September 14, 2014

Blasphemy laws in America

The Internet machine lit up last week when a Pennsylvania youth pulled a boner (pun intended) by posting a Facebook photo of himself in a rather tasteless pose with a praying jesus statue. This got our hapless 14-year-old miscreant charged with the crime of blasphemy and threatened with a two-year stretch in the Juvie pokey.

This law, which appears to be the product of somebody’s poop chute isn’t actually titled “blasphemy”, but the effect is the same. Our teenage Bozo is being charged with “desecration, theft or sale of a venerated object”, a second-degree misdemeanor from a statute enacted in 1972. The “venerated object” in question is that jesus statue. Jesus is on private property owned by a group named “Love in the Name of Christ”.

So the local constabulary wants to charge the boy with “desecration”, which Pennsylvania law describes as “defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise physically mistreating” an object “in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities” of anyone who learns about it. Out hapless fool’s Facebook photo provides ample evidence that the child mounted the statue, striking a pose that most folks would find tasteless, but does it “outrage”, and even if so, did the boy “know” this? That one is going to be tough to prosecute, I think. A more sensible charge might be trespassing, but jesus was not vandalized or damaged. He is still kneeling in prayer with eyes fixed skyward, so there is no theft. I’m not sure how one might pollute a statue but jesus appears sober to me so I don’t think that happened.

But apparently there are plenty of people in Pennsylvania wearing shorts that are twisted or maybe a few sizes too small, because they think jesus was desecrated. Ask Webster what that word means and try to apply it to these circumstances. Only in the mind of a dogmatist could it be stretched that far.

Now I would agree the boy’s behavior was crude and certainly immature… he is 14… how mature were you at age 14? On the surface this law appears designed to defend religious objects from ridicule… which is the textbook definition of blasphemy.  Any way it is applied this law violates the free speech rights of this boy, and tramples all over the establishment clause to boot. I call foul, and I truly hope the township is silly enough to press it because even the wingnut Roberts Court would find the law out of bounds on First Amendment grounds.