Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another Establishment Issue...

There have been many tricky court cases involving the establishment clause in our nation’s history. Recently in October of this year, a new situation has been brought to light. Records have shown that in the city of Cincinnati, there has been a 51 percent increase in homicides from 2012 to 2013. This is disturbing news for many and as a result, community members will participate in multiple prayer walks involving fourteen different communities in the area. The prayer walks themselves are not the issue at hand, but the fact that the Cincinnati Police Department issued a statement, along with several pastors in the community, inviting all citizens to participate in the prayer walks. In response to this invitation by the Police Department, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter in which they openly criticize the police department for their support of the initiative. The FFRF used many strong and critical statements in their letter such as the phrase, “Public officials should get off their knees and get to work.”

The issue, which the FFRF states, is the actions of the CPD conflicting with the first amendment and the rights of the citizens. The first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion and the FFRF holds the view that the establishment of religion is indeed occurring here. In the FFRF’s written letter, Andrew L. Seidel states, “It is a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.” The statement comes from the Supreme Court’s commonly held stance that there must be neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion. According to the FFRF, the CPD’s support of these prayer walks is not only coercive, but offends and excludes citizens who do not believe prayer to be the proper response to this situation. The letter asks that the police department responds to the letter with the changes they are enacting to remedy these constitutional violations.

I believe the FFRF makes valid points and seems persuasive in regards to its interpretation of the first amendment. It correctly cited the Supreme Court’s decision in the Epperson v Arkansas case in which a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in a public school was declared unconstitutional. In the majority opinion the court mentioned the fact that the government must remain neutral in regards to religion. Clearly in the case at hand, the government represented by the CPD, has declared its support of a religious cause by involving itself in the invitation. One might even cite the Lemon test, that has been commonly used in establishment cases, stating that this clearly violates the second part of the test forbidding a promotion of religion over non-religion. The FFRF also incorporates alarming statistics regarding religious areas and non-religious areas. Among the statistics, the FFRF states that the least religious areas of the world have the lowest reported homicide and violence rates. Therefore, people should see this declaration of prayer in order to alleviate violence as a ridiculous and unsupported notion. The FFRF seems convincing, along with the majority of establishment cases that have be ruled in concordance with its opinion, however I am not persuaded.

I see this issue as an opportunity to return the original intentions of the founders of this nation. I’m persuaded by the fact that, despite the very Christian undertones written into the constitution, the fathers were concerned with religious freedom for all. I read the first amendment as an invitation to people of all religious convictions and therefore as a constitutionally proscribed positive relationship between the government and religion.  Justice Reed makes a compelling argument while dissenting in McCollum v Board of Education. The case concerns an Illinois law allowing religious groups to come into the public school to teach religion for a half hour during the school day. The court ruled this unconstitutional even though students were not coerced into attending these religious classes. Justice Reed states, “The prohibition of enactments respecting the establishment of religion do not bar every friendly gesture between church and state.” In this case, the CPD is merely a “connector” allowing multiple like-minded groups the ability to come together. It is important to note that the CPD, in the two walks that have been held thus far, have not participated as uniformed police offers in the walks. This shows the CPD’s commitment to its governmental separation from religious support. In addition, in more recent cases involving the first amendment the Supreme Court has chosen to focus on the idea expressed in the first part of the Lemon Test, that a secular purpose must be present. Clearly the focus of the CPD’ invitation is the prevention or curtailment of crime. The CPD’s hope is that these prayer walks may bring the community together, encourage peace, and discourage violence. Furthermore, if we must judge sincerity, we may consider the fact that members of the CPD have not even participated in the prayer walks as governmental officers.

While I do think the FFRF makes valid points, and I think that the Supreme Court would indeed side with the FFRF here, that decision seems wrong to me. I agree with Justice Rehnquist in his opinion that the wall of separation must be put aside. We must destroy the hostility that exists between the government and religion. Were the FFRF to win this case before the Supreme Court I think those religious individuals who live in America should be concerned for their religious freedom. What are your opinions?

Divorce? Its complicated!

