I’m accustomed to being a villain. As attorneys at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it’s part of our job description. We’re used to being unjustly vilified. Often, we are asked to help keep public schools secular by individuals who feel like they are the only nonreligious people in their community. When we help schools clean up their act, invariably some religious bullies lash out at FFRF because we’ve disturbed the grip that their religion has had on the schools (never mind that we’re actually upholding the Constitution and protecting everyone’s religious liberty by keeping the government secular). It’s not unusual for us to get hate mail and rude phone calls.
But early this week, a local newspaper went off script in an alarming way.
In the relatively small town of Effingham, Ill., the school district managed to rack up three FFRF complaints in one year (from multiple complainants). To the district’s credit, it assured us that it would fix these issues.
Then the newspaper there published a Letter to the Editor from someone who was not happy that we were upholding the Constitution and the public schools were no longer imposing their religion on other people’s children. And since I was the attorney on the case, the author aimed his fury at me personally. I was shocked to see this:
Ryan D. Jayne apparently opposes God and the fathers of this great and glorified nation. . . Mr. Jayne, you are God’s adversary! “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23
Well, that seemed a little extreme. Okay, sure, I’ll admit that I do oppose the Christian god, in the sense that I don’t support much of what the fictional antagonist says or stands for in the bible. But the death sentence was a bit over the top, to say the least.
Now, some Christians might read this and assume the author meant this metaphorically or hyperbolically, with the implication of the quote being that I was going to go to hell. But still, I thought it was astounding that a newspaper editor would publish a Letter to the Editor calling for someone’s death, regardless of whether he or she thought the author was actually dangerous.
So I wrote to the newspaper and asked it to remove the death threat from its website. And the editor did agree to take it down, but first he wrote this to me:
The letter in question strikes me as hyperbole, but it seems a legitimate response to the complaint you filed with [the school district]. . . . Be assured that I do not personally see you as an “adversary of God.” But surely you understand the reaction your work sometimes induces in small, conservative communities.
“A legitimate response”? If the author had made a hyperbolic death threat in any form other than a bible quote, is there any chance that the editor would still call it a “legitimate response” to a letter asking a public school to follow the law? I highly doubt it. It’s another example of the corrupting power of religion — transforming what would normally be an easy “we can’t publish that” decision into the editor defending a death threat as innocuous hyperbole because it’s quoting the New Testament. Christopher Hitchens was right: Religion poisons everything.