November 2014 Church & State | Featured

A few months ago, a 14-year-old boy in Everett, Pa., did something rather rude: He simulated a sex act with a statue of Jesus that sits on the private property of a group called Love in the Name of Christ.

The statue was not vandalized or damaged, but most people agree that the boy’s actions were immature and crass. However, the district attorney in Bedford County believes the teen’s actions were more than that. He says they were illegal.

The boy, whose name has not been made public, has been charged with “desecration of a venerated object.” Under state law, he could have faced up to two years in a juvenile detention facility.

Although his sentence turned out to be lighter, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says there’s still a problem: District Attorney William Higgins is off base in prosecuting the teenager at all. The county, AU asserted in a Sept. 22 letter to Higgins, has targeted the youth solely because of the message conveyed by his actions. This violates the right of free speech and the separation of church and state, say AU attorneys.

“[T]he teenager is being prosecuted because of the County’s disagreement with the message conveyed by his conduct, including the teenager’s apparent disrespect for a symbol of the Christian religion,” the letter said. “The statute in general and this prosecution in particular violate the [First Amendment] by targeting conduct based on its message.”

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, himself a Christian minister, made it clear that what the boy did was crude. But boorish behavior, Lynn argued, isn’t illegal – even when it’s directed at a religious organization.

“While I don’t condone the sort of behavior in which this teen engaged, he didn’t do anything that should be considered illegal,” Lynn said in a media statement. “Just because a religious group might find a particular action to be offensive is not a justification for jail time.”

The controversy began after the boy posted the prank photo on his Facebook page. The photo leaves no doubt that the teenager climbed on the statue and engaged in behavior many would consider offensive. But the statue was not harmed, and there was no vandalism.

It’s unclear how the photo came to the attention of the district attorney’s office, but Higgins decided to pursue the matter aggressively. He even sent the state police to arrest the boy.

Everett, a small town of less than 2,000 in south-central Pennsylvania, occupies a conservative area of the state. That may explain Higgins’ tenacity – but there may be more to the story. Higgins may also be engaged in some damage control.

In July of 2008, Higgins, who is married, drove to his office with a woman he had met at a Republican Party meeting and had sex with her. The woman later accused him of sexual assault, although she eventually dropped the charge.

Higgins admitted he had sex with the woman but said it was consensual. He insisted that he had done nothing illegal and told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the allegations were “personally and politically motivated.”

Like a lot of public officials caught up in sex scandals, Higgins seems to see religion as a way to burnish his reputation. When his office came under fire for prosecuting the teen, Higgins was quick to play the religion card.

“This troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community,” Higgins posted on his Facebook page. Higgins added 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.”

To critics, it looks as if Bedford County is trying to enforce a blasphemy statute through backdoor means. The anti-desecration statute, they say, is overly broad and vague.

The law in question dates to 1972. It makes “desecration, theft or sale of a venerated object” a second-degree misdemeanor. An act is said to constitute desecration if it “will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”

In its letter, Americans United noted that the motivation for prosecution of the teen seems rooted in religious belief – it’s intended to protect Christians who may have been offended by the photo. AU argues that prosecuting the teenager for “desecration” would constitute viewpoint discrimination. The letter also says the law is so broad that it has a chilling effect on free speech, allows government officials to target any message they don’t like and impermissibly uses the law to achieve religious goals.

“The government may not throw citizens in jail just because others find their speech offensive or blasphemous,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “We urge the district attorney to drop this religiously motivated criminal prosecution.”

But Higgins refused to do that. Just hours after AU emailed its letter to his office, the district attorney replied, striking a defiant tone.

“[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,” Higgins 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.”

An official at Love in the Name of Christ, however, told the website Raw Story that the ministry is not pressing for the teen to be punished.

“We have asked for prayer for this young man,” the official said. “And Love Inc. did not press charges against him. So, what is happening is from the police. It is not from the ministry.”

            Higgins also accused the media of sensationalizing the story. In his reply to AU, he insisted that the teen is “not facing any jail time whatsoever. [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.” 

            Americans United found that defense unpersuasive. In AU’s view, asserting that the boy will only be lightly punished isn’t much of an argument when the county has no right to punish the 14-year-old at all.

            On Sept. 27, members of three organizations – Truth Wins Out, American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers – gathered near the Bedford County Courthouse to protest the D.A.’s action against the boy.

A press release issued by the groups said, “The youth’s actions may have been in poor taste, but religious freedom does not include the right never to be offended by a teenager’s prank. Moreover, prosecution of this action is a clear violation of the teen’s own First Amendment rights.”

The anonymous 14-year-old and his mother attended the protest. During the event, participants were accosted by a handful of noisy counter-protestors. One man on a motorcycle repeatedly circled around the block and gunned his engine to drown out the speakers.

The man later attempted to confront the boy. Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, reported that he had to stand between the biker and the teenager and that this “led to a near fistfight….” The situation was defused only after Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers called the police.

On Oct. 3, the boy learned his fate. Judge Thomas Ling sentenced him to six months of probation, ordered him to stay off social media for six months and required him to perform 350 hours of community service. He is also under a 10 p.m. nightly curfew and must submit to drug and alcohol testing – even though allegations of substance abuse were never raised.

His parents, probably just wanting the whole thing to go away, accepted the deal.

Attorneys at Americans United say the teen’s constitutional rights are being violated.

“One would have thought that in 2014, prosecutors and judges would know that the Constitution doesn’t allow criminal prosecutions for blasphemy,” Lipper said. “The teenager’s conduct was offensive, but the First Amendment protects offensive conduct – even conduct that is offensive to members of a religious group. This case highlights that we have a lot more work to in educating government officials about the freedom of speech and the separation of church and state.”