When Filing a Church-State Lawsuit, Should You Remain Anonymous?

In Giles County, Virginia, a Ten Commandments display just went up at Narrows High School. A student at the school, working with the ACLU of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a lawsuit. But the students wishes to remain anonymous, opting to use the name “Doe 1″ instead.

“I fear that if my involvement were made public, I would experience social ostracism, harassment, or threats from my school peers or community members,” the student said in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State explains why some plaintiffs in church/state separation cases like this choose to remain anonymous — and the consequences of what can happen if their names go public:

… When we sued Judge Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” the plaintiffs were named. That means people could track them down — and some did.

During the litigation, plaintiff Melinda Maddox, who was newly married, returned from her honeymoon to find that the windows of her house had been shot out.

As I noted in a February blog post about plaintiffs in church-state cases, it can take real courage to stand up for church-state separation in court. Consider the case of Joann Bell, a mother in Little Axe, Okla., who protested religious activity in her children’s public schools in 1981. Her home was burned down by an arsonist.

The unpleasant fact is that cases like this bring out the worst in some people. History, sadly, provides no shortage of individuals who are quick to resort to violence in defense of their faith.

If all plaintiffs had to use their real names in lawsuits — minors included — you would probably see fewer people fighting for a secular government.

Is it any surprise, then, that an attorney with the (right-wing) American Center for Law and Justice wants to prevent plaintiffs from remaining anonymous?

“The general policy is that lawsuits are supposed to be public, and the public has a right to know who is suing who, and the person being sued has a right to know,” [Francis] Manion said.

Of course, that’s easy for Manion to say. He’s not the one who might be assaulted in school or suffer from other forms of retaliation. (Manion might want to take a look at some of the reaction the case has already sparked, as noted by the [Roanoke] Times. Choice comments include: “Keep up the good work, you’ll have a special place in Hell” and “Sure sounds to me like non-Christians ought to move out of Giles County before things get ugly over there.”)

Anonymity is in the best interest of some plaintiffs, and as long as their counsel has access to them, there’s no compelling reason to force them to go public.

***Edit***: I originally posted that AU helped filed the lawsuit. In fact, it was the ACLU of VA and FFRF. Those changes are now reflected in the article.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • John

    If it was me filing the lawsuit, I would use my real name and warn everyone: “They will get back twice what they dish out”.

    • Evan

      So if they kill you you’ll kill them twice?

      Revenge is an odd dish.  Best served cold, and not all that satisfying.

      • TheBlackCat

        Revenge is a dish best served with pinto beans and little muffins.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      So if someone bricks your windows while you were out how will you know who to give back twice to?

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    For the curious, relevant seeming Virginia State Code. The bit about whether
    identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the
    requesting party
    seems relevant.

    As noted, there’s considerable evidence of at least threats of harm (and thus, the prospect of mental harm) in such cases, and have ever since McCollum v. Board of Education.

  • gski

    Yes, remain anonymous.  However I don’t see the need for a person to be the plaintiff.  An organizations’ claim of an offense against the constitution should be enough.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=843529437 Brandy Davis

      No standing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

        I think gski is saying that they should have standing, not that they currently do.

        Like how sometimes it is the State of…. vs whoever, in this case it should be The Constitution of the USA vs Giles County.

      • gski

        Gordon Duffy has it right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melaniedawn.molinawood Melanie Dawn Molina Wood

    The Ten Commandments “JUST” went up? As in – this school has recently posted them?  The fundamentalists are really pushing the boundaries, aren’t they? And they will probably claim victimhood now too. :-(

  • Anonymous

    1. Christianity is a religion of love and peace.  
    2. People need to hide their identity for fear of reprisals for defending the Constitutional separation of church and state.

    These statements seem at odds to me. 

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    As a parent whose child missed out on science lab work because of lack of funds, I bitterly resent schools trying to bring religion into schools, provoking lawsuits that will deplete district funds, win or lose.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    and what is the argument to keep witnesses in the prop8 disclosure trial about?

  • Cnickolascarlson

    Just to play Devil’s advocate, how is this argument substantively different from the attempts by right-wing groups to keep petition signers’ or campaign donors’ names anonymous in anti-equality cases?

    • Jcchavez5341

      I don’t know, but one plausible theory is that in one case there is a reasonable fear of retaliation that motivates the anonymity, and in the other case the motivation for anonymity is a desire to avoid responsibility/embarrassment/etc. resulting from taking a hateful position. The court system has an interest in preventing violent retaliation but no interest – quite the opposite – in the latter situation.


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