Lessons in liberty from Quran burning, Broadway

The freedom to exercise religion is inseparable from the freedom to criticize religion. The First Amendment protects both.

Some folks get it. Plenty of others don't. Disappointingly, the juxtaposition of two recent religion-driven events demonstrates this perfectly.

On March 20, Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., made good on months of threats to burn a Quran. Mr. Jones, the leader of a small Christian church, put the foundation of the Muslim faith through a mock trial, then incinerated the book. He recorded the proceedings to publicize his stunt.

A week later, opportunistic imams used the event to stir up days of deadly rioting in Afghanistan. In Mazar-i-Sharif, local Muslims overran a United Nations mission, killing at least a dozen people -- none of them American.

Mr. Jones burned a Quran because he believes Islam is a vile religion of violence and oppression. Untold thousands of Muslim extremists then answered Mr. Jones' charge that they're crazed thugs and murderers by behaving like crazed thugs and murderers. American leaders then lined up to heap scorn ... on Mr. Jones.

Meanwhile, on Broadway, the new musical comedy "The Book of Mormon" is enjoying critical and commercial success. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the politically incorrect cable TV cartoon "South Park," and Robert Lopez, composer of the raunchy musical "Avenue Q," which once had a brief run at Wynn Las Vegas, collaborated on a production that, at times, viciously ridicules Mormon Church missionaries and traditions.

Plenty of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have found the musical deeply offensive.

So do the streets of downtown Salt Lake City now resemble passages from Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"? Are church members marauding through American cities, threatening more violence if "The Book of Mormon" is not shut down?

No. They are not. They are not even protesting, picketing or plotting boycotts. In fact, the Mormon Church has, as The New York Times put it, "signaled to members to turn the other cheek." Scores of Mormons are traveling to New York to see the show. They are laughing at some jokes, and they are discussing the humor that makes them cringe. Despite the mockery of their holy book, they are keeping the faith.

"Mormons want people to know that they can take it," The Times reports.

But plenty of Muslims clearly can't -- and they have lots of appeasers in the United States. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., far from defending this country's liberties, have suggested that Congress might have to take action to prevent future Quran burnings, or at least formally denounce such speech.

Mr. Jones shouldn't come out of this looking good. But let's not ignore the irrational overreaction by Islamic radicals. If the free expression of a single boorish man is enough to roil a faith followed by more than 1 billion people, it's an indictment of the faith, not the expression. The burning of a religious text is insensitive, to be sure, but it is not in any way a crime in this country, and it can never remotely justify the brutal slayings of innocents.

If we start clamping down on criticism of religion, then limitations on religion will follow. That's a road to tyranny.