National Commentary

Pennsylvania Blasphemy Law Is An Affront to Freedom

Sometimes you have to wonder if we are still living in America, or in a bizarre land where fundamentalism has consumed freedom. Although they consistently moan that they are a persecuted minority – religious zealots continue to demand deference. They insist on respect they have not earned and punish those who do not pay homage to their alleged superiority.

Sometimes such people fancy themselves Christians, yet oddly seem the most inclined in our culture to engage in ostentatious displays of idol worship. Of course, I have no problem if gullible people want to prostrate themselves at the toes of the latest fad preacher. That is their business and if it makes them happy, let them jump around until their latest messiah proves to be all too human and leaves them crestfallen. That seems to be the cycle of religious life in America. Preachers, like politicians, are built up into indestructible Gods, only to be unceremoniously pulled down to earth like doomed Saddam Hussein statutes after the fall of Baghdad.

Unfortunately, idol worship took a sad new turn last week, when a Pennsylvania teenager was arrested for posting a picture on Facebook, where he was simulating oral sex with a Jesus statue. This was certainly rude and distasteful. Or as some might call it: being a teenager. What teenager hasn’t done something stupid?

The archaic Pennsylvania law that led to the teens arrest considers “desecration” an illegal act punishable by up to two years in jail. In this case, “desecration” is defined as “defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.” It is important to know that this young man did not damage the statue in any way, but simply took and posted a picture that some find offensive.

Let’s be honest. This is an old-fashioned medieval blasphemy law, pure and simple. It is in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. If this teenager had destroyed or damaged the statue, he would clearly deserve to face consequences. But taking a picture that offends somebody’s religious sensibilities? This is not Iran; this is the United States, where we’re supposed to value freedom of speech. Pennsylvania should be ashamed of itself for so clearly violating this kid’s constitutional rights.

The Establishment Clause, part of the First Amendment, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nowhere does it say that religious people reserve the right never to be offended by anything. This child has not committed a criminal act, and I strongly believes that the family court with jurisdiction is abusing its power by prosecuting a child and potentially marking him as a criminal simply because somebody had their feelings hurt.

This pathetic family court is wasting Pennsylvania citizens’ time and money with this little witch-hunt, and they’re putting a teenager’s future in danger. Rather than prosecuting a kid for making a joke, this family court should get back to work on the serious cases that confront them on a daily basis. Moreover, the lawmakers of Pennsylvania should act to scrub this silly, anachronistic law from the books, immediately.

For people who often claim their God is all-powerful, their feelings bruise quite easily. For such types, it is as if their God is quite helpless and only through intimidation or prosecution can they defend his manhood. Most mainstream Christians would wholeheartedly agree that their God is strong enough to endure a teenage Facebook prank without running to the police to protect his reputation.

As I said earlier, the treatment of this statue is full blown idol worship, even if this stone Jesus isn’t made of gold. Real Christians should be as outraged as anyone that their religion has been reduced by Pennsylvania law to veneration of a rock. Doesn’t the Bible explicitly warn against such behavior?

The Pennsylvania case is not a small deal, but an international outrage. This type of irrational, backward behavior is what we expect from Muslim extremists when they see Muhammad featured in a cartoon. Or, how we anticipate the Russian dictatorship will behave in the case of Pussy Riot. This is the behavior of communist China or the Turkish government that is in a war against Twitter and frowns upon women smiling in public.

But how could this desecration of basic liberty and human rights happen in America? We have to decide of we are a nation of freedom or fundamentalism. If you look at the world, the evidence strongly suggests we can’t be both.


Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”