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Proposal targets anonymous lawsuits

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 12:29 p.m.

State Rep. Tim Krieger wants to eliminate the secrecy behind anonymous lawsuits that seek to remove religious symbols from public places.

The Delmont Republican introduced a bill this month that he said would guarantee transparency in cases such as the two lawsuits filed last year over monuments bearing the Ten Commandments that stand on school property in Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

“This is just a way for people to prevail without public scrutiny,” Krieger said.

In announcing his legislation, Krieger referred to the suits filed last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and anonymous students and parents over the monuments at New Kensington-Arnold and Connellsville Area schools.

Plaintiffs who want to remain anonymous should have to show “solid evidence” that they would be physically harmed if their identity is revealed, Krieger said. An anonymous plaintiff should have the “courage and convictions” to stand up publicly for their beliefs, he said.

“A troubling practice has emerged in recent years where private parties file anonymous lawsuits to attack the display of religious symbols in public places,” Krieger said in a news release.

Pastor Ewing Marietta said the bill would ensure that an actual person was involved in the suit, not just a group like the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion group.

Marietta, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in North Union, leads “Thou Shall Not Move,” a community group formed in support of keeping the monument at Connellsville's junior high.

“In the other sense, if there is a real threat (to a plaintiff), then it should be up to the judge” involved in the case, he said.

Neither New Kensington resident Mike Hresko, who organized a “Save Our Stone” rally after the suit was filed against New Kensington-Arnold, nor Marie Schaub, a parent who is named as a plaintiff, could be reached for comment.

The nonprofit Freedom From Religion group has filed protective orders concealing the identities of plaintiffs in the suits, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president. Anonymous plaintiffs in those cases are district students and residents who are referred to as “Doe” with a corresponding number.

Anonymous plaintiffs in similar lawsuits across the country have faced “volatile” situations with peer pressure, threats, social shunning and physical harm, Gaylor said.

“In these cases, people aren't willing to sue unless they get some protection,” she said. “You're dealing with really young kids.”

In both lawsuits, the plaintiffs and Freedom From Religion object to the monument as a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing a religion.

If Krieger's bill is passed, it likely wouldn't stand for long, said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak.

“I think the legislation would be challenged immediately as being unconstitutional,” he said.

Past court rulings have permitted anonymous writings, such as pamphlets and blogs, as long as they aren't libelous, Antkowiak said.

“I don't think it's going to slow down the suits,” he said.

But Krieger said the suits should be handled in the public eye.

“This is not open, this is quite the opposite,” he said.

Krieger said he graduated from Connellsville High School and remembers the Ten Commandments monument at the junior high. Local Eagles organizations placed the monument there and the one at Valley High School in the 1950s. No action has been scheduled in either case.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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