State rep attacks FFRF suit, plaintiff rights

Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim Krieger has introduced a bill in the General Assembly directly in response to current litigation by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which would have a chilling effect on plaintiffs and state/church lawsuits.

House Bill 922 would outlaw the use of pseudonyms in litigation challenging religious symbols on public property.

In a memo to representatives seeking co-sponsorship, Krieger cited lawsuits by FFRF and local families challenging two Ten Commandments monuments, donated by the Fraternal Order of  Eagles, in front of public schools.

Krieger, who graduated from one of the defendant school districts, says he remembers the Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Junior High School.

FFRF is suing over a second commandments monument in front of Valley High School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District. 

The students and parents, with one exception, filed using pseudonyms because of community hostility and fear of retaliation. Some of the children represented in the suit are elementary students.

FFRF has received many hateful comments. Marie Schaub, the only named plaintiff in FFRF’s New Kensington challenge, has been the subject of harassment. Last fall, a man posted this message on the “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School” Facebook page, which has 1,200 followers:

“I’m sure if we look up the bitch she probably has a facebook account or a facebook page for her ridiculous group and we can slam the shit out of the bitch.”

Another commenter asked whether “the families involved” have been identified, adding, “Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes!” Plaintiffs’ counsel have also received harassing messages. Given the community reaction, parent plaintffs are fearful their children will be subjected to religious bullying, harassment at school and by the public, and efforts to drive them out of the community.

A social media comment about FFRF’s unnamed  Connellsville plaintiffs stated, “These people need [to be] drug onto the nearest street and shot.” A common refrain is that the plaintiffs must move out of the area.

“These legislators need to put their religious views aside and understand that protecting children from harm is a paramount interest of the state,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. 

She noted the long, documented history of threats and reprisal against Establishment Clause plaintiffs, most recently against Jessica Ahlquist, who became persona non grata when she filed suit and won a federal court ruling against religion in her Rhode Island high school.

Jessica at one point last year was attending school under police escort, and was subjected to cyberbullying, including death and rape threats and even threats against her younger siblings.

A Pennsylvania pastor weighing in on FFRF’s litigation addressed the Connellsville Eagles Club on March 27, telling them that in filing to remove the monument from the junior high, FFRF is “trying to destroy our country,” according to a news report in the Daily Courier.

Rev. Ewing Marietta, a leader of the “Save the Ten Commandments” group, called the court battle “ground zero.” The newspaper reported that the pastor “drew parallels” seemingly comparing FFRF with Nazi Germany and commandments backers with the United States allies during World War II.

Ironically, the bill will have no impact on the type of legal challenges it seeks to regulate. Both of the Ten Commandments cases were filed in federal court.

“One would expect that elected legislators would have a basic understanding of government and know that they lack the ability to regulate the First Amendment and the federal judiciary,” added Gaylor. The U.S. Supreme Court promulgates the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, not state legislatures.

Judge Terrance McVerry of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an order in December allowing the plaintiffs in FFRF’s New Kensington case to proceed using pseudonyms. McVerry found that community members had expressed threats of violence and ostracism and ruled:

“The Court finds that this basis upon which the Does fear disclosure is substantial and that there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a Constitutional violation, a pure legal issue.”

McVerry also issued a protective order March 28 limiting disclosure of the plaintiff’s identities. FFRF and its attorneys had asked that disclosure be limited to an appropriate district employee who could verify school enrollment by the plaintiffs’ children. The district fought to be able to disclose to any former or school staff. The judge ruled that only members of the school board and superintendent may know the identities, but must keep them confidential.

FFRF and its attorneys plan to proceed with a similar request for pseudonyms and a protective order in Connellsville.

If Krieger’s bill is passed, it likely wouldn’t stand for long, Bruce Antkowiak, St. Vincent College law professor, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I think the legislation would be challenged immediately as being unconstitutional,” he said.

In FFRF’s 2012 challenge of the Pennsylvania Assembly’s “Year of the Bible” resolution, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds but took the House to task.

Connor wrote that his rebuke of legislators was “directed to the blatant use of legislative resources in contravention of the spirit — if not the letter — of the Establishment Clause.”

He continued, “At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit all of the citizens of the Commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation