It seems a Pennsylvania county has its heart set on enforcing a backdoor blasphemy law thanks to a persistent and misguided district attorney.
Thanks to Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins’ crusade against anything that might be offensive to Christians, the teen, whose name has not been publicly released, stands accused of “desecration of a venerated object.” News reports said he is facing criminal charges and the possibility of two years in a juvenile facility.
The teenager has not been charged with trespassing, vandalism or any other offense rooted in secular law. News reports also noted that Love in the Name of Christ, the organization on whose property the statue sits, is not interested in pressing charges.
So what gives? Higgins is able to bring neo-blasphemy charges against the teen because of a 1972 statute that makes “desecration, theft or sale of a venerated object” a second-degree misdemeanor. Pennsylvania law defines “desecration” as “defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise physically mistreating” an object “in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities” of anyone who learns about it.
This law probably isn’t enforced too often, but Higgins said in an interview last week that he feels compelled to protect the moral sensibilities of his community.
“This troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community,” he said, adding that if the prosecution “tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd,’ I make no apologies.”
Given Higgins’ stated religious motivation for prosecuting the teen and the fact that the “desecration” law is a blatant violation of church-state separation, Americans United wrote a letter to Higgins yesterday telling him not to press the matter because the “desecration” statue violates the First Amendment, allows government officials to target any message they don’t like and impermissibly uses a law to achieve religious goals.
Higgins fired back almost immediately. In an email sent to Americans United attorneys, the D.A. refused to back down, saying he “respectfully disagree[s]” with AU’s argument and he intends to “leave the matter for the Courts to decide.”
He also claimed “Internet stories have grossly misstated many of the facts in this case” and denied that the teen faces two years in a juvenile facility.
“He is not facing any jail time whatsoever,” Higgins said. “[T]his juvenile, whom we have steadfastly refused to identify, will, in all likelihood, be placed into a diversionary program, perform a few hours of community service, answer to a probation officer for a few months, and end up with no criminal record whatsoever.”
Higgins may recommend a sentence like that, but the judge could decide to impose the harshest possible sentence the law will allow – even if Higgins is against it. So in reality, it would seem this boy is, indeed, facing at least the possibility of time in a facility.
Higgins concluded his email by saying that the focus in this saga has been all wrong because no one is thinking of the “religious freedom” rights of the Christian group whose statue was “desecrated.”
“[W]hile there seems to be an intense focus on the religious rights of the juvenile, there seems to be very little attention paid to the religious rights of the offended group -- Love, Inc., -- the owners of the statue located on their private property,” he wrote. “Love, Inc. has a right to practice their faith, unmolested, and, as District Attorney, I have an obligation to see to it that their rights are respected.”
The problem here is that the teen’s action – although certainly crass and immature – did nothing more than send a message that some find offensive. No physical damage was done to the statue and he did not in any way actually stop Love in the Name of Christ from practicing its faith.
Ultimately, Americans United has no reason to believe that any of the media accounts of this story are inaccurate, but let’s pretend Higgins is right for the sake of argument. He still misses the point. Nowhere in his email did he address the fact that Pennsylvania’s neo-blasphemy law is unconstitutional. The law makes this boy a victim of viewpoint discrimination, which violates the First Amendment.
Higgins’ words and actions make it clear that he intends to keep up his dangerous game for as long as possible. But he has already tipped his hand, showing that he cares mainly about protecting the rights of local Christians and silencing those who don’t conform to the community “morals” – standards that Higgins gets to set given his position.
Higgins told us the boy’s court date is Oct. 3. He can rest assured we’ll be paying close attention to the proceedings.