Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Krieger Doesn’t Care if Atheists Get Harassed by Christians

Back in December, I posted about a Ten Commandments monument that sits outside Valley High School in New Kensington, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh):

Three plaintiffs (including two students) filed a lawsuit against that monument with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They wanted to remove that obvious promotion of Christianity from the school. Initially, though, there was a stumbling block: In order to proceed with the case, the students were not allowed to hide behind pseudonyms. They had to let everyone know who they were.

In other words, instead of proceeding with the case on the basis of merit and defending the Constitution, they had to expose themselves to harassment from their classmates and community. As we saw in Jessica Ahlquist‘s case, people are not very kind to perceived threats against their religious privilege.

There were already threats coming to the third plaintiff (a parent in the district), so a judge agreed the students could use aliases. And all was well and good.

But now, a state representative is disregarding all of that. He wants young atheists to deal with the consequences if they fight back against monuments dedicated to his faith. He has written a bill — House Bill 922 — that would no longer allow those students to remain anonymous:

Rep. Tim Krieger

Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Delmont) said he introduced House Bill 922 in response to two lawsuits filed on behalf of anonymous plaintiffs by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Krieger said the [Ten Commandments] monuments have been fixtures outside the schools for many years without drawing any complaints or controversy.

“Passage of House Bill 922 would guarantee that no individual or organization will be able to use our state courts as a weapon to attack the right of Pennsylvania citizens to display religious symbols in public places while hiding in the shadows,” Krieger said in a news release Wednesday.

Yeah! How dare anyone stop Christians in the majority from putting up pro-Christian monuments anywhere they want?!

Actually, the news release in question contained a statement far more appalling than that one:

Passage of House Bill 922 would require that the party bringing any lawsuit designed to suppress, remove or inhibit the display or use of religious symbols in public locations would not be allowed to proceed anonymously, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the primary litigant(s) would suffer serious physical harm due to appearing in court.

Did you catch that?

Students could not remain anonymous if they challenged a Christian monument solely on the basis of a Constitutional violation. They would either have to be threatened first or have proof that they would get physically harmed if they filed a lawsuit.

It’s wrong on so many levels.

I’ll say it again: Jessica Ahlquist filed a lawsuit against a Christian symbol in Rhode Island and this is only a sampling of what she had to deal with:

And Rep. Krieger’s response to that is basically, “I don’t care. That’s her problem. Illegal promotion of Christianity in a public school is more important to me than the harassment students like Jessica have to deal with.”

That’s hardly an exaggeration. U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry, who said that the FFRF plaintiffs could remain anonymous, explained his reasoning for that decision this way:

Judge McVerry found there had been significant threats made to the suit’s only named plaintiff, [parent] Marie Schaub.

“A number of threats referenced in her affidavit have extended beyond ad hominem rhetoric, although they certainly appear to include threats of violence and ostracism,” he said.

He agreed with the plaintiffs that the as-yet-unnamed plaintiffs should be able to proceed anonymously to avoid any danger of harm.

The judge was protecting the students from harm and threats of violence and Krieger is going through with this anyway.

How much hate do you have to have in your heart to care so little about students who are fighting to uphold the Constitution?

Krieger — the only person who’s taken an oath to that effect — should be on their side defending them. Instead, he’s taunting students who want to rightfully challenge governmental promotion of religion by trying to make it a requirement that they use their real names in any future lawsuit.

It’s absolutely despicable.

Krieger won’t admit any of this, of course. In his legislation — House Bill 922 — he talks indirectly about the issue of threats:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, in a suit to suppress, remove or otherwise inhibit the display or use of religious symbols in public locations, including public schools, the court shall not permit a party to participate by pseudonym and shall not seal the records in the case absent a showing, by clear and convincing evidence, that a party would otherwise suffer serious physical harm.

In other words, you can only remain anonymous if you have proof that you’re going to be beaten up.

So does a Twitter threat count?

How about a Facebook threat?

How about a student who says he wants to get a gun when he sees you?

What constitutes “clear and convincing evidence”? Does the ever-increasing backlog of threats other students have received for filing similar lawsuits count? Krieger never makes that clear. And that’s the problem. I guess he wants to see the black eye you got from a “loving” Christian before he allows you to keep your anonymity.

Here’s something else disappointing: HB 922 has dozens of co-sponsors (all but one are Republicans).

Justin Vacula explains the obvious consequences if this legislation passes:

fewer individuals would likely be willing to participate in church/state lawsuits because of fear of retaliation, backlash from local communities, and other concerns. It is not uncommon for church/state plaintiffs to receive a deluge of hate mail, ridicule from the community, and threats. For these reasons and more, people want to remain anonymous and be represented by organizations in lawsuits.

Public schools are not a place for Christian monuments. When there are students willing to challenge those monuments in court, they deserve praise and support. Instead, we live in a society where the brave students who want to fight back have to remain anonymous out of fear of getting beaten up or harassed.

Krieger and his co-sponsors think anonymity is overrated. They want to silence those students. They know that if they force students to reveal themselves in cases like these, fewer students will challenge their Christian authority.

That’s what bullies do. They silence people. They force people not to challenge them out of fear of the consequences.

At an age when we should be teaching students how to stand up for their rights and challenge authority when it’s warranted, Krieger wants to suppress those ideas.

FFRF has also weighed in on the matter:

These legislators need to put their religious views aside and understand that protecting children from harm is a paramount interest of the state,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. She noted the long, documented history of threats and reprisal against Establishment Clause plaintiffs, most recently against Jessica Ahlquist, who won a federal court ruling against religion in her Rhode Island high school.

“One would hope that elected legislators would have a basic understanding of government and know that they lack the ability to regulate the First Amendment and the federal judiciary,” added Gaylor.

Krieger seems impervious to reason, but you can let him know what you think by (politely, respectfully) contacting him on Facebook or through the PA legislature.

Better yet, though, if you live in Pennsylvania, call or write your representatives and tell them not to support this awful legislation. Atheists — and students of all backgrounds — should be able to challenge religious overreach in the public schools. The Ten Commandments monuments are just one example of that. These students are not taking away anybody’s religious freedom by challenging Christian privilege; they’re making sure that public schools are a neutral space for everybody.

If Krieger read the Constitution, he might even join their side.

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.