Court Strikes Down Pennsylvania Law Forbidding “Blasphemous” Business Names

From my own state: A federal court has struck down a Pennsylvania statute that forbids business names containing “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”

The case was brought by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of George Kalman, a Pennsylvania filmmaker whose application to register a business name “I Choose Hell Productions LLC” was turned down by state regulators.

According to a news release from the Pennsylvania ACLU (I am a board member of a local chapter) the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that the statute violated the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion and promoted only Christian religious views. Words used by the Pennsylvania Corporations Bureau to flag proposed names for closer scrutiny included terms such as Christ and Jesus but not those related to other religions, such as Allah or Mohammed. In his 67-page opinion, the judge also noted that blasphemy laws were historically used to persecute those of minority religious beliefs, including William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

“We are pleased with the judge’s opinion,” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of Kalman’s lawyers. “No one wins when the government gets involved in deciding who has the ‘right’ religious views.”

Additionally the court held that the statute violated Kalman’s right to free speech by treating speech differently on the basis on the viewpoint expressed, as business names perceived as pro-religion were permitted.

Kalman says he chose the name of his production company because he believes it expresses his personal philosophy that it is better to struggle through difficult times in life than to commit suicide, even if life is “hell.”

More information about the case, including a copy of the original complaint and the court’s decision, can be found here.