In the Jewish community, a women does not have the right to divorce their husbands, in order for a divorce to be final, the husband must give permission, called a get. If a husband refuses to give a get, the marriage is still in full effect and the wife becomes an “agunah”—a chained women. A husband must give a get at his own free will, but there have been Jewish law tribunals that encourage these obstinate husbands to give gets. A common decision would be a tribunal who will ban the husband from his synagogue until he does grant and give a get. Under civil law, the wife does have the option and right to get divorced and remarried, but many women refuse to do so because it would undermine them and their children and most likely would become outcasts in their communities.

Earlier this month, two New JerseyRabbis allegedly planned the kidnapping and torturing of reluctant husbands who had refused to grant their wives a legitimate Jewish divorce. The purpose for the Rabbi’s actions was to force these men to consent to their wives’ request for divorce under Jewish law. These two rabbis charged $10,000 for a tribunal ruling that would allow the use of violence against the men and $50,000 to hire people to kidnap and torture the men. These two rabbis were caught due to a federal sting operation. An undercover female FBI agent had reached out to Rabbi Epstein and expressed that she wanted a divorce and had described her husband as a businessman in South America, who had refused to give her a get. Rabbi Epstein urged her to have her husband travel to New Jersey; subsequently, Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark organized their own rabbinical court to issue a religious order that would authorize the use of violence to obtain a forced get. Eight of Rabbi Epstein’s associates met at a New Jersey warehouse where they had finalized the kidnapping plan and the FBI agents moved in to arrest the group. 

This makes me question whether it is Jewish tradition to conduct this kind of act to obtain a divorce. After some online research, I came across an article in The Jewish DailyForward where it explains what possible resolutions have emerged in rabbinical courts that could be used to obtain a get. Shockingly, a rabbinical court can in fact authorize the use of violent force against a husband. It is unimaginable that a husband would cruelly leave his wife trapped in a nonfunctional marriage and therefore it is believed that the use of force could serve as a medium to free the husband’s inner desire to do the right thing and convince him to grant his wife a get. The use of violence and forced coercion could protect some of the community’s vulnerable members, such as these wives. However many believe that these acts of violence and torture not only violates United States law but also Jewish Law. Any rabbinical court decree that is secured with acts of bribery would be considered invalid; violence visited on a husband pursuant to such a tainted decree would only induce him to grant an invalid divorce. Ultimately, the use of violence involves the extortion of money from people it was meant to protect, and also leads to illegal brutality and attracts questions of religion validity. Do you think this is enough religious evidence to justify the use of violent torture to grant a divorce? Is there any compelling state interest to intervene in this resolution?

This sparked my curiosity even further and I looked into other possible resolutions that have been used in the Jewish community. This particular incentive embraces the use of a contract opposed to coercion. The Beth Din of America, which is one of America’s most prominent rabbinical court took the initiative and drafted a prenuptial agreement that could be used within the Jewish community. This prenuptial agreement would require the husband to provide his wife with a daily support payment of $150 for each day the two no longer live together. Some believe that this agreement is a successful alternative to granting gets because it navigates a variety of legal complexities. The daily payment simply continues the husband’s obligation to support his wife and therefore cannot be seen as financial coercion. The prenuptial agreement does not require the husband to grant a religious divorce but only to make payments if he fails to do so, thereby enabling courts in the United States to enforce the agreement without violating constitutional prohibitions.

In Connecticut, this past January the court enforced this “Jewish prenup” above constitutional objections, noting that the terms of the agreement did not undermine the separation of church and state. In Light v. Light, Rachel Light sued in Connecticut Supreme Court saying that the couple had separated years earlier but that Eban Light had refused to grant her a get. Rachel Light asked the court to enforce the provision in the prenup ordering her husband to pay her a sum for each day he refused to grant the get. Eban Light argued that the prenup is a religious matter and therefore is unconstitutional for a secular court to enforce the contract. Judge Gould found that enforcing the prenup was no different from enforcing a secular contract and cited Odatalla v. Odatalla where a New Jersey court enforced an Islamic mahr agreement that had been signed in Iran. And in Avitzur v. Avitzur, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that it is constitutional for a secular court to enforce a ketubah, or marriage contract, to prevent an agunot. Judge Gould treated this Orthodox prenup in the same routine we would have treated any other secular prenuptial contract. 

