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Arkansas senator settles lawsuit, will unblock atheist Twitter critics

Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) presides over a committee at the state capitol in 2018. (Kelly Kissel/AP)

Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert (R) will have to unblock his atheist constituents from his social media accounts, as part of a settlement that a national organization of atheists said it reached with the state.

American Atheists, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state, had sued Rapert in 2018, arguing that he violated its members’ freedom of speech by blocking them from expressing their viewpoints on his official Facebook and Twitter accounts. According to a copy of the settlement announced this week, Rapert is required to remove any restrictions on his social media accounts and will have to pay more than $16,000 to American Atheists for costs related to the lawsuit.

“This is a victory for freedom of speech and equality for atheists,” Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel for American Atheists, said in a statement.

Rapert, in a statement posted Wednesday to his social media pages, said he admitted no wrongdoing or fault with the settlement he signed. “The opportunity to settle this lawsuit without any admission of liability or wrongdoing saves time, money and effort for all concerned,” he said.

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American Atheists claimed in its suit that its members were blocked after criticizing Rapert’s “attacks on members of the LGBTQ community, his support of a bill to require the display of the divisive and exclusionary phrase ‘In God We Trust’ in all Arkansas public school classrooms and libraries, and his support for a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.”

“The voices of atheists and other advocates for the separation of religion and government provide valuable contributions to the public discourse,” the organization argued in the claim.

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Rapert is also the founder and president of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, which works to “restore the Judeo-Christian foundations of our government,” he told the Deseret News last year.

Members often share model legislation on issues such as abortion and religious freedom, the newspaper reported.

In his statement, Rapert welcomed the public to his Facebook pages and to interact if they are “civil.” He said he runs his own social media and moderates posts for civility “as I see fit.”

“You misbehave and break my page rules, I will block you. I have never blocked anyone for their personal viewpoint ever,” he wrote.

— Religion News Service