Well I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow: (From the Altoona Mirror, and it is behind a pay wall. Sorry.)
Three groups will lead a demonstration Saturday in support of a Bedford County teenager who faces charges of desecration of a statue of Jesus.
The event, coordinated by Truth Wins Out: Center Against Religious Extremism, American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, will feature a slate of speakers who will discuss why some believe the 14-year-old’s rights to free speech were violated by the charges. The protest is set to begin at noon near the county courthouse, 200 S. Juliana St.
Some organizers wanted to make it clear that the law is a problem, whether or not you support the specific actions of the teen in question.
Evan Hurst, associate director of Truth Wins Out, said that although the organization doesn’t necessarily support the boy’s alleged actions, there are large implications for his prosecution.
“Regardless of whether the kid’s actions were polite – I think we can all agree that what he did was rude – there is a larger issue here, and it has to do with free speech,” Hurst said.
The teen was charged with desecration after he posted photos of himself on his Facebook page that show him standing over a statue of a kneeling Jesus and mimicking a sex act. A number of national groups have taken interest in the case, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and the story has gone viral online.
The press this story has received has me overjoyed. For those not following along at home, I jumped all over the story on September 10th when my local paper first covered it, blogging about it first and then reaching out to the ACLU and The Friendly Atheist, amongst others. Hermant Mehta then wrote about it at The Friendly Atheist, and the next thing I knew it had exploded.* ( For my readers who missed my coverage of the story, you can find the original piece here, and the two update articles here and here. ) While I knew the ACLU had taken an interest in the case, seeing a coalition form around Truth Wins Out to organize a demonstration really brought a smile to my face. (And yes, I am pretty much going to find a reason to quote the whole article since The Altoona Mirror made the decision to stick their entire fishwrap behind a pay wall.)
Hurst said Truth Wins Out reached out to Pennsylvania groups about putting together a rally for the boy and received positive response from the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers.
American Atheists asked to get involved shortly after, he said.
The leaders of all three groups – Truth Wins Out Executive Director Wayne Besen, American Atheists President David Silverman and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers President Brian Fields – will speak at the demonstration.
Hurst said that Truth Wins Out is not an atheist organization but works with religious groups to protect freedoms. According to its website, the organization “works to demolish the very foundation of anti-gay prejudice” by debunking myths about the LGBT community.
“If my right to speak out and criticize whatever I want to criticize is being infringed upon, then that is an issue for everybody, and that includes conservative Christians,” Hurst said. “The fact of the matter is that this 14-year-old kid is not a sticking point in the culture; he’s a kid who did something stupid. It really quickly just spiraled out of control.”
The District Attorney in Bedford County is Bill Higgins, a far right conservative Christian in an area that practically requires those religious beliefs in order to get elected. He is openly antagonistic to anyone who holds a different opinion than him on the issue of church and state separation, and since he displays practically zero Constitutional literacy, that group includes just about everyone. Remember this comment he posted on Facebook when the story was just beginning to catch fire?
“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.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, the instant someone mentions “the war on Christmas” in a non-sarcastic way, I know I am dealing with a true winged nut. Adding in support for school prayer is just a bonus. Predictably, DA Higgins does not disappoint now that this story has hit the rally at the courthouse stage.
Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins said that concerns with the case are blown out proportion and were made worse by exaggerated media reports that suggested the teen would serve multiple years in jail or in juvenile detention.
Higgins said that by filing charges, the case can be handled in the appropriate way – through the courts.
“The place to dispute it is in a courtroom,” he said. “I don’t want to stand on a street corner and protest, though they’re welcome to do that.”
He said the teenager is going to likely do some community service for his actions but will not face jail time or juvenile placement.
“The kid did something stupid. He’s 14 years old,” Higgins said. “It’s obvious this kid needs some help, and we’re going to get him the help that he needs.”
