Anonymous Woman Sues City Over Prayers, but Judge Won’t Proceed Unless She Reveals Her Identity

The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in Virginia has a nasty habit of beginning meetings with prayers explicitly referencing Jesus Christ. (That’s even worse than the typical non-denominational prayers local government officials often get away with…)

So one local resident filed a lawsuit against the city with the help of the ACLU.

The city tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but Judge Michael F. Urbanski has denied that dismissal. The case has merit, he says.

“Every time the plaintiff attends a board meeting and comes in direct contact with an overtly Christian prayer, she experiences a recurring First Amendment injury,” Urbanski wrote in his opinion.

The injunction is not permanent, but it does order the board to stop praying until the case is settled.

“This is an important first step,” said Kent Willis, the executive director of ACLU of Virginia. “With a very strong opinion from the judge indicating that we are legally on the right track.”

There’s just one caveat to the whole thing…

If “Jane Doe” wants to proceed with the lawsuit, she has to give up her anonymity:

According to Willis, the ACLU’s next steps are to speak with the plaintiff about how to proceed. They requested she remain anonymous because of the hostile environment over the issue and because she feared for her safety if her identity were released. “Jane Doe” is a county resident who regularly attends board meetings, Willis said.

“Given the degree of anger this lawsuit has engendered in Pittsylvania County, we are disappointed that the judge did not grant request for anonymity,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg in a news release. “We are consulting with our client about how to best proceed.”

The ACLU can appeal the judge’s decision denying anonymity, but if “Jane Doe” does not appeal or disclose her identity, there is no plaintiff and no case, according to Willis.

I’m sure there’s some legal reason for this — at least, I hope that’s why they’re forcing her to make herself known — but what an awful thing to make her do. In the wake of the Jessica Ahlquist ruling, we know just how tough it can be when you take on the religious establishment in a First Amendment case. By going public, Jane Doe would be opening herself up to potential harassment. She risks having her address made public by Christian bullies. And who knows if she has children in local schools who may face persecution of their own?

I don’t even know if she’s an atheist, but that doesn’t matter. Even if she’s a Christian, she’s trying to do the right thing and keep church and state separate. But God-Fearing Christians are never content with that. They love their public displays of faith and they feel justified going after anyone who wants to put a stop to it.

If Jane Doe makes herself known, though, I hope she knows that there are a lot of us out there who would watch out for her and come to her aid should anything happen. Certainly, there are many atheists in Virginia who would come to her side.

(Thanks to Tom for the link)

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.

  • T-Rex

    Rediculous in this day and age and in this country that anyone still faces such hostility for standing up for their rights. Religion a.k.a, dangerous, childish superstitions based on ancient mythology and fiction and all powerful imaginary beings, ruins it for everyone. Breeding hate and contempt and delusional bigots since the dawn of man. So much ignorance and so many lies and unsubstantiated bullshit being spread by the snake oil salesmen and witch doctors that “lead” these death cults. So depressing and disappointing. I can’t help but be anti-theist. So infuriating that I have to read these stories on a daily basis. One day…..one day.

    • TiltedHorizon

      What is truly ‘ridiculous’ is how blind the ‘morally’ superior have become to their own actions. How many of these holier than thou Christians need to surface, armed with clenched fists and possessed with thoughts of violence, before those claiming righteousness see themselves as the very evil they claim to loath?

      One day….. 

  • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

    The “God Fearing Christians” never remember that verse about praying in closets and the sins of the publicly praying Pharisees, do they.

    Actually, I do know one Crazy Old Guy who is such a literalist that he does, in fact, pray only in his actual bedroom closet. That works, I guess.

  • girlgenius

    The reason for compelling her to reveal her identity may have something to do with the defendant’s right to know who their accuser is. If the shoe was on the other foot, you can bet this woman would want to know exactly who’s accusing her & why. 

