IMAGINE THE GRAND FOYER and halls of the Kennedy Center as a teeming bazaar of ideas, where theater-goers, opera lovers and symphony patrons have to work their way through a jumble of groups hawking various religious and political causes. However jarring or chaotic that may sound, it's certainly one possibility opened by a federal judge's ruling this week that the National Park Service may not totally bar followers of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness from handing out materials and seeking donations in the Kennedy Center's halls.
The suit is yet another test of the Hare Krishnas' claim that the First Amendment entitles them to practice their religion by buttonholing people in any public or semi-public place they choose to stake out. Their right to approach travelers in airports, for instance, was established a while ago. The National Park Service had argued, though, that the Krishnas' activities would be out of place in the Kennedy Center, which was established by Congress as a national cultural center and memorial to President Kennedy. U.S. District Judge Oliver H. Gash disagreed. The Kennedy Center's management, he noted, does permit the sale of refreshments, souvenirs and other items in the lobbies. Therefore, religious literature may not be absolutely banned.
We think Judge Gash is right. We would even add that in a center dedicated to the lively arts and human intellect there is something incongruous about promoting those values on the stages but forbidding them in the halls.
We don't mean religious solicitors should go completely unregulated. Allowing the Hare Krishnas free rein to work the crowds at curtain times, during intermissions and during performances in the foyer would inevitably cause disruption and could bring on some unpleasant scenes. Moreover, advocates of other religious and political causes would quickly come to court the center's 5 million visitors, making the lobbies as jammed and noisy as Georgetown on Saturday or the halls of Congress before a major vote.
Thus, Judge Gasch was also right in inviting the National Park Service to propose new regulations governing the time, place and manner in which groups may hand out materials and seek funds in the center's halls. Specifically, he suggested that since refreshments and souvenirs are sold in designated spots, the exercise of First Amendment rights might also be confined to a given area. The Hare Krishnas do not like that approach; they want to be free to approach the public, instead of waiting for people to come to them. But the concept of a modulated free-speech corner does have its curious appeal.