Lawyer Says Missouri Bill Targeting Atheist Plaintiffs Could Get Them Killed February 28, 2019

Lawyer Says Missouri Bill Targeting Atheist Plaintiffs Could Get Them Killed

Yesterday, I posted about a proposed bill in Missouri that would require anyone filing a church/state separation lawsuit to use their real names in court documents. No initials. No “Jane Does.” By specifying that this rule would apply only in instances of church/state separation, Republican State Rep. Hardy Billington was putting a target on the backs of any plaintiffs who pushed back against religious inequality (usually instances of Christian supremacy).

There’s absolutely no reason to propose this bill other than to make atheists fear for their lives and remain silent over illegal actions.

A public hearing on HB 728 took place Tuesday, and there’s finally video of the testimonies. While I’ve already posted about what Eric Wells, the Missouri Assistant State Director for American Atheists, said to the House Judiciary Committee, there’s another person you should also hear.

Check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s attorney Ryan Jayne below. (He’s the first one to talk when you play the video, though he appears around the 29:39 mark in the full clip.)

As someone who litigates these very lawsuits, he’s extremely familiar with the reasons why plaintiffs might need to remain anonymous to the public.

I was personally involved in a case where, in 2016, the parent of a public school student, as well as another attorney at FFRF, were told in no uncertain terms that they would be murdered if they did not drop the case. This is a sadly common occurrence in church/state cases, which is why judges often decide to allow plaintiffs, especially public schoolchildren and their parents, to proceed anonymously. This bill arms bullies with a weapon they can turn against Victims.

When someone sues the government, there is a presumption that the public has a right to know Who that person is. Under our current system, judges can balance that interest against potential dangers to plaintiffs if their identity is known so that, in exceptional circumstances, the judge can allow that person to proceed under a pseudonym. This is only seen in cases where the danger against plaintiffs is significant enough to overcome the presumption of transparency.

This bill would strip this protective power away from judges. Even if a judge knew that a plaintiff would be subject to imminent physical danger if their identity were revealed, they would be powerless to protect them. Taking this deference away from judges is wrong and dangerous. This bill would replace judicial deference with an inflexible rule that puts real people in danger. The bill’s advocates have not demonstrated a need to take this power away from judges, nor could they.

The bottom line is that this bill would lead to Missouri residents getting harassed, assaulted, or even killed, even when a judge knew about the danger and otherwise could have prevented it. The existing system works. This bill is a “solution” in search of a problem.

That last line may be the most important one: This is a “solution” in search of a problem. This bill solves nothing and makes a serious situation even worse. As Jayne noted while taking questions from legislators afterward, no other state has anything like this. They have no reason for it… except some general Christian desire to see atheists assaulted for defending the First Amendment.

Side note: Check out the 23:00 mark of the full video when Don Hinkle of the Missouri Baptist Convention testifies in support of the bill. He implies that atheists are just making up all the supposed threats against them because — and I’m quoting — “do they really think people of faith in Missouri are violent people?”

Yes. People of faith everywhere can be violent. We see examples of it all the time. That’s why prisons aren’t atheist gathering places.

If ignoring reality is his best defense for this bill, it’s all the more reason for legislators to vote against it. They’ll have a chance to do it soon.

(Featured image via Ryan Jayne)

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