A recent case involving a former police officer in Dallas who shot and killed an unarmed man in the man’s own apartment has captured national headlines – and sparked a debate over separation of church and state.
The ex-offcer, Amber Guyger, shot Botham Jean after accidentally entering his apartment. Guyger testified that she believed she was in her own apartment and thought Jean, who was sitting on his couch eating ice cream, was an intruder.
A jury found Guyger guilty of murder. During the sentencing phase, things took an unexpected turn when Jean’s brother, Brandt, announced that he had forgiven Guyger and asked Texas District Judge Tammy Kemp, who presided over the trial and sentenced Guyger to 10 years in prison, if he could hug Guyger.
Kemp allowed the hug and also stepped down from the bench to hug Guyger as well. She then left the courtroom but quickly came back with a Bible. She handed it to Guyger and said, “This is your job.” Kemp pointed to the passage John 3:16, a favorite among evangelicals, and said, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.”
Kemp told Guyger she could keep the Bible because she owned several, adding, “You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”
It was undoubtedly an emotional moment, but some observers believe Kemp went too far, pointing out that her job in the courtroom is to act in an impartial, even-handed manner and not proselytize for her faith.
Allegorical representations of Justice show the figure wearing a blindfold for a reason: Justice is supposed to be blind to all comers. If you’re accused of a crime, you’re to be judged fairly despite your race, age, gender, sex, social status or religious beliefs (or lack thereof.) That’s the ideal, anyway. It may be hard to reach every time, but we strive for it. This kind of fairness is a cornerstone of our judicial system.
By proselytizing in the courtroom, Kemp has broken that promise of equality and very likely signaled that, in the future, those who share her faith or are willing to adopt it might receive preferential treatment.
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it well, telling The Huffington Post, “By distributing a Bible and telling the defendant it is her ‘job’ to read a religious text as she’s on her way to prison, Judge Kemp has sent a message to all defendants who come before her that their religious beliefs could affect the outcomes of their cases and their sentences.”
That’s it exactly. Fairness and equal treatment are hallmarks of our system of justice. They must be present in every courtroom. Religious proselytism, by contrast, has no place there.
(Photo: Judge Kemp with Amber Guyger. Screenshot from courtroom video)