Outrageous Attacks on Supporters of Church-State Separation: Death Threats, Murdered Pets, and Vandalized Property

This article was originally published on AlterNet.

Although the United States is a democracy where the will of the majority is sovereign, our framers knew that being persecuted by a mob is no better than being persecuted by a tyrant. That’s why they designed the Bill of Rights to be a counter-majoritarian document, limiting what laws can be passed and protecting the rights of minorities against the overreach of the majority. There’s no better example than the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a state religion by the government even if a majority supports it.

The religious right despises the First Amendment, since it’s constantly foiled their efforts to inject Christian doctrine into government. And when they’ve lost in court, religious conservatives in the U.S. have often waged campaigns of threats, harassment and outright violence against First Amendment plaintiffs, in the hopes of intimidating them into backing down and achieving by mob violence what they can’t achieve under the law. Here are some of the most outrageous of these instances of retribution.

In 2012, the Freedom from Religion Foundation contacted two public school districts in Pennsylvania, in New Kensington and Connellsville, to demand the removal of large stone Ten Commandments monuments prominently placed on school property. When the schools chose to fight, the FFRF and its local plaintiffs, including current students, filed a lawsuit.

As often happens in these cases, the FFRF’s plaintiffs asked to have their identities concealed because they feared harassment and retaliation from the community. It was a well-founded fear, since some of them had already been receiving threats on social media. On a Facebook page supporting the New Kensington school, one person encouraged others to “slam the shit out of the bitch” who filed the lawsuit. Another commenter asked, “Have the families involved in the lawsuit been identified? I cannot believe anyone living in the community would participate in such a worthless cause. Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes!”

Because of threats like this, the court granted the request for anonymity, finding that “this basis upon which the Does fear disclosure is substantial and that there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a Constitutional violation, a pure legal issue.” In response, Republican state representative Tim Krieger filed a bill… that would eliminate the right of plaintiffs to sue anonymously over religious symbols on public property.

Thankfully, Krieger’s understanding of federalism is as abysmal as his grasp of the Bill of Rights: the FFRF lawsuit was filed in federal court, where state laws have no effect. Still, the ugly, bullying intent behind his bill is obvious: the unsubtle hope is to encourage bullying and retribution against First Amendment plaintiffs, to “punish” them for standing up for the Constitution.

The story of high school activist Jessica Ahlquist, previously reported by Greta Christina on AlterNet, is another example. After speaking out against an illegal prayer banner in her public school (and winning in court), Ahlquist received vivid, violent threats on social media, and even in a handwritten letter. Some of the threats were so serious that she was temporarily given a police escort for protection.

These two stories are just the most recent and high-profile examples of the kind of harassment and intimidation of church-state plaintiffs that’s been going on literally for decades. Countless other stories could be cited, like these:

Darla Kay Wynne. A Wiccan living in the town of Great Falls, South Carolina in 2004, Darla Kay Wynne was disturbed by sectarian, Christian prayers before town council meetings. On one occasion, when she deliberately came late to avoid the prayer, she was denied the opportunity to speak at the meeting even though she had previously signed up to do so and was listed on the official agenda. When she asked for members of other religions to have an opportunity to give the prayers, that too was denied; the mayor, Henry Starnes, said, “This is the way we’ve always done things and we’re not going to change.” When she refused to stand for one of the prayers, several people told her she “wasn’t wanted” and “should leave town”.

Wynne filed a lawsuit, Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, which she easily won based on existing precedent. In response, as reported by a South Carolina newspaper, The State, someone broke into her home and decapitated her pet parrot, leaving a note next to the body that read, “You’re next!” Several of her cats were also killed, and her pet Yorkshire terrier was beaten.

The Santa Fe Does. In 2000, in the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court struck down student-selected, school-endorsed prayer at high school football games in Santa Fe, Texas. As in the FFRF’s Pennsylvania cases, the lower courts allowed the plaintiffs to file anonymously to protect them from harassment. The wisdom of that measure was soon demonstrated – because employees of the school district apparently spent considerable effort trying to figure out who the plaintiffs were. The judge was forced to issue a further order, threatening criminal contempt if there was “any further attempt on the part of District or school administration… parents, students or anyone else, overtly or covertly to ferret out the identities of the Plaintiffs in this cause, by means of bogus petitions, questionnaires, individual interrogation, or downright ‘snooping’”.

