Doe v. Government-Sponsored Religion: Why Plaintiffs Sometimes Need To Be Anonymous

The unpleasant fact is that church-state disputes bring out the worst in some people.

Let’s say you lived in Giles County, Va., a rural enclave of about 17,000 people in the southwestern portion of the state. Let’s say you were a high school student and you were opposed to the school board’s decision to post the Ten Commandments in your school.

Would you be eager to be public about it?

Some people might be willing to stick their necks out and take a public stand. Others might want to remain a little reticent but still look for ways to right this wrong – and they might seek to do so anonymously.

This is not a theoretical situation. Giles County has indeed decided to post the Commandments at Narrows High School. A student who opposes the display is suing, represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The student and his or her family also wish to remain anonymous. In a court filing, the student asserts, “I fear that if my involvement were made public, I would experience social ostracism, harassment, or threats from my school peers or community members.”

In a story about this that ran yesterday, the Roanoke Times quotes Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. AU has filed many church-state lawsuits over the years, and we’ve sometimes represented anonymous plaintiffs. (In court documents, such plaintiffs are usually referred to as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.”)

“It’s very ugly out there, and because religion matters so much to people – even when it’s government-sponsored religion – people are reluctant to be plaintiffs,” Lynn said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the majority, but there are certainly a growing number of plaintiffs named ‘Doe’ in these cases.”

At AU, we know from experience that plaintiffs in church-state lawsuits can and do experience harassment. When we sued Judge Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” the plaintiffs were named. That means people could track them down – and some did.

During the litigation, plaintiff Melinda Maddox , who was newly married, returned from her honeymoon to find that the windows of her house had been shot out.

As I noted in a February blog post about plaintiffs in church-state cases, it can take real courage to stand up for church-state separation in court. Consider the case of Joann Bell, a mother in Little Axe, Okla., who protested religious activity in her children’s public schools in 1981. Her home was burned down by an arsonist.

These days, the web makes it easy to track down virtually anyone with just a few mouse clicks. Sites like Google Maps and Zillow provide photos of most houses. (On Zillow, an aerial photo of my house shows my car in the driveway. One can learn the square-footage of the house, the number of bathrooms, our school district and what we pay in property taxes.)

Francis Manion, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice (which is not directly involved in the Giles County case), poses as a defender of open court proceedings.

“The general policy is that lawsuits are supposed to be public, and the public has a right to know who is suing who, and the person being sued has a right to know,” Manion said.

Of course, that’s easy for Manion to say. He’s not the one who might be assaulted in school or suffer from other forms of retaliation. (Manion might want to take a look at some of the reaction the case has already sparked, as noted by the Times. Choice comments include: “Keep up the good work, you'll have a special place in Hell” and “Sure sounds to me like non-Christians ought to move out of Giles County before things get ugly over there.”)

The unpleasant fact is that cases like this bring out the worst in some people. History, sadly, provides no shortage of individuals who are quick to resort to violence in defense of their faith.

The federal courts have a process that allows plaintiffs to seek anonymity for a reason: to protect themselves. U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski is currently considering the motion requesting anonymity in Giles County. This should be an easy call. The motion should be granted forthwith.