Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim Krieger has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would outlaw the use of pseudonyms in litigation challenging religious symbols on public property.
In a memo to representatives seeking co-sponsorship, Krieger said the bill is in direct response to lawsuits by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Pennsylvania families challenging two Ten Commandments monuments donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in front of public schools.
The students and parents, with one exception, filed using pseudonyms because of community hostility and fear of retaliation.
Krieger graduated from one of the defendant school districts and says he remembers the Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Junior High School.
FFRF is also suing over a commandments monument in front of Valley High School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
“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 won a federal court ruling against religion in her Rhode Island high school.
Additionally, a Pennsylvania pastor addressing the Connellsville Eagles on March 27 told 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” and, the newspaper reported, “drew parallels” that seemed to compare FFRF with Nazi Germany and commandments backers with the United States allies during World War II.
Notably, 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 hope 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.
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 said:
"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."
Attorneys for the New Kensington plaintiffs filed a request March 22 asking for a protective order. Judge McVerry issued an order today limiting the disclosures of the plaintiff’s identities. FFRF and its attorneys plan to proceed with a similar request for pseudonyms and a protective order in Connellsville.
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."
On FOX TV’s “O’Reilly Factor” on March 27, megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress criticized state/church separation principles in general and attacked the Freedom From Religion Foundation by name.
Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, denied there is any freedom from religion in the First Amendment. O’Reilly claimed the First Amendment had been “perverted” by being invoked to stop particular violations.