The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting an Ohio judge's religious actions.
On May 25, Judge William Mallory of the Ohio Court of Appeals, First Appellate District, sentenced Jake Strotman, who is religious, to attend Morning Star Baptist Church for 12 consecutive Sunday services. Strotman was accused of assaulting a Baptist preacher during a chaotic brawl after a hockey game. Mallory reportedly said, "The thing about religion, I think it is kind of personal and for me I don't try to impose my religious views on other people, except for sometimes in this room." After Strotman suggested being sent to a church of Mallory's choice as his punishment, the judge decided that it would be appropriate to sentence Strotman to attend his victim's Baptist church for 12 Sundays.
FFRF contacted Mallory independently to point out that his actions in this case are a clear violation of the First Amendment.
"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion," FFRF Senior Attorney Rebecca Markert writes to Mallory. "Court orders and terms of probation that require participation in religious programs violate the Establishment Clause. Sentencing offenders to attend church services as an alternative sentence similarly imposes one religious viewpoint onto them, in violation of their constitutional rights."
As a self-avowed person of faith, Mallory surely understands that the government has no place telling citizens and criminal offenders whether and when they must attend religious services, FFRF contends. Furthermore, his actions in this case also violate Article 1, Section 7 of Ohio's Constitution: "No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent."
While Strotman suggested and accepted his church-going sentence, his decision wasn't completely free of coercion. In the beginning of the proceeding, Mallory threatened Strotman with up to 90 days in jail, and encouraged his fear by having him look at the bailiff and his handcuffs. Many people would opt to go to church when faced with the fear of jail time. Furthermore, the court system is inherently coercive.
But even if Strotman's acceptance of the sentence were truly voluntary, that would not resolve the Establishment Clause issue. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.
Citizens are compelled to come before Mallory on a variety of legal matters. Handing down religious sentences sends a message to non-adherents that they are "outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community," to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. Mallory lends his power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement that excludes the 23 percent of Americans who identify as nonreligious.
Judges are expected to show impartiality. By Mallory's actions, he is appearing to rule based on his own personal religious beliefs instead of the secular laws of the state of Ohio and the United States, which he has sworn to uphold. FFRF asks that Mallory immediately end the practice of passing religious sentences on defendants.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with nearly 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 600 in Ohio. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.