In this case I would have to agree with Eban Light that this is a religious contract and therefore should not be interfered by a secular court. By the court already deciding on this case, it creates an entanglement because a court is developing and establishing a ruling based on a religious matter. Since the court ruled that Eban Light must pay his wife until he grants the get, the court is validating this religious prenuptial agreement that was created by a religious institution—Beth Din of America, therefore creating a preference to address religious matters not maintaining a separation of church and state and this why I strongly believe that rabbinical courts should address the enforcement of these prenuptial agreements not "secular" state courts.Would you say the same?

Do you believe that the use of violent force is justified as a traditional religious practice used in obtaining a get and therefore the state/federal government should not interfere and allow such actions to occur? In your opinion, is it constitutional for a state court to enforce the "Jewish Prenup"? Is there any compelling state interest to intervene with both these resolutions?   

Getting Down to the Meat of the Problem

           JBS is a food processing company located in various areas of the United States. One of its places of operation is in Grand Island, Nebraska. In past years, there has been some contention between the company and its Somali Muslim employees. The Muslim employees believe they should be granted exemptions during the work day to practice their religion, as granted by their rights in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but JBS believes this burden on their religion is not as great as the burden the exemptions would have on the company.

            In 2007, about 80 to 100 of the Muslim employees protested working at JBS because the company had denied the Muslim employees’ request to use their “informal breaks”, such as bathroom breaks, to pray. Instead, JBS expected them to pray during scheduled breaks. In addition, in 2008, JBS refused to move the scheduled meal break to a time that corresponded with the sunset prayer time in order to accommodate for the observance of Ramadan.

            This issue was brought to the court by the EEOC, and the decision was made on October 11, 2013. The court decided in favor of JBS, denying the Muslim employees of the exemptions. Judge Camp had to decide whether the accommodation would generate a larger cost for the employer and other non-Muslim employees, or if it would generate a larger religious burden for the Muslim employees. After reviewing the case, Judge Camp decided that the use of “informal breaks” for prayer and the change in meal time would both result in a greater “undue hardship” for JBS than for the Muslim employees. With respect to prayer during informal breaks, if operation of the production lines were not stopped entirely during the prayer breaks, the remaining workers would have the pressure of working faster and harder, which would be hazardous for them. If the production were slowed down during these prayer breaks, the meat would be contaminated after being exposed to the air for a longer span of time. With respect to the change in meal time, JBS argues that a 30-minute break for all employees would provide a situation where the cattle would remain on the “kill floor” for more than 45 minutes, meaning a decrease in the meat’s value, and ultimately a financial loss for JBS.

            The question here is whether this case was decided correctly. Should the Muslim employees have been provided the accommodation for their religious practices during work time? Everyone is entitled to the free exercise of his or her religion, as granted by the First Amendment and the Muslim employees are clearly denied the ability to exercise their religious practices in accordance with their beliefs. Is the “undue hardship” incurred by JBS a great enough concern compared to the burden imposed on the Muslim employees?

            This issue is similar to the matter of contention seen in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), with regards to hindrances on free exercise of one’s religion. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that Goldman would not be allowed the exemption to wear his yarmulke while on duty in the hospital for the Air Force. The Court argued that there was a compelling state interest for uniformity among the members of the Air Force. They believed the burden imposed on this mission as a result of Goldman wearing the yarmulke was greater than the burden imposed on Goldman’s right to free exercise of religion. Since this court ruling, though, the decision has been altered, in which members of the Air Force are now allowed to wear yarmulkes. In light of this understanding, was the decision in EEOC v. JBS USA the correct one, or is the religious burden great enough to garner an accommodation?

