Jul 06, 2012

Should judges require convicts to read the Bible and write essays about it? In a nation that separates religion and government, you’d think the answer would be a clear “No!”

But in South Carolina, Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles has done just that. According to the Rock Hill Herald, Nettles sentenced York County resident Cassandra Belle Tolley to eight years in jail and five years of probation for seriously injuring two men while driving drunk.

But the judge didn’t stop there. He also ordered Tolley to read the Old Testament book of Job and write a summary about it.

As it happens, the defendant doesn’t object to the biblical mandate. She’s a convert to Christianity who seems genuinely remorseful for the harm she caused.

The Rev. Daggett Duncan, Tolley’s pastor, said Judge Nettles’ decree was an act of compassion. In the biblical story, Job loses everything but finally prevails due his faith in God.

“I think [Nettles’] faith and his compassion led him to use the book of Job,” Duncan told the Herald. “Job made it through, and [the judge] wants her to know she can too.”

But even if the judge had the best of intentions, it raises serious constitutional issues when a court includes a religious exercise as part of a criminal penalty.

According to his biography on the South Carolina Judicial Department website, Nettles is an active member of the Lake City First Baptist Church, where he serves as a deacon, Sunday School teacher and member of the foreign missions team.

Imagine the uproar if a judge who is Muslim sentenced an American to read the Quran and write an essay about it. Even if the culprit were Muslim and consented to the penalty, many would be outraged.

Most prisons have chaplains who are prepared to assist inmates who need help with their spiritual lives. In this case, Tolley also has a pastor who has taken an interest in her situation and no doubt stands ready to assist with her faith journey. It’s quite unnecessary for a judge to intervene as well.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution said, “[I]t may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points.

“The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them,” he advised, “will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”

As usual, Madison is right on the target. Judges and other governmental officials ought to err on the side of church-state separation when questions about the relationship between religion and government arise.

Judge Nettles may have meant well, but his order sets a bad precedent that undermines critically important constitutional principles. An “entire abstinence” of government involvement in religion safeguards our liberties.