The McCollums. Vashti McCollum, her husband John and her son Jim were at the center of one of the earliest and most important First Amendment cases of the 20th century: McCollum vs. Board of Education, a 1948 Supreme Court ruling striking down a “released-time” policy in Illinois that allowed clergy to come to a public school to teach religious education classes to students during the school day.

While the case was going on, the McCollum family was threatened and ostracized by their community. They received harassing and threatening messages, including one that read, “There is no room for you nor yours here. God damn you sons and daughters of bitches…. If you think you can boss us around What fun We are going to have.” On one Halloween, a mob broke into the house and threw rotten fruit and vegetables at the family. Vashti was abruptly fired from her job as a phys-ed teacher at the University of Illinois at Champaign. Jim McCollum and his brothers were beaten up while going to and from school. Most shockingly, the McCollum family’s cat was lynched and hanged from a tree.

The Bells. In 1981, in the Oklahoma community of Little Axe, school officials allowed a Baptist religious group, the Son Shine Club, to meet in the school building before the start of the day. The buses dropped students off at school 30 minutes before the start of class, and those who didn’t want to attend the religious meetings had to wait outside the building, even if it was raining or freezing cold.

Joann Bell and another local parent, Lucille McCord, were both Christians but of different denominations, and didn’t want their children exposed to Baptist preaching on school time. When they filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU, Bell v. Little Axe, retribution was swift and vicious.

Joann Bell was assaulted by a school employee who smashed her head repeatedly against a car door; he was only fined, and the community rallied around him and raised money to pay the fine. The Bells’ home was burned to the ground; fire marshals ruled it to be arson, but no arrest was ever made. McCord’s son raised goats, which an unknown person slashed and mutilated with a knife. Both of them received threatening letters, including copies of their own obituaries. The Bells got a phone call from someone who said he would break into Joann Bell’s house, tie up her children, rape her in front of them, and then “bring her to Jesus”. The local superintendent, Paul Pettigrew, said, “The only people who have been hurt by this thing are the Bells and McCords… They chose to create their own hell on earth.”

Although most of these champions of the Constitution persevered through harassment and threats, sadly, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the persecution is too severe to bear, as in the case of the Dobriches, an Orthodox Jewish family who filed a lawsuit in 2005 challenging pervasive Christian influence in their Delaware school district, including explicitly sectarian prayers at parent-teacher meetings and graduation ceremonies, special privileges given to children in Christian clubs, and Bibles handed out at elementary school.

When Mona Dobrich complained on behalf of her son, Alex, a group calling itself the “Stop the ACLU Coalition” publicized the Dobriches’ home address and phone number, and they received so many threats, harassing messages and anti-Semitic hate letters that they were essentially hounded out of their community. They ended up moving to another county, and their daughter had to drop out of Columbia University because of the financial strain they were under.

Another church-state plaintiff driven out of her town was Melinda Maddox, a Roman Catholic resident of Brewton, Alabama who joined in a 2001 lawsuit challenging theocratic judge Roy Moore’s illegal placement of a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building. During her honeymoon, someone shot out the windows of her house; her car was vandalized, and she received violent threats like “You should be hog-tied and thrown in the Escambia River.” Her parents, both of whom were battling cancer, received threatening and harassing phone calls as well. When she asked community leaders to condemn the threats, they instead counseled her to drop out of the case. The strain destroyed her marriage and her legal firm, forcing her to relocate to Mobile – but in spite of this, she says she would do it all over again.

Image credit: Ludovic Bertron

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • skeptimal

    These abuses, coupled with the recent release of the “The Persecution Myth: The Religious Rights Deceptive Rallying Cry,” paint quite a contrast. Even as they do these things, the religious right claim that people of other religions are persecuting THEM. This is something we need to take seriously as a threat to democracy. If we continue to allow the to steal power via the purchase of elections, voter intimidation, voter disenfranchisement and other tactics, they WILL end everyone else’s civil rights.

    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/persecution-myth-new-report-takes-rights-deceptive-rallying-cry

  • pianoman

    This is a brutal read.

    I noticed also, in some of these cases, the amount of time spent trying to identify the plaintiffs, and those who themselves “anonymously” committed the retributions. Not brave enough to identify themselves, I guess.

  • InDogITrust

    This makes me physically ill. I am ever grateful that I live in one of the more enlightened parts of the country.

  • Kenneth Polit

    Just some more fine examples of Jesus’ love.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    You will know them by their fruit, and that fruit is fetid.