            Though both Goldman v. Weinberger (1986) and the present case appertain to the issue of free exercise of religion while on the job, I believe there is a difference in how they should be decided. While Goldman should have been allowed the exemption to wear his yarmulke, the Muslim employees still should not be granted the accommodation. Knowing that religious discrimination is a significant issue concerning constitutional rights, the employers at JBS needed sufficient reason and evidence to deny the Muslims’ ability to participate in their religious practices while at work. In that respect, JBS had adequate grounds to impose the religious burden on the Muslim employees. The accommodations would not only be detrimental to the success of the company as a whole, but would also burden the non-Muslim employees that would have to make up for the work missed while the Muslim employees left for prayer. While I do see that the Muslims feel this decision denies them of their constitutional rights, the accommodations for the Muslim employees would have too large a harmful, though unintended, effect on the company and employees that ultimately outweighs the Muslim employees’ rights to practice their religion.

When Confessions are Confidential

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of the Catholic Church where one anonymously confesses his or her sins to a priest. The confidentiality of these confessions are paramount, and failure of the priest to uphold the confidentiality would result in excommunication of the priest. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, some United States laws have provisions that prevent the government from requiring information from confessions. In thinking about issues of religious establishment, I assure you that concerns of a slippery slope are not necessary, because as you will soon see, we have already slid to the very bottom of the slope.

In 2000, a family with a minor daughter moved from Baton Rouge to Clinton, in Feliciana Parish, where they began attending “Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church”.  The family soon became well acquainted with a Parishioner named George Charlet Jr., who the daughter viewed as second grandfather from 8 years old through her adolescence. Eventually, Charlet allegedly kissed and fondled their daughter.

Confused, the daughter then decided to seek spiritual guidance through the Sacrament of Reconciliation on three separate occasions. After she relayed to the priest the abuse she suffered at the hands of Charlet, the priest merely responded that the daughter needed to handle the situation herself, or else “too many people would be hurt”. The daughter eventually confessed to her parents, after which they ordered Charlet to cease contact with their daughter. The following Sunday, however, the parents witnessed Charlet “approach their daughter after church and hug her openly against her will”. They then filed a formal complaint against Charlet at the sheriff’s office. On February 9th 2009, during the investigation, Charlet died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack while in recovery following a knee replacement surgery.

On July 6, 2009, the parents filed a petition for damages suffered by them and their daughter, naming the deceased George J. Charlet, Jr., Charlet Funeral Home, Inc., where Charlet was the president; the priest, whom they alleged was a mandatory reporter who failed to report the abuse; and the church, alleging liability for the priest’s misconduct. In February 2013, the priest and the church filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence regarding the confessions, including testimony by the child herself.

The defendants argues that the damages that child suggested were due to Charlet, not the priest, and that the priest attained knowledge of the abuse through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, meaning that the communication was confidential. La. Children Code art. 603(15)(c) provides that a priest is not required to report knowledge gained from “confidential communications.” The article states “communication is confidential when relayed to a clergyman when it is made in private and not intended for further disclosure”. The defendants also argue that had the priest violated the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he would be subject to excommunication. They therefore argued that if the law were to require them to provide information from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it would impair their freedom to exercise their religion.

The trial court denied the defense’s motion, claiming that the priest could have acquired certain knowledge regarding the abuse outside of the confessional, and that such knowledge should be permissible. In addition, the court claimed that according to the Code of Evidence Art. 511, the privilege to confidentiality belongs to the communicant, the daughter, who in this case waived the privilege. Therefore, the court found that the testimony of the daughter was relevant, and she was entitled to waive the privilege. The Court of Appeals unfortunately reversed the trial court’s decision, claiming that the priest was not a mandatory reporter as the information was acquired during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In addition, the Court of Appeals granted “No Cause of Action” and dismissed the plaintiff’s suit.

