Home > Giles County Ten Commandments display > Who are the bullies here?

Who are the bullies here?

A recurring theme in arguments over the Ten Commandments display in Giles County Public Schools is accusations of bullying. To wit:

  1. Mr. Elwood Lambert said at the 15 March school board meeting: “I went to a website with the religion freedom group and I was called something that I had never been called before in my life, ‘a bully.’ Last time I was here, I didn’t demand anything and didn’t intimidate anyone. I don’t think anyone here are ‘bullies.’ We are just all [here] to speak our mind and do what’s right for our kids.”
  2. Mr. Tom Taylor wrote in an op-ed: “Given how the Constitution has been mangled in recent years, Giles County may well lose in court. If so, the ACLU will likely demand that the county pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization’s legal fees. This is a standard bullying tactic designed to intimidate anyone who would dare oppose it.” Dan Linford wrote a response, to which Mr. Taylor further commented: “[N]o historical display of founding documents is complete without the Ten Commandments. More importantly, Americans have the right to tell the truth about our heritage. The bullying ACLU and federal courts have no real right to interfere. That is the real issue. So let’s stick to that, okay, and quit wasting time chasing rabbit trails.”
  3. A Roanoke Times editorial began: “The Ten Commandments are hanging at Narrows High School in Giles County because a loud and, at times, un-Christianlike faction bullied school officials into doing what the First Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court forbid.”
  4. In response to the story ‘Giles Co. seeks to unmask plaintiffs’, Jim Peters wrote to the RT, “To provoke a court case by officially posting a blatantly religious document in defiance of the constitutional rights of its own students, as defined by the U.S.Supreme Court, and then allow the school board’s counsel to demand that a single student with a minority religious perspective, who simply wants to peaceably enjoy his or her guaranteed constitutional right to religious privacy in a public school, be publicly identified as a lone outlier amid mob outrage is contrary to the fundamental foundations of our educational system, and qualifies as bullying in my book.” (I wrote something similar but less researched in my own letter.)

So: Did proponents of the Ten Commandments display bully the School Board? Are they still bullying the students who don’t want the religious display posted in their educational institutions? Did the ACLU bully the School Board, or even the broader population of Giles? Is the School Board now bullying Doe 1? Or, as Mr. Doug Turner claimed back in January, has Doe 1 been bullying the Board and the surrounding community all along?

According to the dictionary i got from Steve Jobs:

bully 1 |ˈboŏlē| noun ( pl. -lies) a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.

verb ( -lies, -lied) [ trans. ] use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants : a local man was bullied into helping them.

I was also surprised to learn that the word has benign origins:

1530, from Dutch boel (“lover, brother”), from Middle Dutch boel, boele (“brother, lover”), from Proto-Germanic *bō-lan- (compare Middle Low German bōle (“brother”), Middle High German buole (“brother, close relative, close relation”), German Buhle (“lover”)), diminutive of expressive *bō- (“brother, father”). More at boy.

So, by definition bullying should involve a power imbalance and coercion exercised through it by harm or threat of harm, and we might imbue that definition with residual connotations of masculinity or brotherhood. So, which of the cases above constitutes bullying?

Proponents bullying the School Board. As Mr. Taylor responded, “when citizens gather to petition their public officials, it’s called ‘democracy.'” It is an elected official’s responsibility to uphold the law in spite of the petitions of their constituents, and citizens may make whatever absurd requests they want within a democratic framework.

That’s not to say that it isn’t bullying. A crowd of one to two hundred certainly has a numerical advantage, and behind the crowd lay the tangible influence of the electorate. Moreover, it has long been known that the mere appearance of consensus in close quarters is enough to coerce people into making decisions, even factual claims, they otherwise wouldn’t.

All manner of concerned citizens pull the same stunt. A demographic will crowd a public hearing in order to give an impression of size and influence. (In a rational world, an anonymous letter to the School Board would be enough.) However, this is still political activism — it doesn’t become bullying until the citizens pose a tangible threat to officials beyond reputation and prospects for reelection. We might spin such “mobs” as bullies, but it’d be a kind of bullying that we can’t expect to do without.

Proponents bullying marginalized students. There is certainly a power imbalance here, in that any adult is an authority figure to any minor. Whether or not the minor respects or obeys that authority, we culturally and legally reinforce it. Moreover, a bully need not identify their target. Creating a hostile environment that so marginalizes a group that they keep their identities — religion, sexuality, political leanings — secret also constitutes bullying. It is invisibility by intimidation. This is likely what has happened to Doe 1, who would be worse than shunned were their religious differences with the vocal minority of Narrows High School exposed.

The ACLU bullying the School Board. Again we have a clear power imbalance. The ACLU (like, to a lesser extent, the FFRF) is funded by donors across the United States and has a wealth of financial and intellectual capital backing it up — that means money to spend on a lengthy court battle and highly-trained lawyers to argue their case.

