November 2007 Church & State | Editorial

Thou Shalt Not Join Church And State

American courts operate under secular principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions and federal and state legal codes.

When a person is found guilty by a jury of his or her peers and sentenced for a crime, various factors come into play. Was this a first offense? Was the crime premeditated or committed on the spur of the moment? How serious was the offense?

One thing we don’t do is consider the penalty in light of religious codes. The Book of Exodus may advocate an “eye for an eye,” but this admonition long ago fell out of the legal tomes of most Western nations.

It is disturbing, therefore, to see some courts allowing juries to embrace extra-judicial religious codes during sentencing deliberations.

The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, recently allowed a death sentence to stand even though the jury foreman had prepared a document for his fellow jurors listing a passage from Exodus as a justification for the death penalty.

In Clayton County, Ga., meanwhile, a Baptist church has posted the Ten Commandments on the wall of the county courthouse (among other documents), deliberately placing the Decalogue where it can be seen by jurors.

“These documents have been strategically placed in the hallway to the jury assembly room where jurors are selected,” said Dean Haun, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro. “Surely, this display of our values and ethical principles will influence all future jurors.”

Therein lies the problem. Jurors are expected to reach decisions based on what U.S. and state law says –; not according to their personal theological beliefs or religious codes. The Ten Commandments and codes of behavior found in other scripture are grounded in theology. Indeed, many of the commandments mandate punishment for various offenses against religion –; offenses that have no parallel in secular law. (Americans have the right to worship a “false god.”)

Some countries anchor their laws in scripture and rely on councils of religious leaders to interpret theological writings from many centuries ago in light of modern life. Someone must decide, for example, how a holy book written more than 2,000 years ago punishes internet-based fraud.

There is a better way: Jurors should be instructed to keep their deliberations within the boundaries of the secular law that is relevant to the case at hand. Sentencing should be based on a variety of factors, but whether the defendant transgressed religious standards must not be among them.\n