The Court of Appeals’ questionable handling of this case is only a small part of the problem. The larger problem is the severe establishment of religion found within the Children’s Code. The provisions fail two of the criteria of the Lemon test, which is useful in this particular instance for demonstrating establishment. First, there is no secular purpose of allowing priests to withhold information important for bringing child abusers to justice. In addition, it creates excessive entanglement, as it presents an image of the government protecting criminals associated with religious institutions. While the provision’s primary effect isn’t one that advances or hinders religion, it certainly favors religion over non-religion, as it provides religious ministers with the power to withhold information that individuals holding secular jobs, such as physicians or psychologists, do not have. The establishment clause says that neither state nor federal governments can “ pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” Therefore, the provisions in the Children’s Code are clear violations of the establishment clause.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that the provisions for religious ministers in the Children’s Code are not an establishment of religion. In Sherbet v. Verner (1963), Justice Brennan said that infringing on freedom of religion is justifiable if there is a compelling state interest to do so, and there have been cases where the Supreme Court has decided that infringements upon free exercise were justified by a compelling state interest. For example, in Goldman v Weinberger (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that the compelling state interest of creating a strong military was enough to warrant violating Goldman’s free exercise of religion by not allowing him to wear his yarmulke while on duty at an Air Force base. Therefore even if the provisions were not establishments and even if removing the provisions would hamper the free exercise of religion, there is a compelling state interest to stop child abuse. This compelling state interest is enough to warrant the restriction of religious freedom that removing these provisions would cause.

This situation clearly demonstrates how establishments of religion can become problematic. By providing the Catholic Church with a provision that allows their priests to withhold confidential information from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in order to protect their freedom of religion, we have slipped so far down the slippery slope the point where the government protected the Catholic Church from taking accountability for its actions, and prevented an abused child from finding justice.  In situations like this there is a compelling state interest to restrict religious freedom, as the safety of a child should take precedence over the Catholic Church.

Monday, October 21, 2013

He's Walking

A Sikh college student named Harsimran Singh in California was denied access to an Amtrak bus due to wearing his kirpan, or religious sword, that Sikhs wear as a symbol to protect the weak and promote justice. The Sikh faith requires the “Five Ks” which include Kesh, Kangha, Kara, Kachera, and Kirpan, are five articles worn for the Sikh to show his or her faith. Kesh is uncut hair, which is kept wrapped in a turban. A Kangha is a small wooden comb that is used twice a day to comb clean the hair of tangles. A Kara is an iron bangle that symbolizes life as never ending and a symbol connecting the Sikh to the community by the bangle being a link in the Sikh change. A Kachera is a piece of clothing that is similar to a pair of boxers, or shorts, and symbolizes self-respect and control over lust. Finally, the Kirpan is a short dagger that is supposed to be kept on the person at all times and is not allowed to be used unless in self-defense of one’s self or another.

The Kirpan being held by Harsimran was over his shirt but under his jacket. The bus driver noticed it and told Harsimran that he would need to remove it and put it in his bag, which would have to be put in the luggage compartment in order to ride the bus. The bus driver then called the police, who told Harsimran the same thing causing Harsimran to not ride the bus due to refusing to compromise his religious beliefs. Harsimran tried to show the police the Kesh while trying to explain what it was and was told to keep his hands away from the “weapon.” Harsimran claimed he was very confused by what was happening not because of what was being said but because he had ridden the same bus, along with Amtrak trains, before with no problems. The company claimed that the driver is responsible for the safety of all its passengers and therefore made the correct decision to not allow the “weapon” to be on person while Harsimran was riding.

I do not agree with the driver’s decision, especially if Harsimran explained to him what the Kesh was and the religious importance and rules regarding it. I thought it was extremely insensitive for the driver to disregard what Harsimran said and call the police. I also found the police response unfair due to their lack of listening to Harsimran’s explanation of religious meaning behind the Kesh. On top of the insensitivity shown in this case, it is hard to believe that the bus driver had not heard about the Sikh faith when there have been several attacks on Sikh’s due to the turbans they wear and people being ignorant and mistaking them not only for Muslims but accusing them of being terrorists. I cannot believe that Amtrak would be able to do anything but inform their drivers to be aware that a Sikh passenger may be carrying a Kesh and that this should be permitted due to religious reasons not only behind the Kesh but also how it is handled.

What do you think about how he was treated by both the driver and the police?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Ban on the Bible Oath

"Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d?" 
Anyone testifying in a court of law in the United States hears this phrase, or a very similar variation, and agrees to the statement. This is customary in many judiciary systems, as it is important to affirm the validity of the statements which one makes in a court of law. The controversy comes, however, when attempting to define the proper oath, and what to swear on. Britain is currently debating the oath on the Bible before testifying in court. This could set an important precedent for many other countries in the global system, including the United States where such an issue is already extremely controversial.

