People who agree to be plaintiffs in church-state lawsuits know they are taking a risk. Suits over issues like prayer in public schools, the display of religious symbols on public property and discrimination in the name of religion help protect religious freedom for everyone. But they also tend to bring out the worst in some folks – and that’s why it’s not uncommon for plaintiffs in church-state cases to ask courts to allow them to proceed anonymously.
At Americans United, we know this from personal experience. When we sued in 2001 because then Alabama judge Roy Moore had installed an unconstitutional Ten Commandments display in the judicial center, some people did not react well to the litigation. One of our plaintiffs, Melinda Maddox, who did not proceed anonymously, came home from her honeymoon only to find that someone had shot out the windows of her home.
Three years later in South Carolina, Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan, objected to the Great Falls Town Council’s practice of opening its sessions with Christian prayer. She sued and became the victim of violent harassment; someone broke into her home and beheaded her pet parrot, leaving a note next to the dead bird that read, “You’re next!” She said several of her cats also were killed and her Yorkshire terriers beaten.
In the 1960s, Madalyn Murray O’Hair challenged official prayer and Bible readings at her children’s public school. After she sued, her children were beaten up. People also firebombed her house and the fire department intentionally took a long route that delayed their response for forty minutes.
Other plaintiffs in our cases have reported harassment and death threats. The situation has only gotten worse in the modern era where anyone can use the Internet to quickly track down another’s personal information.
In light of this, it’s really shocking to see that a Missouri state legislator wants to make it illegal for state residents to file church-state lawsuits anonymously. House Bill 728, introduced by Rep. Hardy Billington (R-Dist. 152), would require that adult plaintiffs use their real names in civil actions concerning separation of church and state.
The bill is clearly designed to discourage people from filing such lawsuits by making them targets for harassment and threats.
Despite its extreme nature, the measure is getting some traction: It has already had a hearing before the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. Don Hinkle, director of public policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention, and Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, testified in favor of it.
Americans United is striving to be a voice of reason. In a Feb. 26 letter to Rep. David Gregory, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bruce DeGroot, vice chair, AU State Policy Counsel Nik Nartowicz explained that some people petition courts to proceed in these cases anonymously precisely because they fear becoming targets.
“Plaintiffs who file cases to protect the separation of church and state do so to uphold both the U.S. and the Missouri Constitutions,” Nartowicz wrote. “But these constitutional protections are meaningless if plaintiffs are afraid to go to court to enforce them. Indeed, the backlash against plaintiffs who seek to uphold the Constitution can be severe. Thus the best way to both ensure the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom for all is upheld and protect plaintiffs is to allow them to file cases anonymously in certain circumstances.”
Nartowicz also included a list of people who were threatened for filing church-state lawsuits. His letter concludes, “Passage of this bill could empower those who would burn down the homes and kill the pets of these plaintiffs. It would give those who seek to physically assault and threaten the plaintiffs in these cases the information they need to do so. Even if you disagree with plaintiffs’ positions in church-state cases, you should not pass a law that invites this kind of intimidation and even physical harm.”
This bill would expose people to threats, abuse and violence – all because they dared to stand up for their constitutional rights. It’s an appalling and shameful proposal that quickly deserves to be dumped into the trash heap of bad ideas.