Pennsylvanian filmmaker wins court battle over 'blasphemous' company name

Pennsylvanian filmmaker wins court battle over 'blasphemous' company name July 3, 2010

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.”

George Kalman
Kalman says he chose the name because he believes it expresses his personal philosophy that it is better to struggle through difficult times in life than to commit suicide, even if life is “hell.”
The case was brought by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Kalman.
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 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 ‘right’ religious views.

Additionally the court held that the statute violated Kalman’s right to free speech by treating speech differently on the basis on the viewpoint expressed, as business names perceived as pro-religion were permitted.
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 court struck down the 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.

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  • Broga

    George Kalman says, “You either believe what I believe or I will not let you live your life” is the religious view. He sums up a widespread religious attitude in the UK. This is exemplified by the unelected bishops in the House of Lords (can it be much longer till we see the back of them?) who attempt to force their opinions on us all regarding euthanasia.
    Move up to the Western Isles of Scotland and a bunch of religious bigots want to stop the Caledonian McBrayne ferry plying its trade on Sundays; they want to shut down a Leisure Centre on the same day. Note that it is never enough for these religious bigots not to do something themselves. They insist on forcing their superstitions on the rest of us.
    They hate free speech because free speech means free thought. The BBC cannot tolerate something as brief as a secular opinion on Thought for the Day. Instead we are swamped by religious twaddle for most of Sundays and much of the rest of the week. An atheist advertisement on a ‘bus causes outrage. The bleeding, tortured, emaciated figure of Jesus nailed to a cross is not only acceptable but welcomed.

  • Janstince

    Wow. I’ve sworn in Oklahoma, taken god’s name “in vain,” been naked in public, performing sexual acts in public, vomited in public, but I guess I was in the woods so it doesn’t count if nobody sees you. I’ve also wondered whether state law applies in federal parks.

  • David MK

    “The bleeding, tortured, emaciated figure of Jesus nailed to a cross is not only acceptable but welcomed.”
    You nailed it. I loved the late, lamented Bill Hicks’s querying of the cross as the Christian symbol. He asked whether Jackie Kennedy would have chosen to wear a brooch in the form of the rifle that killed her husband.
    But “hell”? How can anybody be prevented from choosing a business name alluding to a mythical place?! Would I be allowed to call my business “I Choose Mordor Productions LLC”?

  • ZombieHunter

    I’m curious to know what “satanic butt slayers” is but at the same time I’m terrified to google it cos fuck knows what’ll come up :O
    though it could just be some obscure death metal band.
    On the subject of religious nutters on the islands of scotland, they even have signs up on kids swimg parks asking people to respect the sabbath and some even go as far as to chain the swings up so they can’t be used, what a miserable shower of bastards.

  • Broadsword

    Back off holiday, hello.
    Many Welsh people emigrated to Pennsylvania to work in their mines more than a century ago. Have a look at a map of Pennsylvania and spot the Welsh town names. It was also at this time we were the most pious nation in the UK and I suppose our god-illness must have arrived with us.
    In about a century, the Welsh have become the most secular nation in the UK. I must apologise to America for my ancestors exporting our superstition to retard your progress.

  • Broga

    Zombie Hunter. I think the Wee Frees are the most demented of the “We will tell you how to think and behave” on the Scottish Islands. What a dreary, self righteous and, most of all, restricted life these bastards must lead and impose on any, including relatives, who fall within their influence. I hadn’t heard about chaining up the swings but I am not surprised.

  • David MK

    Broga, that’s what they did too in Northern Ireland for decades. The Wee Frees again, “Dr” Ian Paisley among them.
    Maybe the sight of kids having fun was too much for them. Mind you, I don’t quite get how “Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy” precludes the joy of innocents.

  • Broadsword

    Religiots disapproving of fun reminds me of a Blackadder episode. The one where our hero tries to curry favour with pious relatives to secure an inheritance. His Aunt kept slapping him as she exclaimed, “wicked child” whenever he mentioned something nice.
    Didn’t the Taliban ban kite-flying when in power in Afghanistan?