After reading yesterday about the local teenager being charged with “desecration” for taking an idiotic picture then sharing it with his friends on Facebook, I immediately knew what I would be posting here at Foster Disbelief. Just writing about it and expressing my fears and outrage didn’t seem like enough though. This was in my backyard and being covered in my local fishwrap. I’ve seen the statue before, and I’ve spent time in the teen’s hometown. When I was in high school, I actually had several friends from down his way. In addition to the close proximity to me of the events, the story also scared the hell out of me. While I don’t routinely pose for pictures with Jesus statues, taken so it appears the Son of God is about to receive a shot of my holy spirit right in the face, I do post much that many in my area would consider blasphemous. With this teen being charged for offending the religious feelings of locals, since he did no actual damage to the statue at all, and the evidence against him being pictures he posted on Facebook, I started to wonder how long it would be until one of my posts “offended local sensibilities.” Yes, there is a First Amendment in this nation that supposedly protects my speech, but then again, this teen is being charged with a misdemeanor, publicly shamed, and exposed to threats of Christian violence. Some people think that I blog under a nom de guerre due to my past status as a heroin addict, but to be completely honest, with the depth of the heroin problem Altoona has been struggling with since the 1990’s and the law enforcement strategy of gleefully targeting addicts by using fellow addicts* as a weapon in the war on drugs, having a non-violent drug felony on your record is pretty common around here. I am rather sloppy in protecting my actual name; to be honest, I really do not care if it gets out. I am open about both my felony and my atheism to those who know me. The only reason I don’t use my real name here is that I do not want the less grounded local fundamentalists to be able to tie my name to my posts with no effort at all. My last name is extremely uncommon, and my home phone and address are listed. I would rather not have threats delivered to my home because after I offended an unhinged person, all they had to do was grab the phone book to find out where I lived. And then a story like this comes out, and I start to wonder if I should be more careful in protecting my identity.
Once I decided that just blogging about the story wasn’t enough, I tried to figure out what else I could do. First off, for what I believe to be only the second time in the history of Foster Disbelief, I asked my readers to share the story. Then I wrote a message to The Friendly Atheist and sent him the details. Hermant Mehta wrote a post about the story and exposed a huge audience to the story. (He also linked to and quoted from my blog post, which I didn’t ask for but greatly appreciated.) I have a few more messages out to atheist bloggers and podcasters, and after being covered on The Friendly Atheist, I am sure it will draw attention from many in our community. My final e-mail then went to the ACLU, and while I do not suffer from delusions and have no doubt others contacted them as well, the Altoona Mirror this morning brought a smile to my face and once again proved that we can all make a difference, as long as we make ourselves heard. (The story is behind a pay wall, so I will be quoting most of it here.)
The American Civil Liberties Union is expressing interest in the case of an Everett 14-year-old charged with “desecrating” a statue of Jesus.
On Thursday, a Pittsburgh-based ACLU attorney said the state law cited in the case – a rarely invoked ban on “defacing, damaging, polluting or … mistreating” venerated symbols – poses constitutional problems. State police charged the teen Tuesday, several weeks after he posted photographs online of a simulated sex act with the Everett statue.
“There are some serious First Amendment issues with this statute” if merely gesturing next to an image is enough to be charged, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
The case has been debated nationally, with news websites and bloggers on both sides of the issue discussing the charge. An ACLU media representative said several people have sent her office copies of the article.
“Bloggers on both sides….several people have sent her office copies of the article.” That’s me! And a whole bunch of other people, but me as well! Unfortunately, any good feelings from making a difference and having my voice be heard quickly faded when I read the reaction of the Bedford County District Attorney, a man who clearly has vastly different ideas of religious freedom from those not basing their understanding of the Bill of Rights on their religious beliefs.
Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins, who is in Puerto Rico for a Lions Club gathering, did not return a message seeking comment.
“I guess I should take solace in the fact that the liberals are mad at me – again,” Higgins said Thursday on his Facebook page. “As for this case, this troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community. … His actions constitute a violation of the law, and he will be prosecuted accordingly. If that tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd, I make no apologies.”