    It’s totally understandable why she wants to remain anonymous, but by filing a lawsuit, she opened the issue to public scrutiny. So, as harsh as I might sound saying it, she can’t have it both ways — if she wants a meaningful public resolution, she needs to reveal her identity. If she’s able to remain anonymous in this case, it would set an awful precedent for all who need to defend themselves in legal matters. 

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      Not necessarily; this sort of thing doesn’t have to be a matter of civil law and an individual suing for damages. It could be handled more like a criminal matter. You can phone in an anonymous tip about a burglary, and if the police catch the thief with the loot, the state authorities can take the case forward based on that evidence without any further need for your involvement.

      In this case it seems like the facts are clear, the law is clear. Why should it be up to a private individual to enforce the law of the land?

    • Bob Becker

      Agreed.  Where a minor is concerned,  I’d think differently on the matter. But if you’re an adult and you file suit to challenge a public body regarding its conduct, you ought to be willing to put your name to the suit.  

    • http://fred5.myopenid.com/ fred5

      You can read the actual opinion from Judge Urbanski here (PDF) to find out his exact reasoning behind his decision.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

        Well, most of the relevant ruling. (Also available here.) It considers five factors, based on James v. Jacobson precedent. One is neutral in impact – that the government is being sued. One is against anonymity – the plaintiff is an adult. One is for — the personal nature of religious belief at hand. Another in favor of anonymity is the relevance of her identity to the material facts — which the judge rules out. So far, so good.

        However, the last is “whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to plaintiff or to innocent non-parties” — and at present that part of the ruling and its reasoning is in a separate appendex filed under seal, due to the identity-revealing nature of its analysis. And whatever it is, evidently that plus “you’re an adult” is enough to out-weigh the other factors.

        On the other hand, the judge isn’t quite purely hanging the plaintiff out to dry. He says in the ruling:

        While citizens of Pittsylvania County and members of the community at large are free to express their opinions on this case, threatening or intimidating acts directed against anyone involved in this lawsuit will not be tolerated or condoned by inaction. Individuals that become aware of such conduct should immediately notify the court or the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

        …with that emphasis form the original ruling. This leads me to suspect that any threats made will be treated as highly prejudicial to the defendant’s case, as well.

        Of course, if the defendant isn’t willing to take the hazard of public exposure, the case ends.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          This leads me to suspect that any threats made will be treated as highly prejudicial to the defendant’s case, as well.

          The nature of the open meetings in the Cranston West case did help plaintiff Ahlquist, in that they solidified the notion that the banner wasn’t just a general secular message.  The community viewed it as distinctly Christian.

          The problem with this as a deterrent in harassment is that it has no effect once the case is done.

          My own worry is that the judge is suffering from Christian Privilege and doesn’t really get how bad it’s likely to get, or what it feels like.  Those can be some hard shoes to put on.

    • bismarket

      I see the difference as, she’s not going after an individual but an institution, the members of which are many & irrelevant to the case whereas she will be identified by her given name & her address will be public. tl/dr  you can’t shoot a institution but you can shoot a person!

  • Skjaere

    I’m a faith-person, and I want to register my sadness that, in this country founded on religious freedom and a clear separation of Church and State, anyone should feel afraid to stand up and point out violations like this. Any “Christian” who gives her shit about it ought to feel ashamed of themselves. But of course they won’t. Still, here’s hoping we’re moving towards a better and more tolerant world.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    And this will somehow be twisted into the Christians being persecuted by a single coward.  Completely ignoring the amount of courage it has taken her to bring it this far.

    Wonder if she has children.  I think that had a lot to do with the original complainer in the Cranston West case wanting to stay anonymous.

    As strident as I am, I’d take pause before dragging my family into a battle like this.

  • Dms5j

    This is happening in my home town.  I came out as an atheist at 14, and I received a lot of conversion attempts and arguments but no bullying which is lucky.  There will be consequences for releasing her name (likely along Alquist levels).  I know atheists in the area that will not come out because they are afraid of how it will affect their businesses and families.  I don’t know if this woman reads this blog, but there are others in the area that support you.  Pittsylvania County doesn’t have a skeptics group, but there are active groups in Lynchburg, Greensboro, and Charlottesville (where I live).   I don’t have many contacts left in the county, but I do know that there are others there that support this lawsuit.  If you give out your name I will use any contacts that I have left to try and make it easier for you.  Thank you.  You are doing the right thing.

    • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

      There are sadly way too many of us in that position. It really sucks, not only because it becomes a choice between losing/altering relationships and being open about who we are but because it should be such an inconsequential issue.

      • LifeInTraffic

        I live in Lynchburg, and saying there’s a skeptics group here is a bit of an overstatement, unless I’m missing something. There’s a group that meets at a library once in a while, but there are very few members and it’s a secular humanist organization (not a skeptics organization, per se). That’s fine, I just don’t consider it a “skeptics” organization, unfortunately.

        I understand why she doesn’t want her name released, because honestly I don’t pursue my skeptical beliefs publicly here because I absolutely fear social, financial, and even physical reprisals. It is not unusual to hear things like “fags should all die,” “anyone who doesn’t believe in god doesn’t deserve to be an American or breathe the same air as me , ” “People who don’t want prayer in public schools shouldn’t send their kids to school, and I’ll make damn sure they don’t go to school with my kids,”  etc. I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. I hear this kind of thing every single day. I stand up when I can, but I do admit to walking away a lot. Should I have more courage? Probably. But, I also can’t afford to lose my job, and there’s absolutely no doubt that would happen (as the very least of the consequences). I am here only for another year, because I can’t get the hell out of here fast enough (but can’t move due to school, and no, not at Liberty U).

        Knowing this area of the south and the zealots that exist here, I believe this woman has a legitimate concern for her well-being, and that of her family (especially if she has children). It’s easy to say “she can’t have it both ways,” but I also believe there should be legal protections for people who want to (legally) challenge government.

        • Dms5j

          I used the term “skeptic” to refer to any group that promotes critical and scientific thinking.  I don’t speak for that group, but they have hosted Tom Flynn.  They have regular weekly meetings and have guest speakers.  They are currently working with others to promote Darwin Day with a week long series of events.  Even if they are not a large group they are out there, public, and they may be able to offer some resources for this woman.

          I am going to try my best to reach out to this woman through the local newspapers to try and see if I can just let her know that she is not totally alone out there.  I am hoping to get others in the area to do the same.  The problem (and this is just local politics) is that some atheist from Charlottesville will not be received well down there even if he is a native son.  I hope folks from Lynchburg and the Danville area will speak up as well.

          • LifeInTraffic

            Fair enough on the definition. I admit I’ve only checked them out from a distance for a variety of reasons that aren’t really relevant here, but I haven’t seen anything more than their weekly meetings of a few members and a small event for Darwin Day at the same library. This isn’t a slam–it’s great they’re here, and if they’re critically thinking, that is wonderful.

  • Mishka

    She is suing over violation of article six of the constitution, but by filing the suit she has to make herself known.  If the judge allows her to remain anonymous he would be violating the defendants Sixth Amendment right to face their accuser.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      No. That is not what the Sixth Amendment says. The exact meaning of the Confrrontation Clause is fairly tangled- 
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confrontation_Clause . It primarily applies to the right to cross-examine witnesses who are bringing evidence.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

      As IAmNotALawyer understand, the Sixth only applies to criminal trials.

  • http://fred5.myopenid.com/ fred5

    “We are pleased with the ruling and that the plaintiff can’t hide behind
    the ‘Jane Doe’ pseudonym,” said Stanley. “We believe there are very
    good reasons that the plaintiff should identify herself if she wishes to
    proceed with this matter any further.”

    Yeah, we all know the “very good reasons” to force her to reveal her identity. A good example is found here.

    Source

  • bismarket

    If a law is being broken, how can there be “No case”?

  • Anonymous

    IANAL and moreover, I am not an American, but I believe “the right to face one’s accuser” only applies in criminal proceedings. Unless a judge rules otherwise, a plaintiff in a civil case can remain anonymous. That’s why it’s *Roe* v. Wade and not McCorvey v. Wade.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

      Correct; however, as the ruling notes, such anonymity (or pseudonymity) is unusual, and granted at the discretion of the court.

