The Deacon's Bench

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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