People who agree to be plaintiffs in church-state lawsuits know they are taking a risk, and that’s why they sometimes file lawsuits anonymously. But if a Missouri legislator has his way, that will no longer be possible in the Show Me State.
Rep. Hardy Billington (R-Dist. 152) is sponsoring House Bill 728, which would require that adult plaintiffs use their real names in civil actions concerning separation of church and state. The bill, Americans United says, 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 passed two House of Representatives Committees and moved to the full House as this issue of Church & State was in production. 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 speaking out against the bill and has written two letters to Missouri lawmakers urging them to oppose it.
In a Feb. 26 letter to Rep. David Gregory (R-Dist. 096), chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bruce DeGroot (R-Dist. 101), 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.”
On March 13, Nartowicz, joined by five leaders of AU’s St. Louis Chapter, wrote to Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Dist. 148), chair of the Committee on Rules-Administrative Oversight, and Rep. Sheila Solon (R-Dist. 009), vice chair of the committee, and urged them to reject the legislation.