Keith Henson, an engineer, writer and futurist, was arrested Friday in Prescott, Ariz., where he has been living for the past few years, and now faces extradition to California. Henson originally fled to Canada after the 2001 conviction.
The misdemeanor conviction in California stems from a post that Henson made in the alt.religion.scientology Usenet newsgroup that joked about aiming a nuclear "Tom Cruise" missile at Scientologists, and Henson's picketing of the group's Golden Era Productions in Riverside, Calif.
Michael Kielsky, Henson's defense attorney, said Monday that his client will likely be released on Monday evening and is required to appear in court for a March 5 hearing.
Kielsky said that Henson was mistreated by police and jailers–including being told during the arrest that he had no right to an attorney and being held in solitary confinement in a poorly heated cell without adequate bedding. "My best information is that it's very political," he said. "They gave him an extra blanket but then an hour later they took it away–(this is) a 66-year-old man with a heart problem."
Huh? How do you get from posting a joke about Scientology to sitting in a cold cell?
Henson was convicted in 2001 under a California law (Sec. 422.6) that criminalizes any threat to interfere with someone else's "free exercise" of religion. One Usenet post that was introduced at his trial included jokes about sending a "Tom Cruise" missile against a Scientology compound (the actor is a prominent Scientologist). Picketing Scientology buildings and other "odd behavior" were also part of the charges, Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz said at the time.
Good grief. I'm gonna wake up in a cell one day, because I mouthed off about somebody's religion. Maybe Tom Cruise will be my jailer. Or James Dobson, or some other wingnut, because if Scientology can get someone jailed because of a Usenet post (an obvious joke), how difficult would it be for a mainstream religion to do the same?
Case in point. For the last several years, every time we drove up Massachusetts avenue we almost always saw the same guy. He was a nondescript, white guy, with white hair, probably in his 60s, wearing glasses, and usually dressed in casual slacks and a tweed jacket. But he was easy to recognize, because he always held a huge sign accusing the Catholic church of knowingly harboring pedophiles (I don't remember the exact wording), in big red letters. I wasn't not sure why he picked that spot, but it turns out it's the location of what amounts to the Vatican's U.S. embassy.
John Wojnowski, an intense, quietly agitated man, stands at an intersection on Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Apostolic Nunciature, also called the Embassy of the Holy See, which is the Vatican’s diplomatic representation. He holds signs that grab one’s attention, such as “Catholic clergy molest boys worldwide,” and “Pedophilia—Catholic Clergy’s Sordid Professional Secret.” Not affiliated with any group, he explained that he is acting on his own and is uncomfortable in groups.
With few exceptions, Wojnowski has stood on this corner a few hours every morning and afternoon since April 1998. “I am protesting because a crime was committed against me. I was sexually molested by a Catholic priest,” Wojnowski said. He seeks two things with his protest—attention and financial reparations for his suffering. “The church is responsible for the damage to the lives of children molested by clergy,” he added.
The son of a Polish diplomat, Wojnowski said he spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father was posted after World War II. He said he was a happy boy, but between the ages of 14 and 15, there was a drastic change in his personality. He became withdrawn and insecure. Never finishing high school, to the disappointment of his parents, he immigrated to Canada when has was 18. He worked all his life as a laborer. In 1963 he moved to the United States.
In the fall of 1997 he said he had a flashback—a memory of being molested by a Catholic priest. “I was traumatized and had blocked it out,” he said. He sought help and guidance from a priest at a local church. The church arranged for therapy. Wojnowski went several times but felt uncomfortable. “The priest,” he maintained, “said the Church owes reparations, and he suggested I write to Cardinal Hickey and c.c. the letter to the Apostolic Nunciature.”
When his attempts to get a reply failed, perhaps in desperation or as a last resort, he found himself in front of the Embassy of the Holy See. “I realized they knew I was a mouse and thought I would give up … I came to the embassy with a sign.” Thus began his quixotic journey for some kind of justice.
Could a law like the California law be used to make someone like Wojnowski spend a few nights in jail? Maybe if someone could make a case that his vigil was somehow interfering with their free practice of religion, and had enough influence or could find authorities sympathetic enough to at take the guy in? Maybe like the cops who threatened David Mills for protesting a faith healer, recounted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion?
A Christian faith healer ran a ‘Miracle Crusade’ which came to Mill’s hometown once a year. Among other things the faith healer encouraged diabetics to throw away their insulin, and cancer patients to give up their chemotherapy and pray for a miracle instead. Reasonably enough, Mills decided to organise a peaceful demonstration to warn people. But he made the mistake of going to the police to tell them of his intention and ask for police protection against possible attacks from supporters of the faith healer. The first police officer to whom he spoke asked, ‘Is you gonna protest fir him or ‘gin him?’ (meaning for or against the faith-healer). When Mills replied, ‘Against him,’ the policeman said that he himself planned to attend to the rally and intended to spit personally in Mills’s face as he marched past Mills’s demonstration.
Mills decided to try his luck with a second police officer. This one said that if any of the faith healer’s supporters violently confronted Mills, the officer would arrest Mills because he was ‘trying to interfere with God’s work’. Mills went home and tried telephoning the police station, in hope of finding more sympathy at a senior level. He was finally connected to a sergeant who said, ‘To hell with you, Buddy. No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist, I hope somebody bloodies you up good.
