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District Justice Violates First Amendment, Clark Moeller, June 17, 1998
Evangelical Proselytizing In Public Schools, Clark Moeller, June 18, 1998


 
 
District Justice Violates First Amendment
Clark Moeller, June 17, 1998    In 1996, the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy learned that one of the County's District Justices was using his office to promote his religious beliefs. After discussion, we decided first to speak directly with the District Justice. We did this and this discussion proved fruitless. We then decided to contact the President Judge of the Bradford County Court system to ask for his help in stopping the First Amendment violations by the District Justice. The following correspondence explains what happened. Only the name of the District Justice has been changed.

June 11, 1996

Jeffery A. Smith, President Judge
Bradford County Court
Bradford County Court House
Main Street, Towanda, PA 18848

RE: Church/State Separation

Dear Judge Smith,
The purpose of this letter is to discuss an inappropriate behavior of John Doe in his role as District Justice.
    Recently we attended a civil wedding in which John Doe, in his capacity as the agent of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, had been asked to pronounce the couple 'husband and wife' after the couple had said their vows. This couple had written their own vows which were secular in content and the ceremony was conducted by a friend.
    After the couple had finished their vows, Judge Doe pronounced them husband and wife but he wrapped his pronouncement in a long prayer invoking God and Jesus Christ.
    In short, he took advantage of his civil office of District Justice to promote a religion.
    We have discussed this matter with the family of the couple so we know that Doe had been invited for the sole purpose of making the marriage legal in Pennsylvania. He had not been invited to promote his religion. He completely surprised the couple by doing so.
    The wedding was conducted in a church but that does not relieve him of his responsibility to his office and the constitution of the Commonwealth. It may be that he should not agree to marry people in churches so there would be no appearance of church/state conflict or so he does not get confused about his responsibilities; he's a District Justice, not a minister.
    Because Doe reports to you as District Justice, we thought you needed to know about this and may want to talk to him. If you are not going to talk to him, we certainly don't mind discussing this with him. However, you would have more influence helping him understand the issue. Please let us know your thoughts about this. Thanks so much.
    We are writing to you as representatives of The Alliance for Democracy of Bradford County, who discussed this issue at our last meeting. The Alliance was formed last year to begin addressing the attacks on and erosion of our democratic institutions and laws by individuals and groups. A similar group was formed in January at the state level called the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy. Their mission states: "The Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy is an alliance whose purpose is to create and sustain a community of groups and individuals who will engage in promoting democratic values including respect for a diverse society, separation of church and state, and individual rights as guaranteed in the Constitution." Clark is the state Chair. Penni Eldredge-Martin is the Chair of our local group.

Yours truly,
Clark & Jane Moeller


September 24, 1996

Jeffery A. Smith, President Judge
Bradford County Court
Bradford County Court House
Main Street, Towanda, PA 18848

RE: Our conversation relative to District Justice John Doe and Church/State
Separation

Dear Judge Smith,
Thanks for calling me back. I appreciate your time and your thoughts on the issues of our 6/27/96 letter concerning District Justice John Doe and Church/State Separation.
    It is my understanding from our conversation that:
    1. You have only administrative authority over District Judges and not judiciary supervision. I realize your efforts in response to our letter were not necessary on your part and were done to be helpful. They certainly were. Thank you.
    2. Based on the legal research you did on this issue you raised the question of whether Justice Doe' action really had been a violation of the PA Constitution concerning separation of church and state. You noted that the case against the Federal government's use of "In God we Trust" on the Nation's currency was dismissed because the phrase was judged to be merely "ceremonial deism". This, I assume, implies the phrase is void of specific religious content because just invoking the term 'God' tells us nothing about what the term means. As we both know, the term 'God' has meant so many things in so many different religious traditions that the term means nothing unless it's explained. For example, many scientists will allow that God caused the 'big bang' because they have no explanation for it but they feel He has played no role in the world since then. Born again Christians reject that narrow concept.
    So it's plausible, you suggest, that Justice Doe's praying at the wedding was merely a kind of 'ceremonial deism'.
    OK, one might argue that. But in this case it's a stretch in my opinion. Jane and I were there: Justice Doe wore his black judicial robe, he intoned his authority as an agent of the Commonwealth and invoked Christ's name as part of his prayer which the wedding video tape will verify. Furthermore, I doubt whether John Doe would appreciate his religious expression being characterized as just so much vapid ceremonialism, devoid of religious significance. In any case, if we learn he has done it again we will be talking to him again but in a more public way.
    3. In that case, you suggested the remedial action would be an injunction or a complaint to the State's judiciary review board.
    4. You have talked with Doe and it is your opinion that he will be more circumspect in the future when conducting a wedding; at least checking with a prospective couple about whether they want a strictly civil ceremony or if a Christian prayer would be welcome.
    However, we would argue that it is not up to any prospective wedding couple to decide whether or not an officer of the Commonwealth should violate his oath of office to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth. Second, if he still does not understand that prayer at the Manchester's wedding was not merely a "social faux pas", then we have reservations about his capability to be an impartial judge. Among the reasons why separation of church and state is important is the concern about getting a fair hearing in court regardless of one's religious beliefs.
    If Justice Doe is determined to invoke his own Christian religious beliefs while acting as a District Judge, how is anyone to assume he can make unbiased judgements on matters concerning non-Christians? I mean, which set of laws is Justice Doe using; those of Pennsylvania or the injunctions found in the Bible?
    At our last Alliance meeting we discussed your response. Everyone was appreciative of your effort. None of us wants to embarrass John Doe in public. We feel we have made our point and we expect, in the future, Mr. Doe will faithfully carry out his very important responsibilities upon which our entire community depends within the constraints of the Constitution which includes keeping his personal religious sentiments to himself while he acts as an officer of the Commonwealth in court or in weddings.
    Once again thanks for all the time you have taken on this issue.

Yours,
Clark Moeller


As a close to this case, as far as we know, Justice Doe did not continue using his office to promote his religious beliefs. Justice Doe recently announced his retirement.

by Clark Moeller, member Bradford County Alliance for Democracy and President of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy, June 17, 1998




Evangelical Proselytizing In Public Schools
Clark Moeller June 18, 1998 --  During the middle of December 1997, about 2,000 public school students in Bradford County, PA, where I live, attended school sponsored assemblies where evangelical proselytizing has taken place. The public Junior and/or Senior High Schools in Northeast Bradford, Athens, and Sayre, Pennsylvania, and Waverly and Tioga Central, New York, have held assemblies during class hours for the students which featured either Athletes in Action (AIA), which is part of Campus Crusade for Christ, or Mr. Bob Holmes, who advertises himself as a "one-man volleyball team". These programs were sponsored by some local churches such as the North Rome Wesleyan Church and Student Venture, "a local Christian development program."
    The official 1997 brochure of Athletes in Action states its purpose is "to challenge people to get to know God personally through a relationship with Jesus Christ." The news release for AIA states, "Athletes in Action is a Christian basketball team" (Daily Review 11/27/97). The news release advertizing Bob Holmes's program was headlined, "Evangelist, one man volleyball team."(Daily Review 12/3//97)
    These advertisements alerted members of our Bradford County Alliance For Democracy (BCAFD), who had already heard about AIA's reputation for using school sponsored assembly programs to engage in Christian evangelical proselytizing, a violation of our Constitutionally protected right of religious liberty. During assemblies, AIA has also promoted its evening program of Christian evangelical proselytizing, which is a non-school sponsored event. The local Student Venture flyer describes this evening program as, "a non-denominational outreach to bring teens to Jesus Christ," and says, "The Athletes will be giving a clear message of how Jesus Christ has changed their lives."
    There are parents of children in the public schools who do not want their children exposed to any religious evangelism in school regardless of which religious message is being preached. And they should be able to assume that public school Administrators and School Boards will respect this concern because religious proselytizing in public schools is a violation of the Pennsylvania, New York, and U.S. Constitutions.
    With this concern in mind, members of the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy (BCAFD), contacted many of the Principals or Superintendents in person or by phone about their concern. In Towanda, BCAFD member, Jeff Gonzalez, spoke with Principal Frank Hoffman and Assistant Principal Steve Gobble. A parent in Northeast Bradford spoke with Superintendent Nielson. Parents and concerned citizens spoke with Principal Signorino in Sayre and Principal Hendricks in Athens. In Sayre and Towanda, the Principals were given the advertising literature. Principal Hendricks said he was familiar with AIA and said he would stop the assembly program if any religious language was used.
    In response to BCAFD efforts and the obvious evangelical nature of the advertising literature, Towanda Principal Hoffman and Assistant Principal Gobble canceled Mr Holmes's assembly program.
    However, the assemblies went ahead as planned in Northeast, Athens, Sayre, Waverly, and Tioga Central. Members of the BCAFD or their children monitored most of these. In Northeast, Bob Holmes waited until the very end of his program to make his plug for Jesus Christ. In Athens' Rowe Jr. H.S., the AIA athletes professed that "how we find inner strength to overcome the pressures of the outside is through a strong belief in the God of the universe and a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ." In Athens H.S.. similar language was used at the end of the program and Principal Hendricks did nothing to interrupt the program and stop the evangelical talk. Furthermore, the AIA handed out its evangelical literature and met with students at the end of the assembly.
    However, as we all know, prayer is allowed in public schools and has always been allowed. Any kid can pray any time he or she wants so long as it does not interfere with the school and the prayer is not part of a school sponsored program. For examples, student prayer clubs are legal so long as these are not conducted during regularly scheduled class time, including study halls. What is prohibited are public school sponsored prayer or religious programs such as Child Evangelical Fellowship because the school is an agent of the government, has publically elected officials, and receives tax support. This prohibition prevents the government from dictating religious practices. This is why we have religious freedom.
    Our BCAFD group decided to focus on its complaint on just the Athens School District because we felt we had the most solid evidence of Athletes In Action's violations of the law and we had more parents from that School District who were concerned about the issue and willing to do something about it.
    We met with a lawyer and the feeling was that we may well have a creditable Federal civil rights case but we needed a parent with children in the school who would be willing to go to court. While the concern was there, we did not have a parent who want to get embroiled in a court case.
    And the group as a whole just wanted a recognition by the school administration that what had taken place was illegal and we did not want a repetition of it.
    A delegation from BCAFD has met with the Superintendent about the issue. He clearly would like this issue to disappear. The school lawyer recognizes the school violated the law but doesn't want to formally admit that. We, BCAFD, would like a formal resolution from the School Board agreeing not to allow a repetition of the AIA type programs.
    We are now waiting to get on the School Board agenda. (We will up date this case history as events unfold.)
by Clark Moeller, Bradford County Alliance for Democracy member and President of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy



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