The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench


Ash not: attorney told to take off ashes in the courtroom

posted by jmcgee

In Iowa last week, Ash Wednesday became an occasion for trying penitence — and for trying a judge’s patience:

The age-old question of separation of church and state played itself out in a Marshall County courtroom Wednesday.

After a lunch recess while prosecuting a trial for attempted murder, Assistant County Attorney Paul Crawford returned from lunch with ash on his forehead. He is Catholic and celebrating Ash Wednesday is something millions of people all around the world do.

“He is representing the state of Iowa,” Hawbaker said.

Hawbaker said he was not objecting for any personal or religious reasons, but feared the jury could be influenced either for or against the prosecution’s case by the display.

“I tend to agree with that, Mr. Crawford,” said Judge Michael Moon. “I tend to think it should be removed.”

The issue is one that has a great deal of uncertainty and gray area, according to Rob Boston, a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The judge would have the power to ask the prosecutor to remove the ash, but whether the prosecutor would be compelled to do so is another question,” Boston said.

There are cases where overt religious references could be seen as an attempt to sway a jury and be the basis for an appeal or mistrial, Boston said. However, he was unsure if this situation would qualify.

“There are ways religion can influence the legal process and judges need to be sensitive,” Boston added.

Crawford complied with the judge’s request.

“I understand his position and his request was made out of an abundance of caution,” Crawford said. “I can live with it.”



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hlvanburen

posted February 22, 2010 at 7:52 am


A wise decision by the judge, and a good call by the attorney to comply with the request. No doubt there will be those who disagree with it, but to them I simply ask this: if you were that attorney’s client, would you want to be tried based on the facts of the case or on the religious preference of your attorney? If you choose the latter, change the situation to one where your attorney comes back from lunch wearing a pentagram openly, and then consider your response.
Trials are to be places where the accused is judged according to the evidence and the law, not according to any preference/bias the jury may have for the religion of one of the attorneys.



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Joe

posted February 22, 2010 at 10:49 am


I can relate my own personal experience some years back. I was beginning a civil trial and about to pick a jury. I had gone to early Mass on that Ash Wednesday and had gotten ashes. When counsel entered judge’s chambers, my opponent objected to my ashes. I always had a good relationship with the court and with other counsel. I saw an ash tray on the table in front of us and suggested that opposing counsel apply his own ashes so that we both would be equal sinners! He refused, but the judge refused to instruct me to remove my ashes. I felt strongly that I am a Catholic at all times, even when I am in a court of law.



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romancrusader

posted February 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm


MARK MY WORDS! Dark times are approaching.



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Franklin Jennings

posted February 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm


hlvanburen,
That attorney’s client is the State.



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N. R.

posted February 23, 2010 at 9:29 am


Would a Jewish attorney be asked to remove his yarmulke? Would a Muslim attorney be asked to remove her headscarf? Would the judge compel a Sikh attorney to remove his turban? etc.



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Mark

posted February 23, 2010 at 11:04 am


If you look for things to get upset about, surely you will find them.
This is something obscene to get upset about. The courtroom involves issues that have nothing to do with the attorney’s religion and for them to advertise their faith is inappropriate. If you feel so strongly that you must wear the ashes the whole day, take it off from work, schedule hearings for Thursday instead, or have one of your partners do the hearing.
As mentioned, the lawyer’s client was the state. His personal beliefs have no place influencing a jury regarding the decision at hand.



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Your Name

posted February 23, 2010 at 11:09 am


As a Catholic and an attorney, I would not remove my ashes. I would be glad to wear my hair so that they aren’t obvious, but I would not remove them. I would probably try to arrange my schedule so that I went to mass after the trial rather than before or during, but if not, my obligation as a Catholic to receive the ashes and go through the day with the mark is far more important than any excuse the court can come up with.
Of course, this is moot since I don’t ever step into a courtroom with my job, but still- it’s the principal of the matter.



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GK

posted February 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm


Actually, Catholics are not obligated to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. It’s not a holy day of obligation, and the ashes are simply a sacramental, like holy water or a rosary.



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Protestant

posted February 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm


So we trust a jury to decide somebody’s guilt or innocence on a charge as serious as attempted murder, but we don’t trust them to exercise independent judgment in the face of a multicultural society without being “influenced”? Another option would be to provide an additional jury instruction.



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Maria

posted February 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm


Score another point for Obama’s Godless world. Hang on to your seats. This is nothing compared to what is about to unfold in this country and people are asleep.



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Ben

posted February 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm


Maria, I was pleasantly surprised by the tone of the conversation being had above until I reached your comment. There are genuine issues here regarding the intersection of jury influence and religious expression. What do you feel your comment added to that conversation? All I ask is that we maintain a genuine, well-reasoned conversation – not peddle hysteria for its own sake.



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