A story has been making the rounds on social media concerning a 14-year-old boy in Everett, Pa., who posted on Facebook a photo of himself simulating a sex act with a statue of Jesus.
The teen, whose name has not been publicly released, stands accused of “desecration of a venerated object.” He is facing criminal charges and the possibility of two years in a juvenile facility.
The statue sits on private property in front of an organization called Love in the Name of Christ. The photo leaves no doubt that the boy climbed on the statue and engaged in behavior many would consider offensive.
Local media has reported that the teen is being charged under 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.
Is what this teen did crude and immature? Unquestionably. Is it illegal? There’s room for doubt – plenty of it. It looks like the law in question is patently unconstitutional.
Consider the term “desecrate.” An online dictionary defines it as to “treat (a sacred place or thing) with violent disrespect.” The word “venerate” means “to worship, adore or be in awe of.”
This law, it would seem, is designed to protect sacred objects from being held up to ridicule. Applied broadly and strictly, it would rather quickly collide with both free speech and the separation of church and state.
Let’s say the teen had purchased a Bible, a book many people hold to be sacred scripture that is worthy of veneration. And let’s say he made a video of himself mutilating the tome and posted it to YouTube. It sure sounds like he has violated this law.
In this case, of course, the boy mocked and ridiculed a religious statue that he does not own. He didn’t vandalize it, though. It seems that the worst crime this kid has committed is trespassing.
It’s not the job of the government to protect someone’s “sacred” and “venerated” object from mockery or criticism. In fact, the government should be constitutionally forbidden from taking on the role of defender of the faith. Otherwise we’re back to enforcing blasphemy laws, and those statutes rightly fell by the wayside long ago.
This kid is 14. Teens that age sometimes don’t have good judgment. (Many of us older folks are thankful that the internet, social media and cell phone cameras didn’t exist when we were 14. In my day it was, thankfully, next to impossible for my friends and me to inform the world every time we did something foolish.)
Yes, the boy did a dumb thing. Yes, he deserves to be punished. Perhaps a stern lecture, being grounded, a letter of apology or some other sanction is appropriate. Whatever the punishment is, I’d let his parents handle it, not the state of Pennsylvania.