Saturday, January 31, 2015

Judicial Wisdom on the Law of God

I'm sorry, judge, but Mithras disagrees with you.
This one’s a little out of turn. I tend to like to post things in connection with the date they appeared in the paper, and this appeared on April 6, but it seemed so current that I figured why wait until April (when it might not be quite as pertinent).

It’s a little bit of judicial wisdom on the intersection of the civil law and people’s religious beliefs, the sort of thing we’re seeing right now. We’ve got the Latter Day Saints proposing a ban on discrimination against gay people with a loophole so large that anyone could get through it. If people can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodation, hiring, or housing, except when their religion tells them they should, gay people are protected from discrimination from anyone who actually wouldn’t discriminate against gay people. Protection from those who would discriminate? Not so much.

Clearly, the LDS needs to rethink this one. Yeah, I get it, they’re trying to make nice, and the Los Angeles Times reported that gay-rights leaders in Utah got to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert from the VIP seats. Heck, they even got told that they could kiss on the way over! How terribly, terribly generous of the LDS leadership. Not so generous if someone gets told that they can’t shop, work, or live somewhere because of the owner’s religious sensibilities.

The New York Times reported that in three states, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah, bills have benefited that would allow officials to opt of of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs, while in Oklahoma, South Carolina (again), and Texas, bills have been filed that would forbid government employees from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Then there’s that comment made by a judge when a witness cited God’s law when called to testify. Given the nature of this blog, the April in which the story happened wasn’t last April, or the April before that. Add on a few more Aprils. About a hundred. The Evening Statesman of Walla Walla, Washington reported on this on April 6, 1907. But even though the sentiments are coming up on 108 years, they’re still relevant.

Here’s the backstory: In 1907, a man was accused of assault and attempted rape of another man. Mrs. E. N. Thompson, woman who worked in the boarding house where the alleged assault took place was called to testify on a Saturday, but as a Seventh-Day Adventist, she felt that testifying on a Saturday would be breaking the Sabbath. This was in the context of the six-day work week, with only Sunday off, reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs were decades off, and to hell with you if your holy day wasn’t Sunday. The judge gave her twenty days for contempt of court.

Okay, in a sane world you tell the Seventh-Day Adventist that she had better be ready to testify on Monday morning. As it was, the Statesman claimed that her reluctance to testify was not based on religious scruples, but on the fear that her testimony would cost her her job. She was brought into the courtroom on April 6, 1907, refusing to testify.
Roused to indignation by the stubborn attitude of the witness Judge Brents delivered one of the most unique and brilliant extempore opinions which Walla Walla lawyers, or Walla Walla citizens have ever heard. Ignoring for a moment the unheard-of defiance of a witness to testify at all he proceeded tot he argument she advanced in support of her position.

“I don’t admit that you know the law of God,” he said. “The law of God is the highest, but who is to to say what is the law of God, you or me? Does not the Bible, which you say supports your contention, say one may help a horse out of a pit on the Sabbath day? Would you let a man go to the penitentiary rather than tell something you knew which might save him simply because it was the Sabbath?”

It is the habit of people to plead the law of God when the civil law is not to their liking. The Mormons said the law of God commanded polygamy.” [Emphasis mine.]
Mrs. Thompson interrupted to ask if all laws were not founded on the higher law; that her conscience would not let her testify.

She said the judge had a right to his opinion if he wanted it, he could hold court and do business but she also had a right to her opinion and she did not propose to testify.

“This country has a great respect for the law of God,” said the judge, “but it doesn’t allow the people to interpret what shall be the laws of God. It is the tendency of people to shield themselves under the plea that what they do is that law of God. If everybody was allowed to interpret for himself, murder, or any other crime, would be possible.” [Again, emphasis mine.]

Let me repeat those who lines that I bolded:
It is the habit of people to plead the law of God when the civil law is not to their liking.

It is the tendency of people to shield themselves under the plea that what they do is that law of God.
In 1907, Judge Brents foresaw it all. In North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, they’re claiming that the law of God overrides our laws. Of course, they’re also claiming that they’re the ones who know the law of God, disregarding that their views aren’t exactly universal.

The chambermaid in the 1907 sodomy case had other reasons to not want to testify, ones that had nothing to do with her religion. According to the Statesman, her testimony would have confirmed that the victim "was given to associating with disreputable women who lived in the house" and that "although she knew such women lived there she would lose her job as a chambermaid if she told on them." Apparently it was that sort of place and the owner found it profitable. Those who seek to deny marriage licenses or fair and equal treatment to gay people also have their reasons, which may have everything to do with their religion, but nothing to do with the “law of God.”
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