Judge allows anonymity in suit over Pa. religious monument

Plaintiffs may proceed anonymously in their suit against a Western Pennsylvania school district and its 10 Commandments monument

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Three plaintiffs will be allowed to proceed anonymously in their suit against a Western Pennsylvania school district that maintains a monument to the Ten Commandments in front of a public high school, a federal judge ruled.

The New Kensington-Arnold School District didn't oppose the use of pseudonyms in the case, but it did move to strike from the record evidence that the plaintiffs had submitted to the court in support of their motion for anonymity, including screen shots from Facebook pages and emails to the plaintiffs' lawyers containing threats to those bringing the suit.

Two of the anonymous plaintiffs are students at Valley High School.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry of the Western District of Pennsylvania said, "The plaintiffs presently designated as 'Doe' may continue to proceed anonymously with the use of pseudonyms."

Judge McVerry is supervising the case, The Freedom From Religion Foundation v. New Kensington-Arnold School District.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., that advocates for the separation of church and state. It recently brought a suit against Pennsylvania legislators who declared that 2012 would be the Year of the Bible. A federal judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled against the organization in October, finding that the lawmakers were shielded by legislative immunity.

Last month, Judge McVerry granted the plaintiffs' unopposed motion to use pseudonyms but vacated the order this month so that he could address the school district's motion to strike much of the evidence entered in support of the plaintiffs' initial motion to use pseudonyms.

The school district argued that the Facebook screen shots and emails that plaintiffs submitted were only "immaterial and inflammatory allegations" that the court should strike, according to the opinion.

It argued that allowing the "inflammatory" material to stay in the public record could pollute a future trial and isn't necessary for the court to rule on the use of pseudonyms, according to the opinion.

The plaintiffs argued that the relief they seek, an injunction requiring the school to move the monument, wouldn't lead to a jury trial and that the exhibits were necessary to prove that there existed "exceptional circumstances" and that they had a reasonable fear of harm if they were identified.

Some of the exhibits include posts from a Facebook group, which has more than 1,200 members, called "Keep The Ten Commandments At Valley High School," according to court filings.

One post said, "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!"

The poster later posted, "It was not a threat of violence, but a figure of speech."

Judge McVerry found there had been significant threats made to the suit's only named plaintiff, Marie Schaub.

"A number of threats referenced in her affidavit have extended beyond ad hominem rhetoric, although they certainly appear to include threats of violence and ostracism," he said.

He agreed with the plaintiffs that the as-yet-unnamed plaintiffs should be able to proceed anonymously to avoid any danger of harm.

"The court finds that this basis upon which the Does fear disclosure is substantial and that there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a constitutional violation, a pure legal issue."

Likewise, Judge McVerry found in favor of the plaintiffs on the inclusion of the material they submitted in support of their motion.

Neither Marcus Schneider of Steele Schneider in Pittsburgh, who represented the plaintiffs, nor Anthony Sanchez of Andrews & Price in Pittsburgh, who represented the school district, could be reached for comment.


Saranac Hale Spencer: sspencer@alm.com or 215-557-2449. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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