Under a law like the California law, could someone charge that Mills' protest interfered with their free practice of religion, and make those charges stick long enough to put him in a cell for a few night, make him at least pay a fine, and show up for a court date? How could it be wielded against families like the Dobriches or Smalkowskis, who spoke up against state endorsement of Christianity in their children's schools?
It's actually about more than the California law. It's about a whole slate legislative changes — via amendment here, a rider there, a executive order , etc. — designed to weaken the separation of church and state. That includes a bill I blogged about October 2006, before the November elections, that would make it harder launch a legal challenge to government endorsement of religion.
With little public attention or even notice, the House of Representatives has passed a bill that undermines enforcement of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The Public Expression of Religion Act – H.R. 2679 – provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorneys fees. The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.
A federal statute, 42 United States Code section 1988, provides that attorneys are entitled to recover compensation for their fees if they successfully represent a plaintiff asserting a violation of his or her constitutional or civil rights. For example, a lawyer who successfully sues on behalf of a victim of racial discrimination or police abuse is entitled to recover attorney's fees from the defendant who acted wrongfully. Any plaintiff who successfully sues to remedy a violation of the Constitution or a federal civil rights statute is entitled to have his or her attorney's fees paid.
…Such a bill could have only one motive: to protect unconstitutional government actions advancing religion. The religious right, which has been trying for years to use government to advance their religious views, wants to reduce the likelihood that their efforts will be declared unconstitutional. Since they cannot change the law of the Establishment Clause by statute, they have turned their attention to trying to prevent its enforcement by eliminating the possibility for recovery of attorneys' fees.
Those who successfully prove the government has violated their constitutional rights would, under the bill, be required to pay their own legal fees. Few people can afford to do so. Without the possibility of attorneys' fees, individuals who suffer unconstitutional religious persecution often will be unable to sue. The bill applies even to cases involving illegal religious coercion of public school children or blatant discrimination against particular religions.
Got a problem with school-sponsored prayer? Well, if you file suit (like the Dobrich family did) and win, you'd better have deep pockets under this bill — which declares that such a suit "extorts money" from the government, but fortunately appears stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee — because if you win your legal bills are all yours. Depending on how far such a suit goes, those bills can be quite extensive, and unless you're independently wealthy, you might think twice about bringing such a suit even if your in the right and will almost certainly win your case.
But what if your actions are interpreted as interfering with someone's free exercise of religion, by stopping school-sponsored prayer in your district? At the very least, it's a easy way to harass someone who criticizes a religion.
Which is precisely what separation of church and state is supposed to prevent. Rob Boston's recent AlterNet post about the Supreme Court case — Everson v. Board of Education, which is about to turn 60 years old — that defined the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, and why the theocratic right wants to chisel away at it, is a good place to start.
The importance of Everson can hardly be overstated. Virtually every case that deals with the "establishment of religion" cites Everson. Federal judges use it as a touchstone when seeking guidance in contentious clashes over the proper role of religion in government. Its language appears in countless lower court rulings and legal briefs.
Yet for all of its importance, Everson is not as well known as high court cases over school prayer, displays of religious symbols or legal abortion. Everson v. Board of Education is hardly a household phrase — but for anyone who labors to defend the separation of church and state, the ruling is a guiding principle.
… Everson opponents zero in on a 174-word passage in the lengthy decision in which the majority, led by Justice Black, observed, "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.
"Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion," Black continued. "No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance.
"No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion," Black added. "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.
"In the words of Jefferson," Black concluded, "the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.'"
How good a job have they done chiseling away at it? Well, let me refer back to my list.
"Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." – Except for laws previously mentioned. Or when a state legislature declares Christianity its official religion.
"No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance." – Again, except for the laws mentioned in this post. Or when the government gives tax dollars to religious organizations and permits them to discriminate on the basis of religion.
"No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion." – Except when the White House sets up a program to funnel tax dollars to evangelical organizations, forcing tax payers to fund proselytizing for Christianity.
I could go on, but I'll just refer again to the list I posted a while back. The degree of success in chipping away at that wall of church state separation is disturbing. It's tempting to think that, with the Democrats in the majority in Congress, the erosion of that wall might be halted, and the damage even repaired. But the theocratic right's degree of success is even more evident in the Democrats trying to distance themselves from the concept of church/state separation, a speaker of the House urging Democrats to speak in more biblical terms, and a Democratic front runner who calls on us to ease up on defending that separation.
It all adds up to an inconvenient time to be an infidel in America; outnumbered in the population, ridiculed in the media, and perhaps soon stripped of a few opportunities to seek legal redress or protection.
On the other hand, it's a good time to be a believer in America; when the idea of some sort of union between church and state has captured both major parties.
But, in another sense, we're all infidels now. The religious majority will, given enough time, be the religious minority; if only because everything changes, belief systems rise and fall, and even religions pass into mythology eventually or change so much as to be unrecognizable. The protections intended to guard against a complete tyranny of the majority will be missed in the future, if they are not restored or repaired. Perhaps even by the very same people who hammered away at them, or by their heirs, if they should find the tables turned and find themselves cast in the opposite role.
We're all infidels, now. It's mainly just a matter of time.