Let’s take a break here for a second, and see what Wikipedia has to say about District Attorneys: (bolding mine, as always)
The district attorney (DA), in many jurisdictions in the United States, represents the government in the prosecution of criminal offenses. The district attorney – an elected or appointed official – is the highest officeholder in the legal department of the jurisdiction – generally the county in the U.S. – and supervises a staff of assistant (ADA) or deputy district attorneys. Depending on the system in place, district attorneys may be appointed by the chief executive of the region or elected by the voters of the jurisdiction.
In a moment, we will talk more about whether or not this “troubled” young man actually broke the law, and if that law is even constitutional. But right now I want to dwell on an elected official who “represents the government, the highest officeholder in the legal department” of Bedford County, a man who’s job is to, without bias or malice, prosecute criminal offenses, making the following statement: ” If that tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd, I make no apologies.”
Last election, Blair County filled a vacant spot on the bench with an election for Judge. When the Republican candidate (eventual winner, Wade Kagarise) came to my door during his campaign, I couldn’t help but notice that the most prominent statement on his handouts, other than his name and the office he was running for, was the statement pledging his firm opposition to abortion. Out of all types of political pandering, this is perhaps the type that annoys me the most. There is absolutely no reason anyone in Blair County needed to know the candidates stance on abortion to cast an informed ballot in November. He was running to be a Judge on the Blair County Court of Common Pleas. Roe V. Wade is not likely to come in front of his bench to be challenged. He presides over criminal trials, child support and custody cases, and a myriad of other types of cases, none of which his stance on abortion rights has any bearing on. He stressed his opposition to abortion rights because he knew it would get him votes from the overwhelmingly conservative local majority, not because that information was relevant on his qualifications to be a judge. I bring this sort of political pandering up because Bill Higgins is using Facebook and this case to win himself votes the next time he is up for re-election. He sounds like a host on Fox News, not a representative of our criminal justice system. Either he actually believes the insanity he is spewing, in which case it terrifies me that he has the power to prosecute, or he is parroting right wing talking points to score points with the rabid local far right.
Either way, how can any non-Christian accused of a crime read that statement and not worry about malicious prosecution, or prosecutorial misconduct? Let me be clear that I am not accusing DA Bill Higgins of either act, merely pointing out questions that may arise in the minds of non-Christians who find themselves prosecuted by his office because of idiotic, antagonistic, bigoted, prejudicial, unprofessional, inflammatory statements of his that make it clear that as the highest ranking official in the Bedford County legal department, he only represents the Christian majority. Statements like that word salad of Christian far right delusions should cause him to have to recuse himself from every case where the defendant is not a member of the Christian religion. I know that if I found myself on the wrong side of court opposing him, I would wonder how much of his prosecution was due to the law, and how much was due to my beliefs.
Okay, let’s get back to the ACLU and the story, shall we? Once again, you can find the pay wall here:
Rose said the state law is cited rarely enough that she had never researched it until this week. News accounts indicate a Wilkes-Barre college student was charged under the law in 2010 for urinating on a Nativity scene; in the 1980s, Pittsburgh authorities threatened a charge against an unnamed vandal who daubed pro-Palestinian graffiti on a public Hanukkah decoration.
At the root of the issue, Rose said, is the law’s distinction between “objects of veneration” and other items. While the Wilkes-Barre student could have been charged with urinating in public and the Everett teen could arguably be charged with public lewdness, she said, a special law protecting religious items from that violation is harder to justify.
And while not all symbolic speech is protected, the fact that the boy took photographs, posted them publicly and commented on them with friends is enough to be considered “expressive” and therefore legally protected, she said.
It’s an issue she said ACLU attorneys have faced in the past: The courts have repeatedly ruled that flipping a middle finger, while offensive, is a matter of free speech and not a criminal act, Rose noted.
Prosecutors have faced similar difficulty enforcing flag-protection laws, which also punished “desecration” of revered items until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1989.
Once again, he did no damage to the statue. DA Bill Higgins is claiming that taking a picture he finds offensive is criminal. Until the pictures were seen online, no one even knew a “crime” had been committed. There was no public nudity, no defacing or vandalism of property, nothing. Just a picture some people find offensive.
That is not criminal.
As the ACLU seeks to contact the teenager, it could take at least several weeks for a hearing on the misdemeanor charge to be held. Bedford County President Judge Thomas S. Ling said the next set of juvenile court hearings is scheduled for Oct. 3.
