Court Strikes Down PA Blasphemy Law: It's Now Okay to Choose Hell!

Another battle in the culture wars has ended.  A federal district court in Philadelphia struck down the state law that prohibits corporate names from containing "[w]ords that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord's name."   JSPAN is proud to have played a part in that effort by filing the only amicus brief in the case.

The dispute arose when George Kalman attempted to form a business to make a film.  He selected the name "I Choose Hell Productions, LLC" out of a philosophical belief that even if life was often hellish, it was better than suicide.  When Pennsylvania would not let him register the name because clerks in the Corporations Bureau thought the name was blasphemous, Kalman turned to the ACLU, which filed suit on his behalf.

In a 68 page opinion, Judge Michael Baylson concluded that the Pennsylvania law violated the Establishment Clause because the language of the statute showed that it had a predominantly religious purpose and conveyed a message of state endorsement of religion over non-religion.

Judge Baylson also held that the law "unequivocally excludes only one religious perspective but not the other, as it permits speech deemed reverent to religious beliefs, yet excludes speech deemed irreverent to religious beliefs."  A third reason the court struck down the law under the Estabishment Clause was because the bureau's employees "in their own discretion, are still required to make standardless determinations as to what constitutes blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing, or profanes the Lord's name, based on nothing but their own religious beliefs."

Thus, Judge Baylson concluded that the law failed all three prongs of the so-called Lemon test, under which courts scrutinize the purpose and effect of a law and its potential for entanglement of the state with religion.  He also held that the law infringes free speech rights because it is a viewpoint-based restriction, and is invalid even if corporate names are considered commercial speech.

Blasphemy laws were once very common in the United States, but only Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming in addition to Pennsylvania have such laws on their books today.  While most of these laws date back a century or more, Pennsylvania's law is unique because it was enacted in 1977 and covers only the matter of corporate names.  A state legislator wrote the bill after learning that a mail-order fire-arms dealer filed incorporation papers to name his store The God Damn Gun Shop.  Some of these laws are quite serious.  Oklahoma authorizes up to a year in prison and a $500 fine for anyone convicted of blasphemy.

The court's opinion drew heavily from JSPAN's brief, which traced the history of blasphemy laws from Biblical times up through the present.  Joining JSPAN on the brief were The Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Larry W. Smith and Rev. Nathan Walker.   The brief argued that the history of blasphemy laws showed that they emanate from a desire to protect religious orthodoxy and require adoption of a sectarian perspective.