What a Lawsuit Costs Us All

That the secular movement is litigious should not come as a surprise to anyone. The Center for Inquiry is suing Walmart and CVS. American Atheists is suing a state senator. Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center both use lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a primary form of activism. We know the good a strategic lawsuit can do in protecting our rights.

That doesn’t mean every lawsuit is good for our movement, of course. Among the secular organizations that do litigate, there’s been a push to more carefully consider all the possible outcomes of filing suit, particularly as the Trump administration stacks the federal courts. We’re in this for the long haul, and precedent can cost us as well as help us.

With that in mind, Secular Woman urges organizations and individuals in the secular movement to consider two current lawsuits and what they stand to cost us. In the last few years, two prominent men in our movement have been accused of a range of inappropriate sexual behavior and have chosen to respond by suing the women who have spoken up.

Richard Carrier was accused of persistent sexual advances and responded by suing two of his accusers, a nonprofit organization that reported banning him from their events, one blogger who collected reports of his behavior from him and others into one place (full disclosure: Stephanie Zvan is vice president of Secular Woman), one blogger who reported receiving reports for further investigation, and both blog networks on which these posts appeared. 

Three years after his original suit was filed, Carrier is reduced to two remaining lawsuits. He continues to sue a former student group leader and the atheist blogger who said the claims against Carrier would be investigated. The other suits were dismissed with prejudice for jurisdiction or because the statute of limitations ran out while Carrier fought to keep his suit in a state without anti-SLAPP statutes. None of his claims or those against him have been heard in court, despite him recently telling a judge that was all he wanted. The defendants have spent well over $100,000 on their defense.

In April 2018, David Silverman was suspended from American Atheists after unspecified allegations were made against him. Shortly thereafter, he was fired after a review of “internal documents and communications related to the initial complaint as well as evidence relating to the additional allegations brought to the Board’s attention”. A Buzzfeed News article states that the original allegations involved “financial and personal conflicts of interest” and the additional allegations involve sexual assault.

In September of this year, Silverman filed suit against Buzzfeed, American Atheists, its president, and its chair. He also filed suit against another board member and both his accusers, claiming they had conspired against him. He did this despite both claiming he’d only been damaged by the financial allegations and being on record elsewhere as knowing one of these accusations dated back to at least 2013.

What is the purpose of these lawsuits? Each man has already published his own account of events on a site anyone can read. The women who accused Silverman of assault cannot prove he had no financial conflicts of interest relating to his book. Carrier’s claims cannot be heard by endlessly litigating jurisdiction instead of moving the case to a court stipulated to be acceptable by the defendants. 

The only things lawsuits like these can do is use up the time, money, and energy of our movement and further discourage our activists from speaking up about how they have been treated. As a movement, we’ve spent years fighting past legal threats to warn people about those among us who abuse their power, like Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer. This work is critical to keeping our activists and building a stronger movement. If we want them to work for and support us, we must look out for them.

What can you do about lawsuits like these? You can take a critical look at them, ask whether they have any chance of doing what they claim to be trying to accomplish. You can ask what kind of conspiracy the accused claims is arrayed against them and what anyone could actually gain from being part of such a thing. 

You can count the costs to the movement. What could you do to support secularism with $100,000? What could you do with more activists whose attention isn’t scattered by legal demands, with volunteers and donors who feel comfortable working with you because they know they can speak up if they’re poorly treated?

We at Secular Woman know that many secular organizations and activists already privately denounce lawsuits like these. Some do so publicly. We thank you for that. But we also urge that, as a movement, we work to get better at not rewarding disruptive, punitive, costly lawsuits like these.

Interview: Teresa McBain and Religious Newswriters Conference

Teresa MacBain, the former pastor who famously came out as an atheist during her speech at last spring’s American Atheists convention, has earned recognition for her remarkable bravery over the last year, including AA’s Atheist of the Year award. She recently reached her Indiegogo goal to raise money to attend the Religious Newswriters’ Conference in Austin this fall, where she will take part in the conference’s first-ever “Meet the Freethinkers” panel. She speaks to Secular Woman, which donated to her campaign, about the conference, the position of atheists in the media, and how our movement can better support the brave people who risk losing their families, friends, and even their careers to take a stand for nonbelief. “Secular Woman is proud to promote and support nonreligious women in their endeavors to strengthen and represent the community,” says SW president Kim Rippere. “We are also pleased to see the Religious Newswriters Conference featuring atheist speakers, thanks to Teresa MacBain’s efforts.”


SW: Take us from last spring, when NPR ran a story about your remarkable, public coming out as an atheist, to now. What has the last year and a half been like for you?

It’s been very up and down. There have been some really great things, but after losing an entire community of friends and acquaintances it’s hard when you think about all the hurt and everything you lost. It can make you pretty down and pretty depressed.

I have been trying to find myself after 44 years of living one way, being not necessarily thrown into this––[coming out] was my own choice––but entering the normal world and not knowing how to make friends has been a real struggle for me. I think I’m finally coming around after a year and a half of just understanding how the whole thing works and discovering who I am apart from being in ministry, figuring out where I fit into the secular world.


How has the secular movement treated you? How can we be more welcoming to those who have recently come out?

For me it’s been very welcoming. There are the people thinking, she’s an ex-preacher, she’s going to go back, but there haven’t been a lot who have said that. I came out in a public way and people identify with me through that; while I don’t think my experience is unique, for me there was an instant connection to people that some don’t get. Some people come out in their community and are somewhat lost. As a movement as a whole, getting the word out, using things like the Clergy Project and Recovering from Religion, where people can get the support they need––I think that helps.


What do you miss about your religious life?

For me, it’s having somewhat of a structured community. The structure offers everything from efforts to do service projects to picnics and softball; it’s a real community.


What should atheists know about the Religious Newswriters Conference?

I was there last year tabling and there was not one single panel with a freethinker or secular communiqe on it. I talked to the organizer and she said she’d never noticed that. She worked with us and people generously gave the money for us to do this panel, and we just started putting together a wide range of people panel who would discuss what atheism and freethought are.


This is the first time a group of atheists, skeptics, etc. have ever been at the RNC, which is typically filled with religious reporters and religious people. It’s a chance for us to not only share about our groups but for these people to see who we are, talk to us afterwards, and understand that our movement is broad, that we have good goals, that we want to bring awareness and we want to normalize the words atheist, humanist, etc. We want them to understand that we are actually doing good things, but we’re ignored in the news media.


The Religious Newswriters Conference will take place in Austin, Texas, September 26–28; for more information visit the association’s website.