Recently, a Bristol Magistrate, Ian Abrahams, proposed the radical notion of doing away with all religiously affiliated oaths in court. Instead of swearing on any religious book, witnesses and defendants would take a secular pledge that would allow them to better understand the consequences of their testimony. It would also apply to everyone more equitably. The new oath would read something to this effect: "I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offense for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison". Groups such as the National Secular Society embrace the change, but others such as the Revd. Arun Arora of the Church of England disagree, believing the change to be political correctness taken too far. While the Ministry of Justice declares that it is not planning on changing the oath anytime soon, the matter is still a contentious issue within current society.

Many previous posts have discussed such intertwining of state and religion, with issues like "in G-d we Trust" on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance, and as our national motto. This time, the focus is on the Bible being used for oaths such as before testimony in court and even being sworn into the Presidency. Should we be using religious texts for these events when we've been told our Constitution intends for a wall of separation between the church and the state? To be clear, in US courts you have not had to swear on the Bible since the 60s - the issue is whether to ban taking oaths on any religious books whatsoever.

As we grow ever more concerned about religious diversity we begin to see common practices that may have been rooted in religious traditions as establishment of that original religion - the historical/traditional argument. Yes, the United States is overwhelmingly a Christian nation and Presidents have been swearing on the Bible since George Washington himself, but as a modern country we recognize that there are many people of very differing religious faiths as well as those who choose not to worship at all. Not only was the Constitution written to protect minorities, it explicitly prevents an establishment of religion by the state. In the world we live in, we can no longer excuse the practices we engage in to religious tradition or majority.

Some would even argue that people swearing on the Bible could be degrading to Christianity. The practice of taking an oath with the Bible was instituted when most, if not all people, were G-d fearing. This meant that they understood the consequences of the oath they were taking, and knew that if they lied, they were to be judged by their G-d. Today, however, many people do not think twice about the oath they're taking and its relation to G-d's judgement. Because of this, the new proposed oath suggests mentioning that the swearer will be punished with prison for lying to the court. This change would make the oath more realistic, and might convince people to think twice before committing perjury.  

And this applies to other religious texts as well. Let's discuss the prospect of swearing on any holy book. Today, people are allowed to take an oath on their preferred religious scripture, but where do we draw the line? As with all church/state discussions, we come to the dreaded 'slippery slope'. Many people argue that the courts cannot judge the sincerity of a religion, so how does the court decide which books are acceptable to swear upon. What if you belong to the Church of Deathly Hallows? Besides, allowing everyone to use their own religious text is great, until it leads to prejudice and discrimination. There is no way to dissuade someone's biases, and if that juror sees the defendant taking an oath on the Qur'an he may be immediately prejudiced. 

Additionally, it may be argued that getting rid of religious texts in oath taking situations would be considered favoring atheism, but preferenciating non-religion over religion might not be such a bad idea in this case. 

Overall, I believe that we should change the oath, as well as remove religious texts from our courts.

How do you feel? Are you worried about people not truly understanding the consequences of lying in court? Should there be a high and impenetrable wall of separation here, or is banning religious books taking it too far? If so, what regulations would be made to decide which books are acceptable? 

Former Orthodox Jewish Counselor Forced to Plead Guilty

            On Thursday, October 17th, Yosef Kolko, a former Orthodox Jewish counselor at a camp in Lakewood was given a 15-year prison sentence for child molestation. Before this decision was handed down, the 16-year old victim and his family were ostracized by Lakewood’s Orthodox community for violating the religious tradition of having rabbis handle these types of situations, when instead they decided to bring the child’s claims to secular authorities.

            Kolko initially pleaded guilty on May 13th during his trial to “aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, and endangering the welfare of a child.” But at this most recent hearing Alan Zegas, Kolko’s attorney, argued that multiple members of the Orthodox community coerced Kolko into pleading guilty because they didn’t want the bad publicity. Because of this “constant pressure,” Zegas claimed that Kolko should be allowed to withdraw his plea.