  • L.Long

    The religion of peace and the religion of love…..my irony meter will never be fixed again. All that love an peace is nothing more then a lying thin veneer over laying hate, bigotry, and total intolerance for anything else.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Here’s your lesson for today in Reading Comprehension 101:

    http://usconstitution.net/xconst_Am6.html

    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

    The Sixth Amendment applies to criminal trials. A civil lawsuit to force the state to cease an illegal endorsement of religion isn’t a criminal trial. Thus endeth the lesson.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    Why are you so pissy at Adam when it’s your Christian friends who have been acting like monsters?

  • Azkyroth

    If you and the other ButNotAll Christians put half as much effort into policing your own as browbeating anyone who does have the backbone to call out the bad apples, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  • J-D

    See that list of ‘Tags’ over there on the side (or wherever your browser puts it)? See that ‘Islam’ is on the list? Click on it, as I just did. Go on, I dare you.

    Adam Lee has blogged repeatedly about harassment, violence, oppression, and persecution perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam. That’s the fact, if you care.

  • DavidMHart

    I hope Adam Lee will get back with us after the Muslims replace those barbarian Christians and Islam becomes the religion of oppression…

    I’m not sure if you actually meant to imply what it sounds like you’re implying – that in order to stave off religiously-motivated cruelty by Muslims, you need to allow religiously motivated cruelty by Christians. Because it’s not as if the demographic trends in the USA are pointing to a Muslim majority anywhere in the foreseeable future. If anything, the demographic trends are pointing to a secular/religiously unaffiliated majority in the foreseeable future (though it may be a long time coming). Not necessarily an atheist majority, but a demographic of atheists, apatheists (people who don’t care whether any gods exist) and spiritual-but-not-religious people who may believe in supernatural entities such as gods, but who have in common with the first two categories the fact that they would never dream of using any form of coercion against those who don’t hold religious belief or who challenge religious privilege.

    In that scenario, the US would be mostly free of religiously motivated cruelty carried out by Christians, and would not have had to suffer any uptick of religiously motivated cruelty by Muslims. Would you genuinely not welcome that scenario, or do you have some good evidence that there is an inevitable religiously-inspired cruelty vacuum in human societies which will be filled by the holy bullies of some religion or other, and Islam is poised to step right into the gap?

  • 8DX

    Fuck Christians. Fuck small town tribal mentality.

  • KBQ

    While the original lawsuits may indeed be civil in nature, if one is found guilty of what you allege the religious conservatives have done, that becomes a criminal case, doesn’t it?

    I don’t think it would. What you might be referring to is a criminal case that gets filed concurrently with the civil case, but the two cases are still distinct from one another. The plaintiff, as far as the civil case is concerned, is still within his or her rights to file anonymously; the sixth amendment’s confrontation clause does not apply to the civil case.

    Additionally, it should be mentioned that Adam neither said nor implied in the OP that the criminal acts that were perpetrated against the plaintiffs of the civil cases were necessarily committed by the defendants in those same cases. Even if civil cases could become criminal cases, one would think that any criminal case would be separate from the civil case if the criminal acts were not perpetrated by the defendants in the civil case.

    And if all this is happening, is there not enough evidence for any prosecutor to bring criminal charges? Some of the things you wrote about those scoundrels doing falls under terroristic threats.

    What’s the purpose of bringing this point up? The only thing I can think of is that you are insinuating that the violence and vandalism perpetrated against the plaintiffs in these cases did not happen, or did not happen as described, because no one filed charges against the people who perpetrated the criminal acts. However, as Adam mentioned in the OP, at least some of these acts were committed anonymously. In any case, we don’t need to disbelieve everything in Adam’s post pending the evidence of criminal charges being filed. The OP doesn’t ask us to take Adam’s word for it: he provides clear citations from other reputable sources that confirm that these things did indeed happen.

    And your lesson for today:

    The United States is a Constitutional Republic, not a democracy….there is a difference.

    Adam did indeed write that “the United States is a democracy”, but the sentences directly following that statement acknowledge the US’s status as a constitutional republic:

    Although the United States is a democracy where the will of the majority is sovereign, our framers knew that being persecuted by a mob is no better than being persecuted by a tyrant. That’s why they designed the Bill of Rights to be a counter-majoritarian document, limiting what laws can be passed and protecting the rights of minorities against the overreach of the majority.

    Your criticism of his word choice is nothing more than pedantry.

