True or false? In 1988, did the state of Pennsylvania reaffirm a “blasphemy law” that forbade corporate names with words that “profane the Lord’s name”? George Kalman found out the answer the hard way.
Four years ago Kalman selected, “I Choose Hell Productions, LLC” for his film studio. He soon received an unsigned letter explaining that his application was rejected because of the state’s blasphemy law. He questioned whether the state can regulate his speech in this way, and with the help of the ACLU, challenged the law.
Thankfully, this antiquated law has little consequence in the United States as compared to other places in the world. Ireland, for example, is but one of 30 countries with laws that punish anyone insulting the beliefs held sacred by any religion. For instance, if you make a derogatory remark about the Prophet Mohammad in Pakistan you can be imprisoned and even sentenced to death. Whether the penalty is as extreme as capital punishment or as annoying as a rejection letter, blasphemy laws in any form are threats to the fundamental human rights to freedom of speech and belief.
When government agents are allowed to interpret what is or isn’t blasphemous, they can easily become “theolegal officials” – public servants who use theology to determine law. Take for instance the religious subjectivity of an employee of the Commonwealth who is responsible for applying this Pennsylvania statute.
The following testimony of Deputy Parke Decker demonstrates the admitted sectarian approach that this theolegal official took:
Q: (Attorney): And when you see in rejection code 170, when you see the term “Lord” with a capital L, what do you understand that to mean?
A: (Deputy Decker): God in my Catholic upbringing definition, which also is Christian – I should say Christian upbringing, God, like God the Father.
Q: Would you interpret the “Lord” to include anything other than the Christian God? Spelled like this?
A: No. No.
Q: So when you are applying rejection code 170, you yourself are basically applying the standards of the Catholic religion. Is that correct?
A: Probably. Yeah, probably.
Another official, Deputy Joy Drake, was asked, “On what basis would you decide whether the blasphemy provision would apply to a word that might be blasphemous to a non-Christian religion?” The answer: “I would not know.”
It is dangerous to create a system where government officials use their religious worldview to determine the legitimacy of others’ beliefs. In doing so, officials could take away not only the freedom of others to practice their religion, but also to regulate the speech of others based on their own beliefs or disbeliefs.
Thankfully, the jurisprudence is clear. The state cannot protect any religion from views that are distasteful to an agent of the state. Despite the legal precedent, this case is rich with irony. According to the Christian New Testament, Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy. In 1668, William Penn, the founder of the Providence of Pennsylvania was imprisoned in London for blasphemy. Furthermore, previous officials permitted the “blasphemous” names of the following places in Pennsylvania: Hell Creek, Hell Hollow, Hell Run, Hello Hollow Trial and Hell Kitchen Gap. If the state can use this sacrilegious term, why can’t George Kalman choose hell?
When asked why he selected “I Choose Hell Productions” as the name of his film company, he said that life was “hellish”, to choose hell “was better than suicide”. At some point he was considering taking his own life, recognizing that life was hell. To choose hell, therefore, for Kalman was to choose life. That doesn’t sound so blasphemous. Kalman is simply recognizing that life is full of suffering and despite such pain life is worth living.
And therein lies the moral of this story. Be not quick to judge others without knowing the true meaning behind their words. True freedom comes from having the ability to speak our mind, to practice our religion, and to express our beliefs or disbeliefs. In doing so, we ensure that the state will not give us hell but the hope that comes from true freedom.
Thankfully, in June of 2010, the blasphemy law in Pennsylvania was finally deemed unconstitutional. No one died. Kalman continues to thrive.
Meanwhile, lovers of freedom in other lands pray for the day when religious liberty becomes not simply a political slogan but a way of life.
Nathan C. Walker is associate director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. This article was originally published in Religion and Public Policy, online issue April 26, 2012 by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Washington DC.