Return Of Church Courts: an "Extraordinary Exchange"
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 01, 2007 at 03:49:15 PM EST
Turks it seems, from the recent massive pro-secularism demonstrations in Turkey, remember a principle many Americans seem on the verge of forgetting: the reasons for secular government, the key role secularism plays in keeping peace between factions within pluralistic democracy. I encountered the "Church Court" story in late October of last year when a friend emailed me a clipping of an editorial from New Jersey Lawyer, entitled "Faith Based Justice", which  began: "Recently, we witnessed a rather extraordinary exchange between Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz and U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.... The U.S. attorney requested -- seemingly demanded -- that the state judges, in effect, set up court in churches for the purpose of arraigning fugitives. "...
The editorial is singular ; the "church court" program has been received, to the extent it has even been noticed, enthusiastically in US media coverage so far, with nary a peep or a worry, and I seem to be one of a few along with retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz questioning the program. As "church courts" spread across the US this year, I am picking up where I left off last October, when I wrote New National Program to "temporarily transform churches into courthouses, with this startling September 25th, 2006 New Jersey Lawyer editorial that publication has kindly given me permission to reprint here, in its entirety, on Talk To Action... ""Congress Finds The Following: (1) Fugitive Safe Surrender is a program of the United States Marshal's service, in partnership with public, private, and faith based organizations, which "temporarily transforms a church into a courthouse..." ( from Senate Bill S.2570, that authorized 16 million dollars for a three year implementation of the "Fugitive Safe Surrender" program )"

[ Below: editorial from New Jersey Lawyer, published September 25, 2006 ]

Faith-based justice

    Recently, we witnessed a rather extraordinary exchange between Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz and U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.

    The U.S. attorney requested -- seemingly demanded -- that the state judges, in effect, set up court in churches for the purpose of arraigning fugitives. Such a program, called "Safe Fugitive Program," it was related, was conceived by a U.S. Marshall from Ohio. The program offered federal grants to churches, which would encourage fugitives to voluntarily come to church to turn themselves in; arraignments would then be conducted in church by judges, with the participation of law enforcement officers and public defenders. These arraignments would involve bail hearings that would lead to the arrest and incarceration of some defendants. The program, it was represented, had met with great success -- several hundred fugitives had been returned to the justice system through a Baptist church in Cleveland.

    Apparently, the chief justice had been asked earlier, in February, to allow this program to be undertaken by a Baptist church in Camden. She declined to do so. It was reported, in July, that the chief justice, refusing to endorse or authorize court proceedings to be held in church, emphasized that the program would not be consistent with principles of judicial independence and neutrality, and posed security issues as well.

    We could not agree more with the stance of the chief justice, nor disagree more with the position taken by the U.S. attorney, that would sanction judges, as well as law enforcement personnel, to use church facilities for the arraignment of criminal defendants.

    The program, which gave federal grants to participating churches, seems an extreme example of the so-called faith-based charity initiatives that are pursued by the federal government. These understandably generate a sense of unease because of their capacity, if not propensity, to encourage and support religion through federal subsidies, while only incidentally or marginally, or conveniently advancing a charitable cause. The "Safe Fugitive Program" goes further: it authorizes the church to be involved in judicial proceedings with the judiciary itself performing judicial functions in church.

    The U.S. attorney, in tones which seemed petulant and querulous, chastised the chief justice for invoking incorrect legal technicalities and demonstrating inflexibility. Legal technicalities and intransigence are not at issue.

    This program, espoused by the U.S. attorney, not only generates an unacceptable risk, if not the reality, of the judicial support of religion. It verges on an impermissible delegation of judicial responsibility by allowing the exercise of judicial authority to be undertaken through the facilities of a religious entity. Concededly, it is not easy to mark boundaries that separate religion from government. Government may acknowledge or recognize or accommodate religious interests without directly supporting or too strongly encouraging those interests. Different and more acute concerns are engendered, however, when the government itself is the actor and the charity is religious. There are not a great many examples that dramatize this kind of perplexing dilemma. We have witnessed decisions addressing the display of the Ten Commandments. The display within the courthouse is impermissible; the display outside the courthouse is tolerable. If religion may not enter the court, then surely the court may not enter religion.

    When the U.S. attorney sharply remonstrated with the chief justice for failing to direct judges to arraign criminal defendants in churches, he was not simply nudging the court to cross a line that was indistinct or blurred. It clearly called for a step that would be off-limits. Not only would such a practice seriously compromise judicial neutrality and independence, it would place the courts literally and figuratively in the religious domain.

    As noted, the request of the U.S. attorney was the second time the judiciary had been approached for its approval of this church-sponsored program. Indeed, it was reported that the U.S. attorney would likely renew his request with the successor of Chief Justice Poritz. We strongly commend and applaud the chief justice for her stand. We have noted recent laudatory commentary on her legacy. Her stand for judicial independence and neutrality, and her clear recognition of the importance of the separation of church and state, of established religion and the courts, may be added to that legacy. We fully expect that her understanding and wisdom will be appreciated and that her stand will be maintained and continued by her successor.

article reprinted with the gracious permission of New Jersey Lawyer

note: this is the first of a series I'll be doing on Talk To Action, covering the new "church courts" of the US Marshals Service's "Fugitive Safe Surrender" program




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It seems to me that such a program could be set up just as easily, or more so, in government buildings. Why the obsession with churches ?

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 01, 2007 at 05:54:31 PM EST
This appears a distortion of the medieval idea of churches as literal sanctuaries for fugitives.

by nogodsnomasters on Tue May 01, 2007 at 06:27:55 PM EST
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I agree.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 01, 2007 at 07:28:54 PM EST
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I realize that this is in its infancy, but is it very difficult to see aways down the road? I shudder to think of being dragged in front of a judge in a church--for whatever reason (and they seem to feel they can arrest anyone for anything they please nowadays). A Pagan in a Christian church--or a Muslim, or an Athiest, Buddhist or Hindu--would feel very threatened--beyond the charges involved. Would they stop at secular laws or slip slide into a biblical inquisitional court? I can't see where there would take much to go that route once the court is established in a Church.

These Bushites never cease to appall me. Keep the courts out of the Churches. Don't give them that foothold. Folks that aren't their "brand" of religion could lose more than a court case.

Q.

by Quotefiend on Wed May 02, 2007 at 05:49:44 AM EST

There seems to be an astonishing lack of regard, among reporters covering the story, for the possibility that not all Americans might perceive a Christian church as "safe" or neutral.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed May 02, 2007 at 08:06:40 AM EST
Parent
We know now that there are tens of thousands of survivors of clerical abuse out there. There is no reason to think that the molestation of children is confined to our own borders-- quite the contrary, in fact, if one considers the Roman Catholic bishops' traditional practice of shipping offending priests to different dioceses and sometimes, as has been well-documented, across international borders.
For the vast majority of Christian Americans, any church will spring to mind as a safe place, and clergy are assumed to be  trustworthy people. For those damaged by the abuse of clerical power, speaking up about their experiences is an extraordinary act of courage. I predict that few will do so when also confronting a serious legal case.  

by nogodsnomasters on Wed May 02, 2007 at 10:25:16 AM EST
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