  • John Lev

    I grew up near New Ken. We played against their team in HS. Despite this “moral guidance” that they feel is instrumental in a civilized society, New Ken is well known for it’s high crime rate and drug use. Always has been. One women I went to HS with lives there and is all the time complaining about it on FB. Ironically enough she supports the monument at the school.

  • Azkyroth

    While the original lawsuits may indeed be civil in nature, if one is found guilty of what you allege the religious conservatives have done, that becomes a criminal case, doesn’t it?

    What the hell are you talking about?

    The United States is a Constitutional Republic, not a democracy….there is a difference.

    1) wrong Also: Not This Shit Again.
    2) Even if it were true, what’s the relevance…..?

  • Plutosdad

    If it really happened it would have been prosecuted? What, did peoples pets die by magic, their windows shot out by magic? Do you really think every single crime is prosecuted? no you don’t only when you have no sympathy for the victims.

  • Azkyroth

    For all we know, some of the local police officers were involved. That was pretty common in lynchings back in the day, I don’t see why other forms of bigoted-majoritarian terrorism would be excepted.

  • unbound55

    I’m pretty sure she was going for the old “Yeah, we’re really big assholes, but there are bigger assholes out there, so there!” defense.

    Never understood why these “moral” christians seem to use this defense so often…

  • Science Avenger

    I hope Adam Lee will get back with us after the Muslims replace those barbarian Christians and Islam becomes the religion of oppression

    You do realize that Muslims and Christians have far more in common with each other than either has with atheists right?

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    And the First Amendment means that Church and State are separate.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    You skipped over the First Amendment. It protects Americans from having your brand of Christianity forced on them and protects you from having Islam or any other religion forced on you.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    This seems like the kind of issue that atheist and religious people should agree upon. Any state that can privilege your religion beliefs today can and will take them away when it becomes politically expedient to do so. Only a strong wall between church and state can protect religious freedom. Don’t think for one moment that this is an atheist versus believers battle. As the article points out the people who use these tactics of fear and intimidation will come after you even if you are also a Christian if you dare to insist that the First Amendment be upheld.

  • J-D

    _If_ criminal prosecutions are brought, then witnesses have to be produced; therefore, if no witnesses can be produced, no criminal prosecutions can be brought; however, even if no criminal prosecutions are brought, that does _not_ stop the civil lawsuits from proceeding, which they can do on the basis of anonymous complaints.

    People’s legal right (in the relevant circumstances) to bring anonymous civil complaints can’t be voided by the people complained of making criminal attacks on the complainants. What kind of sense would that make?

  • Miss_Beara

    What would Jesus do?

    Kill animals, assault human beings with threats of rape and murder of course.

    Mob mentality is alive and well in the 21st century in the name of religion.

    Disgusting.

    But remember everyone, it is the poor majority American Christians that are being persecuted in this country.

  • Mario Strada

    The “accuser” is the US government upholding the constitution of the United States.
    It would also not be necessary if the local christians did not behave like biblical tyrants and petty criminals.

    As far as islam, I actually cannot wait until some town someplace acquires a muslim majority and they start bitchslapping the local christians leveraging the very same privilege they worked so hard to affirm and legalize.

    I despise Islam as much, and maybe a tad more, as I despise Christianity, but it will be rich to see these people given their own medicine and run back to the courts seeking protection.

    I am almost certain it will happen someday. I’ll try to make sure I live as far away from those towns as possible, but I’ll pay to watch it.

    That may make me as asshole, but at least I would not be the kind of asshole that kills cats and decapitates parrots.

  • Emma

    Ah, the Christian persecution complex

  • GCT

    I don’t find it’s a very good argument to ask what would Jesus do, because of a couple reasons. The main reason is that it feeds into the Xian privileged notion of Jesus as the moral paragon, although the Bible stories don’t actually paint that picture.

    The rest of your post…couldn’t agree more.

  • Ambaa

    These are the same people who vehemently support the Second Amendment.

    “What would Jesus do” indeed. Decapitate pets sounds about right.

  • Ambaa

    I keep trying to point that out too! Separation of religion and government protects ALL of us.

  • Ambaa

    I assumed she was using that in irony, as I did in my comment too. The people who say “What would Jesus do?” somehow come up with the answer: threaten and kill.

  • ted

    Tables WILL turn in due time. Justice will be served. Unfortunately, we will suffer a great deal before our justice is attained.