            Judge Hodgson ruled on this case and rejected Zegas’ argument claiming that he didn’t find any coercion. He did acknowledge that there may have been some “gentle persuasion by friends.” But ultimately, he claimed that Kolko was out to “game the system” when he pleaded guilty. This was after six witnesses testified that there was an effort by many members of the community to convince him to plead guilty. One coworker at the school Kolko also teaches at testified that a member of the community offered Kolko $100,000 and a job once he got out of jail if he pleaded guilty. Another witness also testified that five men came to Kolko’s home around 1:30 AM on the morning he ultimately did plead guilty in an effort to make him do so. Additionally, a therapist from Lakewood spoke with Kolko and explained to him what prison would be like – how much bigger, tougher men would most likely attack him – and advised him to “play ball.” It seems like Kolko did maintain his innocence for a period of time after hearing this.

            But on the other hand, a therapist from Lakewood spoke with Kolko and explained to him what prison would be like – how much bigger men would most likely attack him – and advised him to “play ball” and plead innocent. This same therapist also testified that he saw Kolko’s defense mechanism wearing down and explained that Kolko was “more receptive to the cost-benefit analysis we were presenting.” Additionally, there were other factors playing against Kolko’s apparent coercion by the Orthodox community. Kolko’s previous attorney was also a witness at the trial and testified that there was no coercion and that Kolko never indicated to him that he was being/feeling pressured by the community. A final factor to consider is that Kolko’s decision to plead guilty also coincided with two more victims coming forward. Up until that point, he fervently maintained his innocence.

            This case presents the issue of religious concerns conflicting with the process of carrying out and maintaining justice. The pressure from Lakewood, this very religious Orthodox Jewish community, supposedly forced this man to plead guilty and spend 15 years of his life in jail. Whether or not Yosef Kolko committed this crime, I think it’s important to address the fact that the religious beliefs of this community conflicted with both the actions of members in that community and with the court’s ability to rule impartially on the case. There is the issue of the ostracized family, but given all of the recent rape cases in which victim’s houses are burned down and those families are forced to move away, it is difficult to tell or claim that this community’s motivation for ostracizing that family was purely religious.

            As far as determining whether or not Kolko truly was guilty of molesting this boy, it is clear that the interests of the religious community conflict with Kolko’s supposed innocence. It’s significant to note that the people who live in these types of religious communities may be afraid of being honest – and are often bullied into lying about their culpability – due to their own and to their community’s desire to maintain the reputation and sanctity of their religion. Additionally, people like Kolko may also be afraid of offending a higher power (which perhaps is more severe than going to jail in that particular religion). This interferes with the justice system from properly carrying out its role in placing people who are actually guilty of committing a crime in prison versus placing people who are prioritizing their devotion to religion over their innocence and the course of their own lives.

In this particular case, I don’t think Kolko was viciously coerced into pleading guilty when he was innocent. Given the testimonies from his previous attorney and the therapist, and the timing of his admission of guilt, it is difficult for me to believe that this man was innocent of molesting that boy. But what concerns me is how often this may happen: are people who are actually innocent of committing a crime forced into a false guilty admission because of the pressures from their religious community? Is there anything we as a society can do about this?

I think this is very difficult issue to address because to interfere with various religions on individual cases is definitely an unnecessary entanglement of the government with religious practices, and would violate the Lemon Test (even though this isn’t technically a part of the Constitution, I believe this is a good test to go by). But if I were a deeply religious person and lived in a very religious community, I think I would probably do the same as Kolko: the priorities of the majority of that community could definitely intimidate and possibly force me into an admission of guilt, even if I was innocent. But should the government do anything about this? I do not think it’s the government’s place to deal with the workings of any communities, but especially religious ones. The entanglement of the government in their interests would lead to accusations of prioritizing one religion of all other religion/no religion at all and would probably result in much more controversy. But what do you think – should the government interfere in these types of situations?

Bibles over Beer: The faith-based dorm at Troy University.