They also have a wealth of experience battling for First Amendment rights in court — but so does Liberty Counsel. Liberty is also well-funded, and comparisons between the ACLU and Liberty, and between the plaintiffs and the defendants, are much more apt than between either party and the other party’s legal counsel.

Moreover, what might be construed as intimidation — the FFRF’s letter requesting that the displays be taken down and their subsequent threat of legal action with the ACLU — might be more properly described as standard legal procedures. It strikes me as courteous, if not a form of due process, for a prospective plaintiff to state their intention to sue, giving any prospective defendant an available out.

The ACLU bullying Giles County. This expands upon the above, but it more directly affects the broader population of Giles and deserves to be considered separately. The “standard bullying tactic” Mr. Taylor identifies is the ACLU’s likely motion that their legal fees be covered by the defendants in the event of a win for the plaintiffs. This type of motion is the reason McCreary County, KY, finds itself heavily indebted to the ACLU of Kentucky.

While United States tort law eschews the “English rule” that losers in civil lawsuits are liable for the fees of winners’ attorneys, the Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Award Act of 1976 outlines an exception for cases in which the government is found to have infringed upon the civil rights of its citizens — as was the case in McCreary County and may well become the case in Giles County. That is to say, this is standard legal procedure as well, and was intended to serve as a deterrent to government officials against violating the rights of their constituents.

Note: For several years a revision to this act has been in the works, specifically targeting violations of the Establishment Clause: Introduced as the Public Expression of Religion Act, this bill passed the House in 2006 after being renamed the “Veterans’ Memorials, Boy Scouts, Public Seals, and Other Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act”, evidently in an attempt to rally Christians in support. Ignored by the Senate, the bill would have removed the grounds on which the plaintiffs might file such a motion in Giles County.

The School Board (or Liberty Counsel) bullying Doe 1. I think the Giles County School Board Policy Manual, which Mr. Peters quoted in his letter, is a good place to begin (emphasis mine):

[I]n the section entitled “Bullying,” it plainly states: “Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, physical, verbal or written intimidation … regarding the race, gender, religion, physical attributes or characteristics or associates of the targeted person.”

Now, the School Board’s objection to the plaintiffs’ request for anonymity regards not the religion of the plaintiffs directly but the merit of their request. But the only possible motivation for their objection is intimidation: When lawyers for Liberty Counsel write that “[t]he people have a right to know who is using their courts” but condition this sentiment with the acknowledgment that “the use of fictitious names is disfavored and should not be granted automatically“, they are effectively saying nothing, at least about the rights of the Giles County public. Furthermore, Rebecca Glenberg‘s concession that “most of the invective has been directed at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation” should be qualified with the virulence of that invective which has been directed at the plaintiffs, including this gem from Liberty Counsel:

Any argument that the school board acted with religious intent, Liberty Counsel argued, “is motivated by a desire to cleanse Giles County of any vestiges of the Ten Commandments.”

(One wonders how many more lawsuits are likely to spring from such motivated people in response to the veritable smattering of Ten Commandments imagery throughout Giles County. Unless, of course, one realizes that no one in this entire saga has any interest at all in cleansing the county of its religious paraphernalia.)

However, it is unclear to me how common, perhaps ubiquitous, it is for a defendant to object to a plaintiff’s request for anonymity. If this too is standard legal procedure then there may be little intent to bully behind it.

Doe 1 bullying Giles County. There’s less than nothing to say here, since the accusation is absurd on its face, but, since it made it to the blogosphere, it’s probably something that several people have thought to themselves during the saga. At the personal level this certainly could not constitute bullying because Doe 1 wields so less power and influence that the School Board or than the vocal minority of Giles. At the legal level, the influence Doe 1 manifests in the ACLU and FFRF, but their sway will be determined by the judge and jury that will hear the case.

The notion that Doe 1 is a bully for complaining about a county-sponsored religious display, and essentially for holding the county government accountable for not doing its job (the county having ignored warnings for six years already), is, in a word inspired by Mr. Taylor, ludicrous.

Who’s bullying whom? The most blatant bullying in this debacle is certainly by that vocal minority of Giles County, particularly of students, against the reviled but unknown objectors to the Ten Commandments display — not by demanding that the display be maintained but by generally creating an atmosphere of animosity in Giles County, especially in the public schools, as they call for anyone who finds the display objectionable — Christians included, realize it though the agitators mayn’t — to pack up and move.

This instance resonates especially well with the connotations with which we might imbue the word “bully” in light of its origins: an outward appearance of fraternity. Residents are overtly hostile to any non-Christian seeking validation from their secular government and demand that their representatives risk precious resources while contending in the same breath that their religious document is not only the basis for compassion but the only safeguard against profligacy. (The popular masculine embodiment of the Christian god itself underlies this instance as well.)

Since this is quite the type of oppression that the Establishment Clause was intended to curb, the other possible instances of bullying seem somewhat peripheral, and anyone wanting to complain about them must be able to recognize — and condemn — these principal instigators.

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