Pa. Rep. introduces bill requiring plaintiff disclosure in litigation over publicly displayed religious symbols

By Jon Campisi | Mar 29, 2013

A western Pennsylvania lawmaker recently introduced a bill in the General Assembly

that would require parties bringing lawsuits attacking religious symbols in public to reveal their identities and not proceed through the litigation anonymously.

State Rep. Tim Krieger, a Republican from Westmoreland County, which neighbors Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, announced on March 27 the introduction of House Bill 922, which would remove a plaintiff’s ability to file such suits anonymously, unless it can be demonstrated that the person who initiates the complaint would suffer “serious physical harm due to appearing in court.”

“Religious expression in public places has been part of our nation and Pennsylvania for generations, from the founding of the Commonwealth by William Penn and onward to modern times,” Krieger said in a statement released by the House Republican Caucus.

Krieger said he sponsored the proposed legislation in response to lawsuits filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisc.-based atheist group which represented anonymous plaintiffs against both the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Westmoreland County and the Connellsville Area School District in Fayette County due to their respective longstanding public displays of the Ten Commandments.

“Even inside our state Capitol, religious symbols are still prominently displayed in both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, as well as through a mural of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments adorning the chamber of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Krieger noted in his statement. “A troubling practice has emerged in recent years where private parties file anonymous lawsuits to attack the display of religious symbols in public places.”

The representative said passage of his bill would guarantee that no person or organization would be able to use Pennsylvania state courts as a “weapon to attack the right of Pennsylvania citizens to display religious symbols in public places while hiding in the shadows.”

The bill currently awaits action in the House Judiciary Committee.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation previously tangled with state government over a resolution deeming 2012 the “Year of the Bible.”

The group had filed suit against three Pennsylvania officials involved in the drafting and passing of the controversial resolution over contentions that the resolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, however, subsequently dismissed the complaint, ruling that the defendants were entitled to legislative immunity.

At the same time, the federal jurist wrote an 18-page memorandum in which he chastised the Pennsylvania officials involved in the resolution, saying that the “court’s determination that the defendants engaged in a ‘legislative act’ for purposes of immunity should not be viewed as judicial endorsement of this resolution. It most certainly is not.”

At the time, Conner wrote that the court was compelled to shine a “clear, bright light on this resolution because it pushes the Establishment Clause envelope behind the safety glass of legislative immunity. That it passed unanimously is even more alarming.”

As for Krieger’s bill concerning lawsuits, not everyone shares his view that full disclosure is the way to go.

Timothy Havener, a Pennsylvania Record reader from Lock Haven, Pa. who is an avowed atheist, and often blogs on the topic, said the issue of anonymous litigation is a tricky one, since religious folks pushing for their cause can be quite “nasty.”

He mentioned the case of Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island teen at the center of a controversy a couple years back involving the removal of a prayer banner at her high school.

Ahlquist was successful in urging a judge to order the banner removed, but she subsequently received death threats as a result of her activism, according to past news reports.

As for the idea of religious symbols in public places, Havener continues to believe that it is a clear violation of church and state.

“The ten commandments as part of a public display are a clear violation of the 1st amendment and it is self apparent in the commandments themselves,” Havener wrote in a message to the Pennsylvania Record. “The first four being specific to a particular religion and demanding obedience and service to s specific deity of one religion. This alone should cause the arguments by theocratic politicians to crumble underneath their feet.”

It was not immediately clear if there were any cosponsors on Krieger’s bill, officially known as the Guaranteeing Transparency in Litigation Affecting Religious Liberties Act.

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