September 18, 2007

Legal-Religious Silliness

Longtime readers know that I am not a believer in the supernatural and critical of religion. I must restrain myself from cheering on other critics of religion from time to time, but today it was easier than in other circumstances for me to exercise that kind of restraint.

Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers sued God (yes that's right I said he sued God) on Friday, accusing Jehovah of both making and fulfilling "terroristic threats of grave harm to innumerable persons, including" his constituents, in the form of "fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like."

Skeptics like me will be quick to point out that service of process is likely to be a problem, if only from a logistical point of view.

Believers, who might otherwise be forced to admit that the divinity's omnipresence and omniscience renders service of process a superfluity, might instead prefer to focus their arguments on a lack of jurisdiction over such a defendant.

Both arguments have been considered by a previous court with regards to a lawsuit against Satan filed in 1971. That lawsuit, at least, had the benefit of an obviously unsympathetic defendant. Obviously, the real problem is stating a claim upon which relief can be granted -- the court cannot issue an injunction against floods, rainstorms, tornadoes, diseases, or birth defects; effective enforcement mechanisms have yet to be devised. Although, I read in the Atlantic this month that scientists have thought of ways they might mitigate the force of a hurricane; besides, spreading 20,000 tons of finely-ground coal dust on top of a forming hurricane just might pose an environmental hazard independent of the storm, thereby raising a Clean Air Act concern arising from the State court level injunction, and now you've got yourself a federalism issue to contend with, too. What a mess.

Senator Chambers, by the way, is the Chambers of Chambers v. Marsh, the Supreme Court case that held, 6-3, that opening a session of a legislature with a prayer led by a publicly-paid chaplain did not violate the Establishment Clause. The rationale was that the "establishment" thus represented was minimal and not a credible threat to the creation of a state religion since it merely recognized the powerful force that religious traditions have exerted on the country, and besides, the Founders couldn't have possibly meant to exlcude prayers in the legislature by way of the First Amendment since the First Congress had a chaplain that began sessions with a prayer. Fans of the decision should at least read the dissent; critics of religion intruding on civic life, on the other hand, must acknowledge that this decision is the law of the land and that it is unlikely to change any time soon.

So there it is. Senator Chambers' lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed at some point in the near future. While I may be an atheist, I'm also a lawyer, and there's no substantial public benefit to be realized from this lawsuit. And while I like the idea that there are Ernie Chamberses out there to challenge religion's intrusion into secular political life, it's possible to take things a little far.


Daryl said...

That he's suing god isn't the interesting part of the story. It's the story he's reacting to -- in which a judge has apparently prohibited the use of the words "rape" and "victim" in a case against an alleged rapist -- that I'd be interested in hearing more about. Chambers apparently finds a lawsuit the plaintiff in that case has brought to be frivolous. There may be extenuating circumstances in her case, but her desire to use those frank and I suspect actually legally significant terms doesn't seem out of bounds, and her only remedy I gather is to bring a suit. Chambers's stunt may be an appropriate bit of commentary in the right context, but based on the little I know of the rape case, it seems pretty clearly off target here.

Burt Likko said...

I actually wrote about that case in July. My opinion of the issue was that the victim is entitled to use the phrase, not as a matter of an exercise of a free speech right, but rather in furtherance of due process of law.

Daryl said...

Ah, yes, that's ringing a bell now. Thanks for recalling the post to my attention. It's a little absurd for me to say that I agree with you (I'm not a lawyer and don't really have expertise or standing to agree or disagree), but I think I agree with you.