Sigh. He really doesn’t get it, does he? Reading his Facebook comment about all the horrible anti-Christians he loves to upset unfortunately doesn’t really reveal much about his own personal beliefs or opinions. He could truly believe each word in that post, believe me, I know people who do. But at the same time, he could just be pandering to the local GOP base, knowing that by posting that knuckle-dragging screed he just earned a bunch of votes the next time he comes up for reelection. His most recent comments, however, reek of just plain missing the point. Sure, some articles covering this story have stressed the range of punishments this teen could face if convicted in court, and while two years in a juvenile facility is indeed the maximum punishment, he would almost certainly receive a less severe sentence. The severity of the punishment is a red herring in this case. I would be writing about it, as I believe others would be as well, if the maximum penalty was a 5 dollar fine. The point is this: Taking a picture is not a crime.
The problem isn’t the punishment, it is the law itself. Remember, the teen did no actual damage to the statue. He took a picture so that it looked like the statue was performing oral sex on him. That’s it. The statue is still there, on its knees, wantonly luring those with immature, blasphemous senses of humor to violate it. In fact, this could be the only time in history that the phrase “asking for it” could be used legitimately. For this statue of Jesus is, without a doubt, asking for it. This teen was arrested because someone saw his pictures on Facebook. Period. Full stop. He didn’t slide a copy under every door in the community. He didn’t send one to the statue’s owners with a note demanding the removal of the statue, or the next time he would give Jesus a facial. He took a picture of questionable taste and posted it on Facebook. Strangely enough, teenagers are known for having questionable taste. They are fucking teenagers! His pictures were not the first pictures taken of that statue, I will guarantee it. We live in the age of smart phones. Half of his school probably has pictures of themselves and the statue. Some probably have their arms around it. Some probably show acts much more perverse than oral sex with statue Jesus.
This is the second time I have seen DA Higgins make a comment that “it’s obvious this kid needs some help…” Obvious? To who? Other than DA Higgins, I mean. He’s a teen who took a picture. He isn’t naked in the picture. He isn’t shoving his bare junk in statue Jesus’ face. He took a picture that I am willing to bet 50 people took before him. But DA Higgins thinks it is obvious that he needs help, and that, not the possible punishments, is the real problem here.
You see, as much as many of my fellow central Pennsylvanians want it to be, not believing in Jesus is not a crime. DA Higgins may indeed think that anyone who would pose for this picture “needs help,” but that thought requires a belief in Jesus, and the belief that posing for the picture constitutes blasphemy or desecration. But for non-believers, including those who just believe in other faiths than Christianity, it is just a statue of a man on his knees. Sure, most realize that it is a statue of Jesus, but Jesus, as much as it offends your delicate sensibilities, doesn’t mean anything to them. This area may indeed be overwhelmingly Christian, but no matter how large of a percentage the Christians may be locally, you can not force non-Christians to hold your statue in reverence. The United States, no matter how many David Barton’s the right vomits up, is decidedly not a Christian nation. We are a product of the Enlightenment, with freedom to believe, or not to believe, enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. We have no religious test to hold national office. Our founding documents avoid God and religion. Our founding fathers left libraries full of documents and letters explaining the wall of separation. Blasphemy is not illegal.
DA Higgins “said that by filing charges, the case can be handled in the appropriate way”. The only “appropriate way” to handle this case is to dismiss all charges and then repeal the law. Either the police and the DA are overreaching by charging this teen under the law, or the law is unconstitutional. Period. There is really no other way to look at it. Charge him with trespassing if you really must extract your pound of flesh, although I am not aware of any “No Trespassing” signs in the vicinity of kneeling Jesus. This law is going to cost Bedford County money; this teen and his parents may just want it all to go away, quietly pleading guilty and moving on, but now that the law is well known, someone will push the issue in order to get it into the courts. Hell, I’ll snap the picture if I must.
