Judge allows plaintiffs to proceed anonymously in Ten Commandments case against Pa. school district

By Jon Campisi | May 30, 2013

A student and her mother can proceed with a civil suit against a western Pennsylvania

school district challenging the placement of the Ten Commandments on the school’s grounds under pseudonyms, a judge has ruled.

In a May 24 order, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry, of the Western District of Pennsylvania, granted a request by the plaintiffs in the case to proceed with the litigation anonymously.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and a girl and her mother, both of who have thus far remained unidentified, are suing the Connellsville Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania over claims that the district’s placement of the Ten Commandments violate the separation of church and state.

The foundation was also the plaintiff in a case previously reported on by the Pennsylvania Record against Pennsylvania lawmakers, who had declared 2012 to be the “Year of the Bible.”

That case was dismissed, with a federal judge in Harrisburg determining that the elected representatives who passed the resolution were covered by legislative immunity.

That judge, however, still took the opportunity to chastise the defendants for seemingly poor judgment when they passed the controversial resolution.

In the current case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., contends that the monument featuring the Ten Commandments situated in front of the Connellsville Area Junior High School violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The “Doe” plaintiffs, who are seeking to have the court issue an injunction forcing the district to remove the controversial monument, sought to move forward with the litigation under their pseudonyms because of the alleged hostility exhibited on the part of some community members who take issue with the lawsuit.

In their motion to retain anonymity, the Doe plaintiffs wrote that they feared retaliation from fellow residents if the case were to proceed with the plaintiffs having to use their real names.

Exhibits were attached to the motion including things like email and social media screenshots from community members who “state their views on the propriety of this lawsuit,” the judicial memorandum accompanying McVerry’s order states.

“Plaintiffs also include other information in their filing that demonstrates the hostile reaction by some members of the community to this litigation,” McVerry wrote. “To the Plaintiffs, that reaction evidences the need for protection.”

In siding with the plaintiffs, the judge determined that case law dictates this particular case is one in which the plaintiffs could retain anonymity.

And even though the defendants never filed a motion opposing the plaintiffs’ bid to proceed anonymously, that doesn’t mean the court would have to automatically rule in a plaintiff’s favor.

Nevertheless, McVerry wrote that after an independent consideration of the factors in the litigation, “the Court concludes that this particular case necessitates that the Plaintiffs presently designated as ‘Doe’ may continue to proceed anonymously with the use of pseudonyms.”

The judge pointed to a number of statements made by opponents of the suit that included “threats of violence and ostracism” that factored into his decision to allow the plaintiffs to proceed using pseudonyms.

McVerry wrote that there is no evidence that the parties are seeking to sue anonymously “for any other reason than stated or have any illegitimate ulterior motives been alleged or shown.”

There is also substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face retribution in their “attempt to seek redress for what they view as a Constitutional violation.”

The judge went on to write that the factors mitigating against the use of pseudonyms are “relatively week” in comparison.

As for any potential public interest argument – the only mitigating factor with merit in this case – McVerry wrote that he doesn’t see how denying the plaintiffs’ request for anonymity would “interfere with the public’s right to follow the proceedings, which will be kept open to the public while maintaining the confidentiality of the Does’ identities.

“The Doe Plaintiffs are not public figures and the District neither objects nor offers evidence that granting the request would in any way create some undue hardship,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the single interest disfavoring anonymity does not outweigh the strength of the many factors that support Plaintiffs’ request.”

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