At the start of this fall semester, Troy University, a public institution in Alabama opened a new resident dorm named The Newman Center. On the school’s website, the new facility is described as housing 376 students who have the following qualifications:

Persons applying for this type of living must meet and be willing to maintain the following requirements:
1.     Must have and maintain a minimum 2.50 grade point average overall and each semester. High school GPA will be considered for incoming freshmen.
2.     Must be respectful of diversity.
3.     Must refrain from the use of alcohol or illegal drugs while in the facility.
4.     Must maintain the standards of the “Trojan Way”.
5.     Must be engaged in some type of community service or service learning project at least semi-annually.

What the website does not state is that the Newman Center was originally advertised as a pro-faith dorm, where the majority of residents hold high religious values. When the dorm officially opened on August 9th, the website did include language that preferred religious students to non-religious students during the application process to this dorm. In addition, the billing for students that resided in the Newman Center dorms listed the dorm as faith-based housing.

Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and External Relations at Troy, John Schmidt originally said the dorms would give preference to students of Christian faiths as applicants. A university spokesman later said no preference would be given to Christians over any other religions. Since then, the public university has made statements declaring that they do not prefer religious students to non-religious students during the housing application process, but they have yet to declare the dorm as completely secular.

The decision was made to build this faith-based dorm after a poll among students reflected a heightened level of religiosity at Troy University( 70-75% of students valued faith in their lives). Therefore, officials claim that the dorm was a result of a growing demand and is not a constitutional violation. There has been a growing demand for more public religious organizations on campuses across the country, but a faith-based dorm is different than a kosher cafeteria or Campus ministry organization.

The Newman Center is part of a national network of Catholic student ministries that promotes campus ministries. President and CEO of the Newman Student Housing Fund, Matt Zerrusen stated that, “The faith-based housing community at Troy is one of only four nationwide in the network of more than 500 Newman Center” and that he does not know of any other faith-based dorms at public universities in the United States. While the dorm represents a national organization that promotes catholic ministries, it is not that shocking that public universities steer away from establishing this type of facility.

Despite the steps that the university has taken to announce the dorm as non -religiously affiliated, are they abiding by the First amendment of the constitution? Organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation think so. The WWFR is dedicated to preserving the separation between church and state and attorney Andrew Seidel believes more changes need to be implemented at Troy to have this dorm on campus without legal consequences. He notes that even though minority religions are accepted and live in the Newman Center, the dorm remains predominantly Christian with the presence of a ministry and three Baptist RA’s. The university has yet to respond with an official statement that proves the Newman Center coincides with the separation of church and state and does not violate fair housing laws.

          The primary purpose of building this dorm for students was to provide a pro-faith space for students to live in. Right of the bat, this establishes religion over non-religion because of the preference given to religious students in this space. As a public university, Troy does not have the right to establish any religion regardless of whether or not it is only for one facility on a campus of 7,000 students. Even though they changed the original requirements of resident applicants and removed the pro-faith message of the dorm, the religious foundation will always remain because of the cause that the Newman Center Student Housing Foundations stands for.

             Nicholas Cervera, an attorney for the school, said in September there are no requirements that students wishing to live in the dorms practice any particular faith, including atheists.
"An atheist has faith. That faith is that there is no supreme being," he said. "It's as much of a faith as Catholicism or Southern Baptist." What Cervera fails to clarify is the difference between faith and belief, a distinction that continues to cause confusion as to whether or not this dorm is legal. Charles C. Haynes, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington said, “If you set it up as a faith-based dorm and you expand it to include all faiths, you are still making a constitutional mistake.” Moreover, the dorm is so closely tied to religious values in general and it is unclear as to whether the original purpose of the Newman Center establishes religion over neutrality.

There have been no protests on campus and for the most part the residents that live in the Newman Center embrace the space they have for sharing beliefs of all types, not solely beliefs stemming from religion. I think that the fact that this dorm was originally built to promote evangelization (in a sense) cannot be ignored because it was built on a public university’s campus. Even though the rules have changed and more applicants are being accepted, it is still a housing selection process that is based on faith and is inherently discriminatory. While the university definitely violated the Establishment Clause in the beginning of the Newman Center’s residential existence, they claim that the changes they have made are neutral enough.

What do you think? Does the Newman Center favor religion over non-religion? Have their policy changes for the dorm exempt effectively promoted religious neutrality?