Unlike in many countries, American law does not recognize blasphemy as a crime. People are free to criticize and even insult religion. While attacking religion through speech or in print may be considered uncouth and may spark vigorous counter-criticism, it isn’t illegal.
Nevertheless, a district attorney in Bedford County, Pa., managed in 2014 to prosecute a kind of backdoor blasphemy case. District Attorney William Higgins sent state police to the home of a 14-year-old boy, had him arrested and charged him with “desecration of a sacred object” under a murky 1972 Pennsylvania law.
There’s no doubt that the boy had done something foolish and crude. He posed in front of a statue of Jesus at a religious ministry in the town of Everett in a way that made it look as if a sex act were taking place. He then posted the photo on Facebook. Someone reported it to Higgins.
Officials at the ministry acknowledged that the boy’s stunt was rude. But the statue was not damaged, so they forgave the teen and were ready to move on.
Higgins was not. He insisted on prosecuting the boy. Attorneys with Americans United wrote to Higgins and advised him to back off. The AU lawyers noted that while the young man’s behavior was hardly laudable, the state law was of dubious constitutionality.
Higgins refused to listen to Americans United. The boy’s parents, probably hoping to avoid seeing their son in a juvenile facility, agreed to a plea bargain. The young man had to perform 350 hours of community service and stay off of social media for six months. He was also subjected to a curfew and ordered to undergo substance-abuse counseling – even though there were no allegations that he had been abusing alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.
That should have been the end of this unfortunate saga. But last month, Higgins’ name resurfaced in the Pennsylvania media. He was arrested and charged with 31 misdemeanor accounts relating to abuse of his office.
State officials, who had conducted a multi-year investigation of Higgins, allege that he had agreed to drop drug charges against several women in exchange for sexual favors. Higgins immediately resigned his office.
Officials say Higgins’ actions put the community at risk. In some cases, known drug dealers were allegedly set loose thanks to Higgins. In another case, women convicted of drug offenses were allegedly told by Higgins to avoid certain people because they were police informants. Outing the informants obviously subjected them to possible reprisals.
Bedford County is a conservative area, and Higgins was known for playing up his religiosity. There are reports that he would sometimes appear outside of local schools and pass out Bibles to students. After Americans United wrote to Higgins and urged him to drop the case against the boy, Higgins posted a message on Facebook reading, “This troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community. [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.”
It’s certainly not the case that every politician who wears his or her religion on a sleeve has something to hide – but it happens enough that one does need to stop and think whenever those who hold public office launch moral crusades.
Undoubtedly, some of the people who do this are true zealots, men and women misguided enough to believe that the raw power of government can be used as an instrument to morally purify a city, county, state or nation.
Others are just hypocrites. They play on the religious sensibilities of an audience in a quest for power, fame, riches or all three. In Alabama, Roy Moore, the infamous “Ten Commandments judge” and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, was the worst combination of both. He constantly portrayed himself as a champion of biblical values. Yet he was accused of looting a nonprofit group to pay himself a hefty salary (after swearing that he took no money from the group), and credible reports about his tendency to sexually harass and assault teenage girls in the 1970s and ‘80s have likely ended his political career.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who championed official school prayer and other Religious Right causes during his time in office, is a serial philanderer. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) fought to criminalize abortion for years – and then suggested his mistress get one after he impregnated her.
The Religious Right should learn a lesson from all of this. It’s a simple one and comes from someone they know: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.”