Judge allows Valley Ten Commandments plaintiffs to remain anonymous

Liz Hayes
| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

A federal judge will allow anonymity for three of the four people who are suing New Kensington-Arnold School District over its Ten Commandments monument.

Attorney Marcus B. Schneider, who represents the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two families who filed suit in September, recently asked U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry to allow the two children and one of the parents to continue to use the pseudonym “Doe” as the lawsuit proceeds.

The Wisconsin-based foundation and the local families object to the monument in front of Valley High School because they say it violates the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing a religion. The families, who identify as non-religious, have said they feel ostracized by the monument's presence and feel the district is improperly coercing students to recognize a specific religion.

The district has countered that the monument, donated by a local Fraternal Order of the Eagles branch in the 1950s, is a historical and secular touchstone that is not meant to promote one religion over another.

“Due to the highly personal and sensitive religious matters involved, the age of the student-Plaintiffs, the (ill will) expressed by the public regarding the Plaintiffs and this case, harassing remarks about the Plaintiffs, and the potential for physical harm, Plaintiffs request an order permitting Doe 1, Doe 2 and Doe 3 to proceed under pseudonyms,” Schneider wrote on Nov. 21.

Attorneys for the school district indicated they did not oppose the plaintiffs' use of pseudonyms, and McVerry granted Schneider's request on Nov. 30.

However, Anthony G. Sanchez and Amie A. Thompson, attorneys representing the district, took exception to Schneider including excerpts of Facebook posts, website comments, emails and Valley News Dispatch letters to the editor as examples of the “hostile” and “intimidating” community sentiments that cause the plaintiffs to fear public exposure.

The comments included:

• “Tell these (expletive) to go to hell and stay in Wisconsin and mind their own ... business...”

• “Maybe we should get that lady's phone number who is (a) participant in the lawsuit and have everybody call her and give he(r) our opinion.”

• “I'm sure if we look up the (expletive) she probably has a facebook account or a facebook page for her ridiculous group and we can slam the (expletive) out of the (expletive).”

• “Have the families involved in the lawsuit been identified? I cannot believe anyone living in the community would participate in such a worthless cause. Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes.”

• “They are lucky it's not the 50's or 60's (or) they would be in deep (expletive).”

• “These people need drug onto the street and shot.”

“I have been particularly alarmed by the reaction to the filing of this lawsuit by community members,” said Marie Schaub, the only local plaintiff whose identity has been revealed. “I am aware of numerous hateful messages that have been posted online, either as comments to newspaper articles about the lawsuit or on social media websites.”

“The continued anonymity of my child and I is important to me because I fear that if our involvement were made public, both my child and I would experience social ostracism, harassment or threats from community members,” said the other parent suing the district, who is identified as Doe 3.

The district's attorneys wrote the Internet comments included in the court filings are “immaterial and inflammatory allegations pertaining to the alleged actions of third parties who are not officials or final policy makers of the District and are not before this Court.”

They asked McVerry to dismiss Schneider's motion because they said the district had already agreed to continue to conceal the plaintiffs' identities.

Schneider countered that even with the district's acceptance, the court still has an independent duty to determine whether granting the plaintiffs anonymity is appropriate.

The district's lawyers also noted a pending request to have school board member Bob Pallone's comments on a Facebook page supporting the monument to be removed from the plaintiff's original complaint. They indicated Schneider should've been aware of their objection to including third-party comments before he submitted the latest comments.

“As this matter has garnered significant publicity, the inclusion of the immaterial and inflammatory allegations as well as the related attachments creates spurious issues that could potentially pollute a future trial,” Sanchez and Thompson wrote.

Schneider has until Dec. 14 to respond to the district's request that the case be dismissed.

In granting the plaintiffs' request for anonymity, McVerry denied, at least temporarily, Schneider's additional request that any documents naming the plaintiffs be sealed if they are presented to the court.

The district's attorneys objected because they said the request hadn't been presented to them for review; McVerry indicated the request would be further reviewed by him and all the attorneys involved.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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