Church/State Separation Lawsuits Should Be Allowed to Proceed with Anonymous Plaintiffs

When Jessica Ahlquist filed a lawsuit against her high school, the backlash on Twitter was bad. The threats were worse. The same thing happened to Damon Fowler even though he never actually went to court.

When it comes to church/state separation lawsuits, we’ve seen some brave individuals step forward recently and identify themselves.

But what if they didn’t have to come out? Couldn’t the cases just proceed based on their arguments without requiring their names to go in the public record? In some states, that’s not allowed. Filing a lawsuit requires initials for minors and names for adults, making them susceptible to threats and revenge from their enemies.

In a new paper published in The Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, Professor Benjamin P. Edwards makes the case for why pseudonymous lawsuits should be allowed to proceed and he uses Ahlquist and Fowler to make his case:

The anonymous local family that initially complained decided to remain anonymous, and Ahlquist agreed to serve as the plaintiff for a lawsuit. The court proceedings were straightforward and decided in Ahlquist’s favor. The threats, however, were graphic and continuous. One tweet presented in the introduction of this Article reads: “your home address posted online i [sic] cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you fucking worthless cunt.” At one point, Ahlquist required a police escort to and from school. And because her address was posted online, Ahlquist was forced to consider transferring schools.

His conclusion is clear: In cases where retaliation has been known to happen, let the plaintiffs remain anonymous:

Potentially unconstitutional practices continually recur because objections to these practices are not worth the trouble. Courts should therefore be presented with the full history of reprisals so that they can consider how past intimidation threatens current plaintiffs. In church-state cases, the history of violence is clear and unmistakable.

I couldn’t agree more. While I have a lot of respect for those students who have publicly challenged their school’s illegal promotion of religion, that should be a decision they come to on their own, not one they’re forced to make in order to move forward with the case.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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.

  • Jasper

    In the vast majority of these cases where an atheist is pitted up against a theist in a court case, the theist complaining about death threats is a rarity, because, boy, would they be vocal about it.

    Instead, what we get is “they’re holding me accountable for breaking the law – PERSECUTION!”

  • vjack

    I agree completely. Atheists who bring these lawsuits often seem to face threats from some of the Christians in their communities. Even some of the Christians who have brought church-state cases have been threatened by other Christians. Allowing them to conceal their identities seems like an obvious solution.

  • Neko

    your home address posted online i [sic] cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you fucking worthless cunt.

    Feel the love of Jesus!

    • John

      “I come not to bring peace, but to curb stomp worthless cunts.” – Jesus

  • primenumbers

    The other side of the coin though, is that protecting the names is all well and good, but going after the perpetrators of the threats of violence is also needed. These perpetrators are bullies that need to be dealt with severely through the court system.

    • Crazy Russian

      But until those threatening violence are indeed systematically exposed and prosecuted, and not covered up by conveniently disinterested police, plaintiffs should be able to remain anonymous. As long as seekers of justice can be unabashedly intimidated, there can be no justice.

      • primenumbers

        That’s true enough, but what I was getting at is that this aspect of prosecuting offenders cannot be forgotten about also. I understand that the underlying biases let them get away with it, and in the meantime the protection of anonymity is needed for those bringing the cases forwards.

  • Brie

    As a teacher, I recently had an issue with another teacher about not forcing my students to sing the National Anthem and say the Pledge in the morning. I tried to explain the law to her and the response was to threaten me that there would be consequences if they didn’t do it the next time she was in my classroom. I went to the principal, but I’ll be honest, because of fear I went with a religious “christian” angle in presenting her with the law. These students have been extremely brave and those threatening them should be prosecuted and I hope some of them have been.

    • TCC

      As another teacher who refuses to even say the pledge to avoid any appearance of coercion, I salute you. You’re doing the right thing, even though you might have to use less-than-ideal means to get there. (Why the hell is the other teacher in your room? Is this a mentor teacher situation? You might need to address that issue independently of any of the pledge stuff.)

      Also, the national anthem? Do teachers lead their students in that class by class, or is it played over the PA or something? I’ve never even heard of teachers/schools doing that.

      • baal

        OT: my jaw just hit the floor. You’re a teacher and you don’t see the point of avoiding violent language? Holy shit.

        • Ewan

          Er – what?

          • baal

            TCC and I are having a spat about ethical language usage. If you’re not a party, please feel free to ignore it.

            • EuropeanCommunist

              I am sorry for eavesdropping on your private conversation conducted via the means of a public forum.

              • baal

                I’m aware it’s open and if you have a substantive comment, that’d be great. I’m only seeing noise (and not substance), however, from the pro-violent language side.

            • CanuckAmuck

              You posted a comment to a public forum. If you don’t like people chiming in, feel free to ignore them.

        • TCC

          No, but thanks for that complete strawman. (Prat.)

        • TCC

          Seriously, I just want to return and tell you that 1) it is really fucking bad form to bring other discussions over, especially when you’re using them to cast aspersions and 2) my opinions about language do not universally transfer over into the classroom (for instance, I don’t use profanity in that context, but I use it liberally outside, like right fucking now). You are out of line, and our difference of opinion about the use of idioms – not even literal language! – that contain violent imagery doesn’t justify this comment.

          • baal

            Your concern is noted? (were you baiting for this reply, if so, kudos on engineering me from a far)

    • abb3w

      Well, it is the Jehovah’s Witness sect of Christians who are most directly responsible, so in a sense it is not inaccurate to present the current state of the law (that students may not be forced) as being the “religious” position. Contrariwise, the Gobitis case rejected the religious liberty argument; the currently binding Barnette case (from the SCOTUS) does not refute that, but instead rules that mandating the pledge is a violation of protections on speech.

      Nohow, unless you or the other teacher teach Social Studies, speech versus religion doesn’t seem an important distinction.

      Criminal prosecution of the threatening teachers seems excessive, though, since it seems to “merely” be a civil rights offense. (18 USC § 242 “color of law” prosecution seems an unlikely stretch.) However, the students can sue the school; and the administration can impose discipline on the teacher by censure, mandatory training, and eventually (if persistent and recalcitrant, then after due process) termination — which seems likely to suffice any need pour encourager les autres that criminal prosecution might otherwise have to address.

  • FlyingFree333

    There is no reason to reveal the identities of anyone challenging the legality of a government office, institution or official, the case should always and only be decided on its merits, who brought the case is utterly irrelevant.

    • shockwaver

      That is how it should be – no doubt. But if that was the case, then the courts couldn’t dismiss important cases on “standing”.

  • RegularJoe

    Wasn’t Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade an anonymous plaintiff? Seems the answer is yes, as Roe’s real name is Norma L. McCorvey. Of course, that’s Federal. Can we not have the same type of filings for these cases?

  • cyb pauli

    Since Christians are such loving, caring people walking in the footsteps of Their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ AKA turn the other cheek why is there any concern over retaliation or vengeance? Religion is harmless, all that persecutiony goodness was in the OLD days before Twitter… or so Ive been told.