A FEDERAL court has struck down a Pennsylvania statute that forbids business names containing:
Words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.
The case arose after Downington resident George Kalman was refused permission by state regulators to register his film company under the name “I Choose Hell Productions LLC.”
The case was brought by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Kalman.
The US District Court for the Eastern District of PennsylvaniaÂ found that the statute violated the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion, and promoted only Christian religious views. Words used by the Pennsylvania Corporations Bureau to flag proposed names for closer scrutiny included terms such as Christ and Jesus but not those related to other religions, such as Allah or Mohammed.
In his 67-page ruling, the judge also noted that blasphemy laws were historically used to persecute those of minority religious beliefs, including William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
Said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of Kalman’s lawyers:
We are pleased with the judge’s opinion. No one wins when the government gets involved in deciding who has the â€˜right’ religious views.
The court also ruled that the statute used to turn down his company’s name violated Kalman’s free speech rights by allowing anonymous government officials to refuse business names that offend them.
The courtÂ struck down theÂ statute as unconstitutional.
In a fascinating background piece, The New York Times pointed out that the refusal to allow “I Choose Hell” was somewhat bizarre because Pennsylvania had granted corporate designation to entities like Devil Media, Vomit Noise Productions and Satanic Butt Slayers.
Reporter Samuel G Freedman pointed out:
More broadly and more interestingly, the litigation has lifted the rock off an obscure remnant of American jurisprudence: the continuing existence of blasphemy laws. Such statutes remain on the books in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming in addition to Pennsylvania.
He quoted Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on blasphemy statutes, as saying that, while they are “arcane and rarely enforced”, the laws provide the states with a “symbolic power” of moral condemnation, as well as the prospect of actual punishment. To cite just one example, Oklahoma’s statute authorizes as much as one year in prison and a $500 fine for anyone convicted of blasphemy.
Pennsylvania’s law may be the most idiosyncratic of all, because it covers only the matter of corporate names. And, rather than being a dusty vestige of the 19th century, it was enacted (and overwhelmingly so) only in 1977. A Democratic legislator, Emil Mrkonic, wrote the bill after a mail-order fire-arms dealer filed incorporation papers for the God Damn Gun Shop.