    If they would only create a movie with a superhero in it, it help move this along. Superheros are classified under Fantasy and is easier for the general public to swallow/accept. Just like when Capt Kirk kissed Uhura on national TV – people accepted it as it was science fiction and it “didn’t” really happen.

    It’ll help educate the younger generations that it’s OK to be secular.

  • ted

    I’m moving there! Where is that?

  • Martin Penwald

    Wow. Impressive. Impressively stupid.

    Do you realise that these good christians described here have exactly the same mentality (and I mean it : EXACTLY) than groups like Boko Haram or ISIL ?

    The cosmetics differences between islam and christianity can’t hide this fact.

  • GCT

    The point is, however, that the WWJD question is to shame the person for not being moral. It’s implicit in there that Jesus would do the right thing.

  • Ambaa

    Yes, that is true. I guess to me it implies that the person who is saying it believes that Jesus would do the right thing, not that I myself making fun of them do! :)

  • GCT

    If the shoe fits…

  • GCT

    No, there’s no problem with questioning. There is, however, a problem with apologetics aimed at excusing the type of behavior written about in the post, which you are engaging in, regardless of the fact that you claim not to be doing that.

  • Laurie Harrison

    Precisely! IF……

  • GCT

    Well, you seem to be intent on not getting it and making excuses no matter what. Sigh.

    If the authorities of a location don’t want to find the perpetrators because they sympathize with them, does that mean that no crime was committed or that it obviously couldn’t have been a Xian or group of Xians? Please. In all your mental gymnastics you seem to not have even read the examples given. In most of the cases, we know who the perpetrators of the Xian-motived bigotry were. In cases where we don’t know the specific individual involved, we know their religious bent or can at least be confident enough by their actions and words. Are you really going to contend that there is some conspiracy by non-Xians in all those cases to make Xians look bad by acting out and blaming it on Xians? If you really believe that, I’ve got some Kenyan birth certificates with Obama’s name on it that I could sell you.

  • Azkyroth

    What makes you think your tiresome, smarmily presented, repeatedly refuted canards are worth “debating?”

  • Azkyroth

    Not this shit again…

  • Azkyroth

    Reflexively going “NUH UH!” and “I BET YOU’RE MAKING IT UP!” when someone presents a sourced, substantiated report of facts that’s unflattering to a side you’re emotionally invested in isn’t “debate and exploratory discourse.”

  • Science Avenger

    Well by all means please educate us all on what he got wrong.

  • Azkyroth

    I know all these words and I still can’t parse this. Who has been “arbitrarily accused of a crime?”

  • Science Avenger

    It’s not necessary, but it is appropriate. You seem to think the only offenses in debate are using bad words. Willful obtuseness is worse..

  • Azkyroth

    Oh and “showing emotion” when discussing things that affect you or people like you or people you care about. Except when you’re implying that gay people are pedophiles, of course.

  • Science Avenger

    Google “JAQing off”

  • J-D

    Tongue-in-cheek or not, what was the point of the challenge? Did you see my response to it? If you’re complaining that atheists are not objecting to persecution carried out by Muslims, your complaint is factually incorrect.

    Also … I do disagree with Islam, and yet nobody has cut my head off. Did you perhaps mean that Muslims _want_ to cut my head off? None of the Muslims I have known personally wanted to cut my head off. Or did you perhaps mean that in countries with a Muslim majority, non-Muslims get their heads cut off? But that’s wrong again. So your ‘explanation’ doesn’t count as satisfactory without more clarification.

  • J-D

    See my response to your other comment below.

  • J-D

    It appears you are objecting to anybody suggesting that the criminals were religiously motivated when nobody knows who they were. However, it’s routine for people, including law enforcement investigators, to draw conclusions from the evidence about the motivation for a crime even when that evidence doesn’t identify specific perpetrators — for example, ‘the motive appears to have been robbery’ if valuables have been taken or ‘the motive appears not to have been robbery’ if valuables have not been taken. Sometimes, of course, further investigation reveals that the original conclusion about motive was mistaken.

    In these cases, it is obviously _conceivable_ that every one of the crimes described was committed by people with no religious motive. It’s _conceivable_ they were using the background of religious hostility to conceal personal vendettas with origins unrelated to religion. But given the number of cases mentioned, that would be a coincidence of _mind-boggling_ improbability. If it was necessary to bet, that’s not the way anybody should bet.

  • J-D

    See my response to your comment above.

  • J-D

    The answers to your questions are, respectively, ‘No’, ‘No’, and ‘No’.

    I hope that helps.


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