Thursday, July 5, 2012

Plead guilty and pass the Bible

We've had our share of judges in Harris County who didn't someone understand the reason the Founding Fathers wanted a separation between church and state. There are plenty of wingnuts out there who think there should be a much closer relationship between the government and their particular religion. Of course if the state were cozying up to a different religion there might be a different response.

Now he have a judge in South Carolina who felt it appropriate to require a defendant in a felony drunk driving case to read the Book of Job and write an essay about it.

Cassandra Tolley has had a rough life. She was abused as a child and set on fire. She was unable to overcome her demons and turned to alcohol. She got drunk and crashed into another car, injuring two people. She pled guilty and the judge, Michael Nettles, sentenced her to eight years in prison followed by five years probation.

Then came the reading assignment.

Ms. Tolley didn't object and the seemingly arbitrary condition was entered into the court's order.

All of the attorneys that were interviewed for the story seemed to think the condition was a stroke of genius on Judge Nettles' part.

No one questioned what business it is of the court's what books a defendant reads. No one questioned what business of the court's it is if and how a person practices religion.

If Ms. Tolley wants to read the Bible and write a book report, great. Have at it. But having that assigned as a condition of her sentence crosses over the line.

Religion has absolutely no place in the courtroom.

Of course there was no problem in this case. It wouldn't have been as big a story if someone had objected. But what about the next defendant? What book of the Bible will Judge Nettles assign next? And the more important question is what happens if a defendant opts not to undergo compulsory bible study? Had Ms. Tolley not accepted her assignment, would her sentence have been more severe?

That's the question that needs to be answered. If the court is handing out a more lenient sentence because a defendant is okay with reading the Bible, that means the court is handing out a more severe sentence to a defendant who doesn't want to participate in the judge's bible study therapy.

And that's the danger of mixing religion and the state. Judge Nettle's sentence is an endorsement by the state of Christianity. What about Muslim or Jewish defendants? Will the judge assign chapters out of the Koran? The Talmud?

The sentence is a step down a slippery slope. A slippery slope that seems so innocent. A slippery slope that most people won't think twice about. And that's why it's such a dangerous precedent.

No comments: