Sep 22, 2014

Bedford County, Pa., must not prosecute a teenager for “desecration of a venerated object” even though he simulated a sex act with a statue of Jesus, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.In a letter sent today to Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins, Americans United says that prosecuting a teenager solely because of the message conveyed by his actions violates the right of free speech and the separation of church and state, both of which are protected by the First Amendment.

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

The controversy began when a 14-year-old boy in Everett, Pa., posted on Facebook a photo of himself simulating a sex act with a statue of Jesus. The statue sits on private property in front of an organization called Love in the Name of Christ, and the photo leaves no doubt that the boy climbed on the statue and engaged in behavior many would consider offensive.

News reports said the boy faces up to two years in a juvenile facility thanks to a 1972 state law that makes “desecration, theft or sale of a venerated object” a second-degree misdemeanor. An act constitutes desecration if it “will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.” He does not currently face charges of trespassing or destruction of property.

Americans United’s letter notes that the motivation for prosecution of the teen seems rooted in religious belief with intent to protect Christians who may have been offended by the photo. Recent news reports quoted Higgins as stating: “This troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community” and 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.”

Despite the controversial nature of the boy’s actions, AU’s letter says prosecuting him only 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.

“[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 says. “The statute in general and this prosecution in particular violate the [First Amendment] by targeting conduct based on its message.”

“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.”

The letter was prepared by Lipper and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.