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FIRST-PERSON: One judge’s vigilance — against the Bible

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“So great is my veneration of the Bible,” President John Quincy Adams once stated, “that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country and respectful members of society.”

I can well imagine that if Adams were alive today he would be quite startled to learn that among Americans who do not share his view of Scripture are judges. Some jurists are wholly unimpressed with the usefulness of the Bible, at least when it comes to assisting jurors in meting out punishment in criminal cases.

According to various news reports, John J. Vigil, an Adams County district judge in Westminster, Colo., threw out the 1995 death sentence of convicted killer Robert Harlan stating that it was unconstitutional because jurors referenced the Bible during deliberations. Harlan was convicted of raping and murdering a 25-year-old woman and shooting another woman passer-by who tried to help, leaving her paralyzed.

It is unclear whether a Bible was actually read in the jury room. Some reports indicated that jurors quoted portions of Scripture while other accounts suggested that handwritten notes of biblical passages were utilized.

Nevertheless, Judge Vigil was adamant that it was unconstitutional for jurors to consult the Bible during deliberations.

Judge Vigil is not alone in his opinion that the Bible has no place as a reference in a court of law. Over the past 20 years a handful of jurists have rendered similar decisions. In California, the death sentence of a man convicted on four counts of murder was overturned in 2000. According to a report by the First Amendment Center, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a prosecutor’s quotation of Scripture during his closing argument was “both improper and highly prejudicial.”

The verses called into question by Judge Vigil were two from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. The jurors discussed in some shape, form or fashion Leviticus 24:20-21 that states, “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so shall it be inflicted on him. Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death.” Also mentioned in the jury room was Romans 13:1 that instructs, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

However, it was not those few verses alone that troubled Judge Vigil. Jurors were sequestered in a hotel during the trial to ensure they would not be exposed to any news coverage of the trial. It seems that court officials overseeing the sequestering failed to remove Bibles from the hotel rooms. According to a report by WorldNetDaily, Judge Vigil’s ruling implied that the fact that jurors even had access to Bibles was problematic.

For many Americans, the Bible is not only a source of spiritual solace it is also a compass for life. When it comes to a grave issue like the death penalty, a person must wrestle with a variety of issues in order to arrive at an ethical position. For some, this struggle involves a serious study of Scripture. At the end of this quest some come to support capital punishment and others resolve to oppose it. However, in each case the Bible plays a significant role in forming a conviction.

To jurists like Judge Vigil, the countless hours — if not years — of study and scriptural striving over the issue of capital punishment are viewed as unconstitutional. The judge’s ruling flirts with religious bigotry. Will the day come when citizens are disqualified from jury duty because they take their faith seriously and seek to apply Scripture to all of life?

Once upon a time, President John Quincy Adams regarded the Bible as a foundation for responsible citizenship. You have to wonder how our sixth president, who was also an accomplished lawyer, would be welcomed in today’s court. Before Judge Vigil’s bench, and jurists of his ilk, Adams would be found not only out of order but also unconstitutional.
Kelly Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press. He is pastor of Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs