Editor

RICHMOND — Several weeks ago, I offered some advice to my friends on what we’ll call the “left.”

Making a priority of an unattainable goal that is not urgent but generates a lot of hostility will put some of their attainable goals out of reach.

Politics is the art of the possible, I said, arguing for a practical approach to public policy.

That was in regard to the proposed Fairness Ordinance that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations. Politicians who supported that proposal would likely lose election, I said, and other liberal objectives would suffer.

Now, I’d like to offer some advice to my friends on what we’ll call the “right.”

I think their push for lower taxes, less government spending and education reform suffered a blow when some of them tried use use a technicality in the Richmond zoning ordinance to argue that a Muslim house of worship should not be allowed in a business zone that allows Christian houses of worship.

They were angered that I called their argument un-American.

Well, freedom of religion is a longstanding, basic American principle that has set our nation apart from all others.

Even if that First Amendment guarantee originally applied only to the federal government until the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment extended it to the states, it has come to define us.

Freedom of Worship was one of the Four Freedoms (along with Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want) that President Franklin Roosevelt said Americans were fighting to defend in World War II.

It is disingenuous for those who challenged the planning commission to argue they were merely concerned citizens questioning whether the zoning board had properly enforced the ordinance. While they bristled at my labeling their action un-American, I noticed they did not respond to my suggestion that they would not have questioned whether a Christian church open for only a few hours a week should be allowed in a zone created for businesses that serve the traveling public.

I generally try to avoid labels, but I couldn’t let this one pass, especially given the history of people on the right labeling some on the left as un-American.

I also found their argument ironic, because in other states some Christian groups have argued their First Amendment rights were being denied when local zoning ordinances were used to prevent their worship gatherings in homes in residential zones.

I also find it ironic that people who have repeatedly berated public officials in a condescending and even contemptuous manner cried foul and portrayed themselves as victims when met with a strenuous retort by City Attorney Garrett Fowles.

Fowles may have been too hasty when he cut off a speaker addressing the planning commission, but those who criticized him for that were unable to refute his argument that the city had to treat all religions equally, despite their interpretation of the ordinance’s terminology.

American law in such cases favors substance over form. What one religion is permitted to do, another may do.

This incident demonstrates my contention of why people of moderation, common sense and practicality should vigorously stand up for their principles.

If moderates cringe and cower, those who are loud and persistent, no matter how unreasonable, may carry the day.

However, extremists often, if not always, self destruct.