By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A Tallahassee trial judge ruled this week that Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to explain under oath why he styled himself “God’s protector” in a campaign video.
In fact, the governor doesn’t have to answer questions about any of his actions that suggest an alliance with far-right Christians, a key issue in an ongoing lawsuit about religious freedom and Florida abortion law.
Defendants DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody “are improper parties to this action as a matter of law,” Leon Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh wrote in his April 11 order, ending their involvement in the case after 10 months. His ruling cut off debate about whether DeSantis would have to sit for a deposition.
Marsh didn’t specify which law protects DeSantis and Moody, but he cited technical reasons to dismiss the complaint. It will be tweaked and refiled, according to attorney Barry Silver, the self-representing lead plaintiff.
Silver’s lawsuit targets Florida’s increasingly restrictive abortion laws. He contends the laws are features of a national movement to tear down the wall between Christian beliefs and democratic government – in other words, to unify church and state.
“It’s all the same effort, these are all people who speak for God and they know better. They want a theocracy, that’s their end game,” Silver, of Boca Raton, said last week.
BUDDHIST, UNITARIAN PLAINTIFFS
Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a similar observation about DeSantis’ party. “Like [Hungarian president Victor] Orbán, today’s Republicans reject the principles that underpin democracy, including the ideas of equality before the law and separation of church and state, and instead want to impose Christian rule on the American majority,” she wrote recently.
Silver, an ordained rabbi and the longtime spiritual leader of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor (Generation to Generation) in Boynton Beach, argues the new 15-week abortion ban, soon to be supplanted by a six-week ban, violates the religious freedom of all Floridians – Christians, Buddhists, Jews, humanists, etc.
Three other plaintiffs stand with Silver: a doctor who performs abortions and two ministers, one Unitarian and the other Buddhist.
Maya Malay, the West Palm Beach Buddhist minister, said she decided to support the lawsuit because passage of the 15-week ban, like the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, was “far too rash a decision. It wasn’t thought through thoroughly and it’s not rooted in loving kindness.”
“One of the mottos that we’re to embrace is that everyone’s needs become as important as our own,” she said. “Something may be considered immoral or even sinful in one tradition where it’s not in another. We all need to be able to decide for ourselves.”
SILVER’S SUIT IS STALLED
Silver says that while only fringe extremists want to end abortion entirely, the Florida bans threaten to criminalize religion-based health care choices for everyone.
He makes that claim in docket filings but has not yet been granted a hearing to air it in open court. Silver sued the state in June 2022, just after the ACLU launched a splashy challenge to the 15-week ban on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.
The Planned Parenthood lawsuit, based on a right-to-privacy theory much like the one the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped when it reversed Roe last year, is pending in the Florida Supreme Court. Meanwhile Silver’s case is stuck two rungs down in Leon Circuit Court.
Legal experts say the Planned Parenthood case is a non-starter; they expect the ultra-conservative court to approve not only the 15-week ban, but the six-week ban presently zipping through the Legislature that the court will review later.
“I don’t think there’s any chance that the Florida Supreme Court will strike down anything the Florida Legislature comes up with because they’re completely simpatico,” Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, has said.
DESANTIS’S ABORTION BAN RALLY
DeSantis raised concerns among some Floridians, and energized others, when he recited radical Christian talking points at Kissimmee’s Nacion de Fe church before signing the 15-week abortion ban on April 14, 2022.
The governor headlined a “protect life” rally at the apostolic church. His audience erupted in applause when DeSantis said the new law “represents the most significant protections for life that have been enacted in a generation.”
Without offering any evidence, DeSantis asserted members of “the extreme left” favor abortion up to a few days before full-term delivery. He called this “infanticide.”
The governor also decried “the terrible scandal in Washington, D.C,” where he said the discarded remains of five premature infants had been found. “They are treating that just like we would treat the trash from our lunch,” DeSantis said.
[The fetal remains were recovered during a raid of an anti-abortion activist’s home, D.C. police told the Guardian newspaper. The story appeared on the Guardian’s website two weeks before the Kissimmee church rally.]
‘SO GOD MADE A FIGHTER’
Silver’s lawsuit references a video that Casey DeSantis tweeted out during her husband’s reelection campaign. What came to be called “the God ad” briefly drew national attention around the time of the governor’s decisive November victory.
The ad invokes God 10 times in 96 seconds, Axios reported. While screenshots show DeSantis in action, a deep voice proclaims, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.”
What sounds like parody had a serious political motivation, The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote. “The ‘God’ ad signals that any presidential bid by DeSantis, who is clearly plotting one, will aggressively court Christian nationalists and, in the process, empower them.”
Silver argued that based on the ad, DeSantis must answer some pertinent questions:
“If Defendant DeSantis believes that God sent him to be his protector on Earth, the Plaintiffs have the right to depose him to inquire as to a) Who are the enemies of God that DeSantis is fighting against to protect God; b) How DeSantis learned that he is God’s protector and the evidence he relies upon to support this claim; c) What rules and/or laws God has ordained that DeSantis is enacting in his role as God’s protector and whether HB 5 [the 15-week abortion ban] is one of them; d) The God of which religion chose DeSantis to be His protector.”
Judge Marsh’s April 11 ruling guarantees that DeSantis won’t have to say anything in court.
JUDGE DISMISSES LAWSUIT
Marsh, a Tallahassee native and graduate of the University of Florida law school, served in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, like DeSantis, but for 20 years. He was bureau chief of corrections litigation in the Florida Attorney General’s office in 2018 when Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the Leon Circuit Court bench.
Also on April 11, Marsh granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but gave Silver permission to fix and refile his complaint.
In an interview, Silver took issue with some statements in the state’s motion. He gave as an example a statement that his contention the 15-week abortion ban “establishes a Christian ideology… is nothing more than a speculative expression [of Silver’s] theological animosity and personal prejudices towards [other] religions … and therefore should be discouraged by this Court entirely.”
In response, Silver said in April alone, he was scheduled to speak at Easter Sunrise and Unitarian services and a Ramadan gathering in a local mosque.
“This shows animosity towards other religions?” Silver said. “Why would they ask someone who has theological animosity and personal prejudices towards religions other than their own to lead these other gatherings?”