The National Gallery of Art and the First Amendment

Pro Life PinAt First Things, Meghan Duke recounts and reflects upon her remarkable experience while visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. last week.

While visiting the National Gallery of Art this past Saturday, I ran into a pair of errant security guards who have taken to interpreting the Constitution in their spare time.

I decided to visit the Gallery after attending the March for Life the day before. There was an exhibit on processes of photography before the digital age that I hoped would confirm me in my refusal to give up on film. After searching my bag, the two guards at the Gallery told me, “You’re good to go in, but first you need to remove that pro-life pin.” He was indicating the small lime green pin with the message “impact73.org” and the silhouette of a small hand inside that of a larger hand that I had attached to the lapel of my coat. The pin, they informed me, was a “religious symbol” and a symbol of a particular political cause and it could not be worn inside a federal building. Why, I asked, can I not wear a religious or political symbol inside a federal building? Bringing to bear the full weight of the supreme law of the land, the guards informed me that it was a violation of the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution: The combination of me, wearing a pro-life pin, in a federal building was a violation of the separation of church and state.

I recommend reading it all. Kudos to Ms. Duke for apparently keeping her cool and merely questioning the guards in order to more fully plumb their motivations, before ultimately pursuing satisfaction by contacting an official of the museum later via the telephone (who assured her that the guards were mistaken and would be “censured”). Duke goes on to observe that were it a violation of the “separation of church and state” for a visitor to wear a pro-life pin, then no one would be allowed to enter the National Gallery wearing a cross around their neck, or any other religious symbol or garb, and the museum’s collection of medieval and renaissance Italian art would have to be junked. She also reflects on the question of whether a pro-life pin is in fact a religious symbol, and points out an underlying and pervasive bias with regard to the cause.

Had I been wearing a yellow bracelet that said Livestrong or a T-shirt that said Help Haiti I am sure I would not have been stopped. I would be expressing the same sort of belief—that we bear a responsibility to help a specific group of people—but no one would suspect that my views were religiously motivated, they would chalk them up to my sense of humanity. A sense of humanity entirely comprehensible apart from religion.

Indeed.

While not being in a position to know for sure, I personally don’t believe that this was just an odd error by the guards in question in understanding their job description. As Duke points out, the pin she was wearing is so small and ambiguous to the eye that they really needed to be looking for it in order to even notice it. Were they really examining all the patrons of the museum that day for any constitutionally dubious jewelry or clothing? I think not. For one, it would be very condescending of me to presume that the guards are really that stupid. Rather, I suspect that it’s an example of how — if you give someone with a pronounced agenda a little bit of power — they will tend to abuse that power. The fiefdom can be asserted just that fast, and the little dictators begin throwing their weight around. We’re all susceptible to abusing our power, of-course, however limited is our sphere of control. In this case, I suspect that the guards in question are politically opposed to the pro-life cause, were irritated by the thousands who came to D.C. to attend the March for Life, and decided to do what they could, in their own small way, to make things difficult for any they encountered in the gallery that day. Reckless, you might say, but then, we have no evidence at this point that they’ve lost their jobs over it.

The other thing the story highlights for me is the absurd but perhaps not so uncommon understanding of what the Constitution may allow or prohibit. The guards (whether they believed it themselves or merely had the expectation that others would believe it) were actually trying to maintain that the the First Amendment could prohibit free expression by an individual U.S. citizen while in the museum; expression effected by means of simply wearing a small pin.

Of-course, the Bill of Rights doesn’t prohibit any action by an individual, private American citizen. It is rather an enumeration of the rights of each citizen, and the prohibitions it contains are on actions of the government and its agents. That would be the guards themselves, in this case. Yet, I have to wonder how many other people were harassed in a similar way by the guards and just assumed that they were acting legally.

We can be thankful that in at least one instance on that day, these guards, whether on a personal mission of suppression or just dangerously confused, decided to pick on the wrong person.

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