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