|Spencer Collins, 9, stands in front of his Little Free Library before leaders|
of his hometown of Leawood, Kansas, shut him down.
Perhaps you've heard the story of Spencer Collins, the nine-year-old boy who got crossways with the civil authorities when he erected a "Little Free Library" in the front yard of his home. It seems that the city codes in the plush suburban environs of Leawood, Kansas, prohibit structures that are not attached to the primary residence--things like tool sheds, side-buildings, detached garages, and such. They don't specify free lending libraries operated by nine-year-old kids, but clearly it's the same kind of crime.
The gravity of his offense did not occur to Spencer when the avid reader built his roadside stand as a Mother's Day gift. He figured that the love of reading instilled in him by his mother could be shared with other kids in his neighborhood. So imagine the surprise of Spencer, not to mention his parents, when they returned from vacation and found an official-looking letter providing a few days to dismantle the library or face a citation and attendant penalties.
The issue with the city officials isn't content; no books on evolution or other insidious topics deplored by many Kansans are to be found here. It isn't a matter of licensing businesses; this isn't a blood-sucking, profit-making enterprise like a lemonade stand or its ilk. No, the sole issue here is consistency in enforcing laws and codes. If you make an exception for a kid the next thing you know some developer will be running an outlet mall in his backyard. Enforce the law! Who can argue with that?
I'd like to give it a try.
In doing so, however, I'd like to elevate the arc of the argument so as to begin with Spencer's predicament and then follow it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Spencer has one thing going for him. Virtually everyone, save only some bureaucrats and those who bring them food and water, agree that the city's position is silly at the least. Some, myself included, might consider it breathtakingly stupid.
Having said that, there is nothing I can see that is wrong with Leawood's residential codes, nor is it improper for the city to enforce its own regulations. The thing is that most people who agree with this paragraph will also agree with the one preceding it. In other words, there just simply are times when reasonable rules should be ignored by reasonable people. The apparent complaint of one neighbor in desperate need of a life should not trump common sense.
Spencer's library came to my mind when I was reading with dismay the most recent debacle foisted on the American culture by what was once a revered and trusted arm of government-- the Supreme Court, where liberals became conservatives on some issues, and strict constructionists sometimes reinterpreted the Constitution to meet the needs of a changing world.
|Hobby Lobby argued that a requirement to provide |
employees certain forms of birth control in their health care
plan violated the company's religious freedoms,
The decision turned largely on the First Amendment, which reads in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This is one of the treasured phrases of American life, a bedrock embraced by virtually all citizens and a hope of those who would be citizens. Its power is in the spirit of the phrase, in its very heart. It is not fodder for political conflicts or religious debates--it is the foundational principle that enables such debates in American society.
When justices like the five men rendering the majority opinion play small ball with the First Amendment they create something as ludicrous as the objectors to Spencer's library. In effect, corporations are granted the same religious freedoms as the rest of us mere mortals. The four dissenting justices, one male and three females ruling on what is essentially an issue of women's health care, see the slippery slope that this decision creates. By deferring to a mindless literalism the Court has abdicated its responsibility to interpret the law in an era of partisan division and ideological jousting. Instead of allowing the First Amendment to be the framework for civil debate, the Court took the easy way out and made the Amendment a club instead of a gavel.
|2014 Supreme Court of the United States|
This curse of literalism is an increasingly destructive force in American society, whether it is those who believe in inerrant scripture, be it Bible or Koran, or those who take centuries-old constitutional phrases and lock them up, ignoring the context in which they were created and through which they can be properly understood.
The gun debate is another example. The Second Amendment reads thusly: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It could not be more clear that this Amendment is framed by the experience of the Revolutionary War and pertains to the right of Americans to defend their liberties, something few of us would reject. Never mind that in the year 2014 organizations that call themselves "militias" are more of a threat to our society than a virtue worthy of constitutional protection. Whatever that may be, it is absurd to see gun advocates reading that Amendment with simplistic literalism in arguing that second grade teachers and airline attendants be allowed to pack heat in the conduct of their duties.
Churches of all types and religions of all the world are often guilty of the same kind of adherence to religious texts claiming religious authority by virtue of their inerrancy, thereby draining those texts of their poetic and metaphorical power. Instead, they become books of polity and conduct, often harmless but sometimes leading to grievous acts inimical to the laws of love and acts of social justice they proclaim. Witness, for example, passages in the Book of Leviticus that when literally read led to tragic persecution and incidents of violence and even murder of gays and lesbians over many generations. Nearby passages in the same book of scripture were often ignored because their provisions were inconvenient or unaccepted by the prevailing culture.
Our young man Spencer simply wanted to share his love of reading with his friends when he ran into a buzz saw of silliness fabricated by well-meaning people who could not see beyond the words in a city code book. If the city officials refuse to succumb to public pressure Spencer will tie his library to his house with a rope or come up with some other clever solution. Spencer will be fine; he has learned something that will serve him well in life. l hope he becomes a poet and not a lawyer.
It's the rest of us I'm worried about. The scourge of literalism that afflicts our everyday life will have tragic consequences if it continues unabated. Our pluralistic society cannot flourish, and may indeed flounder and fall, if literal interpretations of widely divergent sources of authority are embraced by many different groups seeking their own visions of America.
Wise counsel comes to us from the Book of 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the Christian Bible where it reads, "The letter kills but the spirit gives life." The words are worthy of thoughtful consideration by preachers and politicians, judges and educators, and by all of us, young and old. Read them, embrace them, use them.
Just don't take them literally.