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!”

    • ScottG

      I say we break out the lions. Oh, wait: that never happened.

      • The Starship Maxima

        The lions didn’t happen, true. I’m not sure that erases the documented historical instances of genuine religious persecution.

        • Jeff

          And we don’t want to erase any of that history of genuine religious persecution, because many times, it was one religion against another…

        • Randay

          Documented religious persecution was under Xian Roman Emperor Theodosius when in 391 CE he outlawed other religions and destroyed their temples and adepts. He retarded intellectual development by about a thousand years in forcing the closure of the Greek academies.

          We can expect the same if the Xians ever come back to power.

  • 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

      • The Starship Maxima

        It’s amazing how many times Christian motive is assumed with little more than the most specious evidence.

        • John

          What possible other motive would they have to threaten someone for supporting secularism?

  • 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.

              • TCC

                For the record, I have no interest in engaging baal in even a private conversation. Sorry that you ended up reading it in the first place.

            • CanuckAmuck

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

            • TCC

              No, you made an unwarranted comment on a different thread.

              • baal

                Yes, asking for less violent language is totally unwarranted. Your aggressive assertions of your normativity have totally swayed me.

        • 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)

            • TCC

              The utter lack of self-awareness that it must take for you to make a “your concern is noted” comment is staggering.

              • baal

                So is your argument from incredulity. When do we start curb-stomping your ideas? (you’re ok with this usage right, it’s metaphorical, non-literal and not at your person?) Do you use this type of hyper-emotive nth-degree language with your students?

                • TCC

                  Argument from incredulity? I’m not even sure you know what the fuck you’re talking about anymore.

                  Again, go the fuck away. I wasn’t interested in having this discussion with you in the first thread, and I am far less interested here. All you’re doing is making this entirely separate issue awkward for everyone who ends up reading your unhinged ramblings.

                • baal

                  So much name calling (unhinged) and judgmental comments from you (awkward, lacking self awareness). The best way to make me go away is to well, not reply. You could also say something conciliatory instead of always amping it up. I remind you that i was in fact totally shocked that teach kids since your temperament is really aggressive (why the hell do you use “why the hell?” when apparently lauding someone).

      • Brie

        We have meetings in the morning and she was covering my class during the morning announcements. My principal didn’t get a chance to talk to her (and hopefully she still will) so they are going to put her in a Kindergarten class…

        Before announcements we have the National Anthem, Pledge and part of the Declaration of Independence… She was a music teacher, and is a substitute for our music teacher who is out. That is why she wants them to sing it I think…

    • 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.

  • The Starship Maxima

    That does seem to be the obvious solution. However, anonymity can also enable frivolous lawsuits. And worse.
    The woman who claimed men broke into her home and carved “DYKE” on her body was never named, but boy, did she become headline news, and Huff Po, Young Turks, and all kinds of liberal and non-liberal news outlets ran with the story of this gay hate crime outrage.
    When the woman, Charlie Rogers, was found to have lied and was sentenced to jail, two years probation, and mandatory psychiatric evaluation. Few people even know her name or that she lied.
    I don’t want legitimate cases to languish because the plaintiffs don’t want to expose themselves to harm and harassment, but all too often, not naming names, enables a lie to become the truth.

  • Calladus

    The Fourteenth Amendment gives the accused the right to confront their accuser. So I believe that truly anonymous cases are not actually allowed.

    So I think there would have to be some sort of “gag” by the courts on the accused to not speak the accuser’s name.

    Anyone know how this would work?