I realize that some people may read this and wonder why people are so concerned about this issue. Here is my answer to them:
A blogger found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammad in his postings on Facebook has been sentenced to death.
You should go and read that story, but that is the only part that I need to post here. Don’t even try throwing any “slippery slope” fallacy claims at me either. I realize the difference between Iran and the United States. I also realize that there is a nice portion of Christians who are actively working towards turning the United States into a Christian theocracy. American Christians routinely shame their country by working on things like Uganda’s “kill the gays” law, and praising things like Russia’s laws against homosexual tolerance and activism.
That blogger, Soheil Arabi, faces death for what he posted on Facebook. This teen faces up to 2 years in a juvenile facility for what he posted to Facebook. Yes, the two possible punishments are worlds apart, especially since the teen, if found guilty, will likely only suffer community service and a fine. But as I said earlier in this post, the actual punishment does not matter.
Right now in Pennsylvania, part of the United States of America, they can arrest you for posting a picture on Facebook that offends their religious sensibilities. Just like in Iran.
If this stands, how long until some town or county, also with a super majority of conservative Christians, decides they don’t need the picture, just a post on Facebook that offends their religious sensibilities? How many of you practice no religion, or religions that are not the majority religion, and write about similar issues on the internet? How long til you offend the majority?
Blasphemy laws are anti-freedom, anti-liberty,anti-Christian, and anti-American. Make no mistake about it, this is, as currently being enforced in the Facebook photo case, a blasphemy law. Those in the Christian majority would do well to remember the early days of Christianity, when it was a minority religion that dealt with real persecution. There are areas of the world right now where Christians are persecuted over their religion, real persecution, not the false “persecution of the majority” Fox News and other outlets wants you to believe takes place in the United States. How sad, how quickly the once persecuted flip the script once they find themselves in power.
While I am aware that prohibitions against representations of the prophet preclude this example, ignore that fact for argument’s sake. The very Christians who support this law, this case in particular, and who will be making up the counter protest I totally expect to see tomorrow would be rioting in the streets if the teen in question would have been charged for taking the same picture with a statue of Muhammad.
Though I doubt it will do any good, I’ll urge supporters of this law and the arrest of this teen to do the same thing I ask of supporters of school prayer, prayer before council meetings, displays of the Ten Commandments, crosses on public land, or any similar dismantling of the wall of separation. Imagine you are the minority. Imagine your child is led in a prayer to Allah every morning before class. Imagine having to swear to tell the truth on a Koran before testifying in court. Imagine your tax dollars paying to erect and light a huge pentagram for Winter Solstice each year. Imagine entering a courthouse, seeking justice on either side of a case, and first passing by a stone slab carved with the Purusharthas. And imagine that it is you, or your child, being arrested because the police decided something you posted on Facebook insulted the Prophet.
You won’t, or if you do, you will quickly justify the law and your support with a quick “but we’re the majority, not those heathen Satanistic mooslembuddhishindiwiccatheists.” Cause if logic and rational thought worked, we wouldn’t need the sections of our nation’s laws that are intended to protect the minority from oppression by the majority. And I’m sure the GOP never even thought about the demographics of the nation changing enough that whites would be a minority when they were developing their inherently racist “Southern Strategy.” Things can change.
Okay, I have signs to make. Hope to see some of you tomorrow!
If you go
What: Protest in support of Bedford teen
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Downtown Bedford, near the courthouse
I’ll be back with pictures from the rally tomorrow. I really hope that I can write a story of an inspiring, peaceful event. Knowing the area as I do, I just worry that some of the more fringe “Christians” may get a bit drunk and drive into Bedford to go bash them some atheists. I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a bit worried about it.
*Once again, I am not claiming that Foster Disbelief is the reason the story got covered. The story more than likely would have gotten picked up no matter what I did, and I have no idea if other sites were covering it before Foster Disbelief and The Friendly Atheist posted our articles. No horn blowing here, just going over the timeline I’m aware of.