  • Anonymous

    Jane Doe, you’ve got one, and probably several, supporters in Roanoke.  Call upon us if you need us.  I’m open and I’m not afraid :)  modvavet_at_gmaildotcom

  • Anonymous

    Though I certainly understand the difficulties and potential for harassment, I have to agree with the judge on this one. If you’re an adult filing suit, you should stand up. I know it’s hard, but the fight for anything worthwhile is hard.

    In the 1950s and ’60s, civil-rights groups often searched long and hard for someone to file a “test case” in a particular area. Of such was Rosa Parks’ stand against segregated buses. For that matter, John T. Scopes served the same function in provoking the “Monkey Trial.” I think that’s the example we should follow now. Interested groups should search for someone in Pittsylvania who will go public. It may not happen this year, but maybe next, or in the next county over, and bit by bit these violations will be corrected. The flip side is that groups like the FFRF, ACLU and any others should offer whatever protection they can to anyone with the courage to go public: send shifts of volunteers with cameras, perhaps, to record incidents of harassment. In the Deep South, civil-rights activists actually had volunteer guards at major figures’ houses.

    One thing I found when I took openly skeptical or atheist positions in my community is that it tended to encourage others to come out. Another is that most early threats are just bullies’ hot air, and the loudest will slink away when unflinchingly confronted. I like transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard’s routine about being chased by loutish bullies on streetcorners, who shouted “Bloke in a dress! Bloke in a dress!” When he’d turn around and say “Yeah, so?” they’d get confused and back off.

  • BryonyVaughn

    Yes, the Jessica Ahlquist situation is terrible and current but that’s not half as bad as it has been.  When Joann Bell, a Nazarene Christian, sued the school district when her First Amendment concerns went unaddressed for Baptist Christian school sponsored Bible programs, one person pulled her out of her car and beat her and another time someone firebombed her house.  There is a clear and compelling reason to keep the complainant anonymous.
     

  • Edmond

    Isn’t it possible for her to reveal her identity to the judge only, to satisfy the proof of a plaintiff, without revealing her identity publicly?

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

    Pittslyvania residents should write to the board of supervisors and insist that their tax dollars not be wasted on a case which will surely be lost.  They might also point to the abuse heaped on the plaintiffs in the Ahlquist and Bell cases, and ask if they really want their county to be “put on the map” for superstitious violence.

    • LifeInTraffic

      It sounds like a great idea, but given that most people in this entire region are self-identified evangelical fundamentalist religious Christians who have no interest in separation of Church and State (meaning *their* church from the state–you better believe every *else’s* church should be separate, though!), they’re unlikely to agree with you that it’s either a waste of money or that ensuing violence would be based on superstition. For them, it’s not superstition, it’s truth. They will almost certainly go the way of calling it repression of religion and free-speech, and encourage the council to fight it. After all, even though every other case like this has been lost, they must be right–they’ve got god on their side.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PWUAB6VWGQWUV4GQTMTPBBU33Q JessicaR

    I work in local government, and every one of our city council meetings is opened with a prayer to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” along with liberal references to the “Almighty Father”. I find it annoying… but I’d rather keep my job and paycheck than be right so my mouth stays shut.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      You should let Americans United know, so they can look for a another possible plaintiff in the community.

  • Georgina

    She could always try wearing a burka. 

  • Tor Smith

    This very much rings as a return to the days of the freedom riders. People being put in fear for demanding that their rights be honored. No one is saying you can’t pray at home, or even is public, just that there not be a mandated display of religion in the realm of government and the institutions that is supports. It is time for all rationalists to come out of the closet. Declare proudly that you are an unbeliever. It is the only path to justice. I understand the caution of “Jane Doe”. She may be very wise to stay under cover. She has earned her closeted choice by taking on the fight for freedom that she has. The rest of us need to support her by revealing our position in the face of intolerance.


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