Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

When religious beliefs and civic duty collide

Religious Liberty | Mennonite woman jailed for refusing to testify in death penalty review
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 3/06/18, 01:43 pm

A Colorado Court of Appeals on March 2 affirmed a judge’s contempt charges against Greta Lindecrantz, a 67-year-old Mennonite woman who has been behind bars since Feb. 26.

Because of her religious convictions against the death penalty, Lindecrantz refused to testify for the prosecution in a mandatory review of a capital murder case she helped investigate for the defense. District Judge Michelle Amico ordered Lindecrantz jailed after she repeatedly refused to answer prosecutors’ questions during a hearing last month on the 2009 murder conviction and death sentence of Robert Ray. Ray’s attorneys hired Lindecrantz as an investigator during the punishment phase of the original trial. Now Ray claims her work was deficient, leading the prosecutors to call her to testify.

Lindecrantz’s attorney Mari Newman, a prominent Denver civil rights lawyer recognized by the American Civil Liberties Union for her litigation against Colorado’s law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, argued her client should be able to act upon her “fundamental religious belief” and avoid testifying.

“The reason, the one and only reason she’s refused to testify, is because to do so would violate her firmly held religious beliefs against the death penalty,” Newman said outside the Arapahoe County Courthouse following a Feb. 27 hearing, according to The Denver Post.

The appellate judge did not discount Lindecrantz’s religious sincerity but called “dubious” her proposition that being subpoenaed to testify burdened her ability to exercise her religion.

“What seems to be at issue here is the quality of her work, as it applies to whether there was ineffective assistance of counsel,” Christian attorney Theresa Sidebotham, who practices in Colorado, told me. “So, her doing good work cuts against her client. She doesn’t want to testify about her work.”

Sidebotham, who practices in Colorado, noted the state has no Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) protecting Lindecrantz in her religious liberty claim. The federal RFRA cannot be applied in a state case.

“Sometimes citizens have to partake in civil disobedience for reasons of conscience. I respect that Lindecrantz is willing to do that,” Sidebotham said. “But we are also obligated to obey the laws of the land, and we must be willing to accept the consequences. Given the importance of our justice system, I’m not sure people should evade consequences for not testifying.”

Appellate Judge Jerry Jones wrote that the “state’s paramount interests in ascertaining the truth and rendering justice” override the “potential incidental burden” of a witness’s free exercise of religion claim. “Ms. Lindecrantz is in a tough spot—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Jones wrote in an opinion. “We take no pleasure in declining to extricate her. But the state of the law being what it is, decline we must.”

Facebook Facebook Members of the Satanic Temple of Tuscon protest a Missouri abortion law.

Satanists don’t have a prayer

A self-proclaimed Satanist has sued the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., alleging the city council’s opening prayers are “divisive and exclusionary” and a violation of the Constitution’s establishment and equal protection clauses. The lawsuit demands the city council include “non-Christian” prayers or stop praying.

No one objected or listed participation requirements when plaintiff Michelle Shortt applied to give the prayer in 2016. But the lawsuit alleges prior to scheduling Shortt’s July 6 appearance, city officials tried to fill all open invocation spots with local faith leaders. Some council members publicly criticized the Satanist’s inclusion and called on city council to establish a standard for “who can come and what kind of message is expected.”

In an email rescinding Shortt’s invocation opportunity, Scottsdale officials claimed a standard practice of inviting only “institutions that have a substantial connection to the Scottsdale community,” the lawsuit said

The Satanic Temple of Tucson, like its affiliates across the country, does not believe in Satan or God but claims the moniker “religion” in lawsuits against perceived sectarian intrusions into the public square. A Satanic Temple member in Missouri filed a lawsuit in 2015 claiming the state’s pro-life laws advance Judeo-Christian theology in violation of her religious liberties. The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Jan. 23 in that case. —B.P.

Creative Commons/Photo by Ben Jacobson Creative Commons/Photo by Ben Jacobson World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Md.

Pleading the cross

The American Humanist Association (AHA) is not so coy as to invoke an organizational mascot like the Satanists. Claiming they are “good enough without god” the group has won the latest round in its challenge to remove the World War I memorial Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland.

In an 8-6 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 1 denied an en banc appeal and upheld the court’s three-judge panel ruling that the 40-foot memorial stands in violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

First Liberty Institute, which represents the American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said it would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Judge James Wynn said that in order to allow the cross to remain, the court would have to deny the symbol’s historic context “of advancing the Christian faith.”

But three dissenting opinions argue the majority ignores the context in which the cross was erected, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent allows sacred symbols in an otherwise secular context. The cross, Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote, became a common grave marker in Europe during World War I, and similar markers, including many in Arlington National Cemetery, exist within a 40-mile radius of the disputed monument.

A win by the atheists could threaten the existence of war memorials across the nation, the dissenting judges said. —B.P.

Bakers push forward appeal

As Christian business owners working in the wedding service industry await a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, former bakery owners in Oregon are moving ahead with their own legal fight. Melissa and Aaron Klein, former bakery owners who faced fines for declining a cake order for a same-sex wedding, appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court on March 1.

Attorneys with First Liberty Institute filed the Kleins’ appeal despite the pending decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission expected by mid-June. The ruling could affect the outcome of the Kleins’ case and those of other Christian business owners whose convictions conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage. —B.P.

Civics 101

Some lessons are “better caught than taught.” Students at Edina High School in Edina, Min., learned a civics lesson from filing a lawsuit against the school district last semester and hammering out a settlement March 1. The Edina Public School Board approved the settlement between the EHS Young Conservatives Club and district administrators. It included minor addendums to district policy as it relates to students’ speech rights. The students sued the school district in December, claiming administrators threatened to disband the unofficial club after members criticized student protests during a Veterans Day ceremony on campus. The district denied that accusation and others from the lawsuit in a statement released after reaching the settlement. —B.P.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 03/06/2018 05:32 pm

    1st story 3rd para: "layer" should be "lawyer"

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Tue, 03/06/2018 05:46 pm

    Thank you. We have corrected it.

  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 10:01 am

    “The Satanic Temple of Tucson, like its affiliates across the country, does not believe in Satan or God...”

    Wait, did I read that right?  They have the word “Satanic” in their name, but they do not believe in Satan?  How is that possible? 

    Let me get this straight, so members of the Satanic Temple are a non-religious, religious group that denies religion?  Anyone else see the insanity of that? 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 09:07 pm

    They're going for a reaction. They usually get it. I think their idea is that if you won't allow "Satanists" to promote their religion in the public square, then you shouldn't allow anyone to do anything religious in public. Or something like that. So they play up the creepiness factor on purpose.