For two decades I’ve told people my job is to fight for their rights – and never was this truer than on Saturday. I had come from Chicago to defend free speech and oppose an archaic, unconstitutional blasphemy law that was being enforced by a rogue District Attorney in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
The DA, Bill Higgins, was viciously targeting a 14-year-old teenager after he posted an obscene photo on Facebook in which he was simulating oral sex with a ceramic Jesus yard gnome. Of course, this prank was offensive – or what some might call being a teenager. However, the self-righteous Higgins took it upon himself to be the great defender of Christendom and threw the book(s) – the Bible and the Law – at this young man.
This religiously motivated action was quite odd coming from Higgins, who hasn’t exactly been a pillar of morality. For example, six years ago the renegade District Attorney admitted to having sex in his courthouse office with a woman following a meeting of the Bedford County Republicans, in which he then served as vice-chair. His sexual liaison accused him of sexual assault and sued him, but the charges were eventually dropped.
Higgins decided to prosecute the child under an obscure Pennsylvania law which states that “desecration” includes “physically mistreating [objects] in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”
While Higgins maintains that he is simply an upstanding district attorney who wishes to uphold a Pennsylvania blasphemy law, his own statements on this case betray that claim. In an interview with local media, Higgins stated:
“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.”
I guess if anyone should know about “desecrating” Christianity it is Higgins, who seems to be a troubled man who is desperately battling his private demons on the public stage at the expense of a teenage boy. By making this incendiary statement, it is clear that Higgins is more of a frustrated right-wing ideologue than a responsible district attorney. Instead of fighting real crime, Higgins is fighting a culture war.
Which brings us back to Saturday. Three organizations, American Atheists, Pennsylvania Non-Believers, and Truth Wins Out, which I am the Executive Director, held a successful protest, where several dozen people rallied in favor of free speech.
Unfortunately, it was marred when a belligerent group of counter protesters, including two from what appeared to be a motorcycle gang, crashed the protest and threatened those in attendance, including me and the 14-year old boy arrested for suggestively posing with the Jesus statue.
Incredibly, there was not a single police officer on-hand to prevent potential violence and this left the protesters vulnerable to thugs and forced them to fend for themselves. The Bedford police placed us directly in harms way and their inaction nearly caused a full-blown melee. This is the first time in two decades of protesting that town officials have put me in such a volatile situation. This is an outrageous abdication of leadership and Bedford elected officials need to realize that they are part of America. They should immediately review policies for protecting the free speech rights of those who demonstrate in their town and adhere to the United States Constitution.
From the moment we arrived in Bedford, Penn., we were greeted by hostile counter-demonstrators. Homophobic epithets were lobbed at American Atheists President David Silverman. A military veteran who was participating in our protest was called a “disgrace” to his country.
One of the hooligans decided to accost the boy who was at the center of the controversy. I quickly intervened and this led to a near altercation. The angry thug repeatedly challenged me to “take your best shot ‘slick,’” which was an apparent reference to the fact that I was from Chicago and not dressed like I crawled out of a crystal meth trailer. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers President Brian Fields soon joined and helped me block the ruffian from bullying the teen and his mother.
The police were called and they arrived shortly to disperse the escalating confrontation. However, the question remains why they were not at the event from the beginning to keep the protest free of intimidation and violence? I am still greatly worried for the safety of the teenage boy and his family. Make no mistake: If anything happens to them, the town of Bedford is to blame and should be held legally accountable.
The youth’s actions may have been in poor taste, but religious freedom does not include the right never to be offended. Some values are worth protecting – even if it requires standing up to zealots who don’t seem to understand the genuine meaning of liberty.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”