ACLU: Statue desecration case has serious issues

The American Civil Liberties Union is expressing interest in the case of an Everett 14-year-old charged with “desecrating” a statue of Jesus.

On Thursday, a Pittsburgh-based ACLU attorney said the state law cited in the case – a rarely invoked ban on “defacing, damaging, polluting or … mistreating” venerated symbols – poses constitutional problems. State police charged the teen Tuesday, several weeks after he posted photographs online of a simulated sex act with the Everett statue.

“There are some serious First Amendment issues with this statute” if merely gesturing next to an image is enough to be charged, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The case has been debated nationally, with news websites and bloggers on both sides of the issue discussing the charge. An ACLU media representative said several people have sent her office copies of the article.

Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins, who is in Puerto Rico for a Lions Club gathering, did not return a message seeking comment.

“I guess I should take solace in the fact that the liberals are mad at me – again,” Higgins said Thursday on his Facebook page. “As for this case, this troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community. … His actions constitute a violation of the law, and he will be prosecuted accordingly. If that tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd, I make no apologies.”

Rose said the state law is cited rarely enough that she had never researched it until this week. News accounts indicate a Wilkes-Barre college student was charged under the law in 2010 for urinating on a Nativity scene; in the 1980s, Pittsburgh authorities threatened a charge against an unnamed vandal who daubed pro-Palestinian graffiti on a public Hanukkah decoration.

At the root of the issue, Rose said, is the law’s distinction between “objects of veneration” and other items. While the Wilkes-Barre student could have been charged with urinating in public and the Everett teen could arguably be charged with public lewdness, she said, a special law protecting religious items from that violation is harder to justify.

And while not all symbolic speech is protected, the fact that the boy took photographs, posted them publicly and commented on them with friends is enough to be considered “expressive” and therefore legally protected, she said.

It’s an issue she said ACLU attorneys have faced in the past: The courts have repeatedly ruled that flipping a middle finger, while offensive, is a matter of free speech and not a criminal act, Rose noted.

Prosecutors have faced similar difficulty enforcing flag-protection laws, which also punished “desecration” of revered items until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1989.

As the ACLU seeks to contact the teenager, it could take at least several weeks for a hearing on the misdemeanor charge to be held. Bedford County President Judge Thomas S. Ling said the next set of juvenile court hearings is scheduled for Oct. 3.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.