I believe that if the ACLU represents this young man, the law will be ruled unconstitutional. I think it is a rather open and shut case, to be honest. No matter how much it offends you, I can flip you off and you can not arrest me for it. We have a right to our own religious beliefs, and a right to freedom of speech, what we do not have is a right to not be offended. The statements DA Bill Higgins made on Facebook sure the hell offend me, yet I do not think he should be arrested for it. And as much as I question such statements being said by a representative of the government, and feel it reflects poorly on his ability to prosecute non-Christians without bias, I do not claim that he doesn’t have the right to make nonsensical statements. What worries me the most is that the parents of the teen deciding that they just want their son to plead guilty to the misdemeanor and put this all behind them. Perhaps they even feel that he broke the law, but even if they are just as outraged over the charges as I am, I could understand why they would want it all to just quietly go away. The teen is already facing threats of violence over the issue. Hopefully, those threats as well as the statements of DA Bill Higgins lets my readers understand that I am not exaggerating how insanely conservative the central part of Pennsylvania is for a state that votes blue in most national elections. Our electoral votes may go Democratic, but the center of the state is as scary for atheists as any part of Georgia, Mississippi, or Texas. I think it would be worth the backlash to fight this unconstitutional law because I am an atheist who sees how tightly the Christian religion is wrapped around local government in my state, and because of the gerrymandering of districts, races in areas such as mine are over after the primary with the only question being how conservative will the winner be this time. I look at the words of DA Bill Higgins and then wonder if I will ever hear a knock at my door, resulting in my arrest for something I wrote, or for a picture that I posted, not of Jesus giving me a scrubby, but something that offended the wrong people with the right powers. While it would be worth it for me, perhaps this teen and his family will have a different result to the equation. His name is already out in the public domain (Thank you, Bedford County Free Press). I have no doubt that if he fights it and his family stays in the area he will be ostracized at school and his family will face the type of Christian love reserved for those who dare have a different religion, no religion, or merely just a different understanding of Jesus and ask that their rights be respected as well. (Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars specializes in telling the stories of the retaliation faced by those who take part in church/state separation cases. Unless things changed since I last heard, he is even writing a book on the subject.)
If the teen and his family are not willing to fight this law, maybe it is time for me to get myself arrested again. *sigh*
*The use of “addicts as weapons” in the war on drugs. The Drug Task Forces in the Altoona area and surrounding counties claims that they are going after drug dealers. And during one of the bimonthly drug round ups, one or two (up to five in a especially good month) dealers are included in the thirty or so people arrested and charged with selling drugs. How does this happen you ask? By targeting addicts, and using addicts as weapons. It is standard operating procedure to try to turn arrested addicts into confidential informants (C.I.s). In exchange for a reduced sentence, or withdrawal of charges, these C.I.s are given task force money to buy drugs, thereby setting up the seller for arrest. There are many reasons this is a shady practice. From discussions with C.I.s and situations I witnessed, C.I.’s are allowed to use some of the drugs they bought with no punishment. Some C.I.s are then rewarded with money for their actions, money law enforcement is very aware is going to be used to purchase drugs. Otherwise, in exchange for performing observed buys, the task force enables an addict to continue their addiction. Sooooo ethical. Perhaps it would be a tolerable (perhaps not, but I’m trying) practice if it took dealers off of the streets. But as I said, actual dealers make up a very small percentage of those arrested and charged with these methods. The vast majority of the time the C.I. calls up one of their fellow addicts, someone who uses with them and therefor trusts them, and tells them that they have 100 dollars or so but can’t find anything. Of course, if the person they called could somehow find some, they would be more than willing to share with them. Which results in the target taking the money and buying dope for the two of them and then both of them getting high. The target will even be thankful that the C.I. thought of them, and helped them out, until the day of the raid comes and the target finds out he is now somehow a drug dealer, even though he never sold a bag of dope in his life. You may think this is all sour grapes; you may think it is justified to get users off the street; you may think we should all rot in a cell for ever experimenting with drugs in the first place. You are free to hold your opinions, just do not delude yourself that drug task forces outside the larger cities are sweeping up truckloads of drug dealers. Actual dealers use drug runners and other techniques to insulate themselves from shady tactics such as these. Meanwhile your tax dollars are being used to shove your neighbors through the system for being addicts on trumped up charges for crimes that would never be prosecuted in a large city. But regardless of the human cost, it sounds like they’re making progress in the War on Drugs, so fight on.