Ag Gag Laws, Lent, and Journeying with Jesus

cowabuse.banner.AP.jpg-thumb-570x347-116911by Sarah Withrow King

Update: August 3, 2015

THRILLED to report that this law has been struck down as unconstitutional. The judge rightfully pointed out that, "The remedy for misleading speech, or speech we do not like, is more speech, not enforced silence. The Court finds that [the Ag-Gag law] violates the First Amendment."

Read more.


Less than a week before Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season, Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, a member of the Roman Catholic church, signed a controversial "Ag Gag" bill into law, making Idaho the seventh state in the US to penalize individuals who use undercover footage to expose abuse on factory farms and in slaughterhouses.

As a native of Idaho and a lifelong Jesus follower, I'm embarrassed and disappointed that my home state and a fellow Christian would choose to imprison and fine advocates attempting to curb abuse of God's creatures. That Otter signed the bill into law just days before Christians around the world entered the Lenten journey is bitterly ironic.

Through the pain of Lent, we begin to prepare for the restorative, transformative Easter morning. It is a time of shadow and struggle undergirded by eschatological hope. It is a special time of intention, in which we move with Jesus towards the suffering other, to the hill on which he was hung, and ultimately to the reconciliation promised by the empty tomb. In Romans, Paul reminds us that the whole creation groans for this reconciliation. In fact, the whole of the scriptures are woven through with admonitions to care for God's creation, praise for the miracles of God evidenced through God's creative work, and clear indications that though humans may be specially privileged with the imago Dei, all of God's creation sings in praise to their almighty and loving Maker.

Though these creatures will one day bow and confess at the foot of the throne, countless undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses have revealed systematic, horrific abuse of the nonhuman animals we breed, raise, and kill for food. Mercy for Animals, PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, and Compassion over Killing are just a few of the groups that have documented animals being kicked, bludgeoned, dragged, shocked, mutilated, thrown, and even sexually assaulted by farm and slaughterhouse workers.

It was the Mercy for Animals investigation of a Bettencourt Dairy location in Idaho that led to the introduction and passage of that state's Ag Gag bill. The video footage of Bettencourt revealed workers viciously beating and shocking cows, violently twisting their tails in order to deliberately cause pain, using a chain attached to a tractor to drag a lame cow by her neck, and the sexual abuse of animals on the farm.

Yet despite the clear evidence of wrongdoing, Otter wrote that he has "confidence in [Idaho farmers'] desire to responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends. No animals rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well-treated and productive." Decades of undercover investigations on farms big and small from coast to coast paint a very different picture of the real priorities of agri-business: profit at any cost.

Last week, ashes in the sign of the cross were placed on my forehead, to remind me that I am made from dust, and to dust I shall return. In the short time I am on earth, I am charged to journey in the dust of Jesus' footsteps.

One of the very astonishing facts of Jesus is that he calls his followers over and over and over again to embrace those who are "othered." In 1st-century Palestine, he stood with widows, orphans, children, tax collectors, lepers, and Canaanites. Jesus' love stretches from the gates of heaven to the depths of hell in order to retrieve and love the lost, the lonely, the abandoned, the forgotten, the unseen. I like to imagine that when the stone was rolled away from the tomb, after the women had come and gone, perhaps a few lambs, chickens, cows, pigs, and sparrows grazed on that holy ground.

The "ag gag" fight may soon make an appearance in your state. There is legislation currently pending in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Indiana. Eleven other states defeated similar legislation in 2013. In six states, including Iowa, it is a crime to be hired at a farm under false pretenses, thanks in large part to this investigation, which prompted the not-exactly-super-animal-or-people-friendly McDonald's to drop a major egg supplier because of the egregious cruelty and filth the investigator exposed. If you get a chance to weigh in on the ag gag debate in your state, please remind your lawmakers that Jesus journeys with those who suffer, as he admonishes us to love "the least of these."

Sarah Withrow King is deputy director of the Sider Center and an MTS student at Eastern University's Palmer Seminary. She lives in Philadelphia and believes that peace begins on our plates. Read her recent article "Step Over a Homeless Man to Feed a Dog…and other things I've never had to do as an animal advocate."

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3 Responses

  1. Gloria says:

    It is greatly disturbing that this article does not point out that the bills were introduced as a means of getting the correct information in an investigation. While it points out that Mercy for Animals produced a video, it does not say that the footage was edited before being provided to investigators, and that while the abuse was going on, periods of time went by before it was reported. The bills the article denigrates help farmers and the public at large in that the agencies you mention must turn over the tapes or any recordings within a short amount of time, unedited to the appropriate investigative agencies – and that's if they are able to do so at all because of the employment fraud going on to get the footage.

    • swking says:

      I think it's important to clarify that, in this context, an "edited" video is not a video that is altered. Edited investigation videos simply pull specific examples of cruelty or abuse into one consolidated video. Yes, nonprofit organizations methodically build cases in order to demonstrate clear patterns of abuse. And even then, it is rare that law enforcement will actually prosecute individuals or corporations appropriately. Despite investigation after investigation after investigation showing horrific, systemic abuse in factory farms and slaughterhouses, fewer than a dozen people in the American meat industry have ever been convicted of animal abuse. Ag gag laws will not further animal welfare and will only serve to perpetuate a system of gross cruelty, a system which flies in the face of God's command to show mercy and compassion to the "other."

  2. swking says:

    Here's a more in-depth piece on Ag Gag laws. Definitely worth a read:

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