PHILADELPHIA - The federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 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."
In February 2009 the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit challenging the statute on behalf of George Kalman, a filmmaker from Downingtown whose application to register his film business under the name "I Choose Hell Productions LLC" was rejected by the Pennsylvania Corporations Bureau.
"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."
The court found that the statute violated the First Amendment's prohibition on establishment of religion and promoted only Christian religious views, as 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' deities, 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.
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."
The specific Pennsylvania statue in question is § 1303(c)(2)(ii) of Title 15 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes.
In addition to Roper, Kalman is represented by Thomas Lee, Elizabeth H. Kimmelman, Leora Eisenstadt and Matthew Bleich of Dechert LLP, and Seth Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.