A Texas judge sentenced a 20-year old man to 1) marrying his 19-year old girlfriend within 30 days, 2) writing Bible verses, and 3) attending counseling, all as punishment for a misdemeanor assault charge. Did the judge go too far?
Ummmmm … yes. Yes, he did.
Note: Constitutional provisions have received centuries of attention, so a short blog post is always going to provide an incomplete picture of the ins and outs of those provisions. As someone who has done extensive research on the Establishment Clause, I can personally attest to this. My point is that there’s a lot more to the story than I can present here. Just roll with it.
Let’s start with the Establishment Clause, which generally requires that the government stay neutral towards religion, showing it neither favor nor disfavor. This doesn’t mean that the judge isn’t free to practice religion in his private life, of course, but when he dons the robe and slams the gavel, he must not take that private matter public. Introducing Bible verses as a means of legal rehabilitation is certainly showing favor not only for religion generally but also for his faith in particular. Specifically, I’d say he failed both the first and second prongs of the Lemon test. Strike one!
Then there’s the Free Exercise Clause, which not only permits the judge to practice religion in his own time, but also guarantees the groom to do the same … and more to the point, not to do the same. Much like the right to free speech includes the right to say nothing at all, so too does the right to exercise religion include the right to stay home on Sunday and watch football. Here, the punishment included what could be considered forced prayer, additionally violating the groom’s religious rights under the coercion test from Lee v. Weisman (also an Establishment Clause case). Strike two!
At the risk of opening a can of worms, my last concern is certainly timely. The United States Supreme Court recently held that there’s a fundamental right to marry. Again, if there’s a fundamental right to marry, then there’s a corresponding fundamental right to remain single. This one’s fairly new, so no one knows how it’ll evolve in the courts, but the judge arguably violated this right as well. Strike three!
Religion and marriage are hot topics right now, and everyone is riled up, but you have to keep in mind that when you let your emotions get the best of you, you’re courting danger. This isn’t simply a case of a slightly excessive punishment; indeed, the punishment here was fairly tame, and the alternative was jail time. However, the particular form of punishment implicates some of our most important rights, and at the very least, the father of the bride wasn’t happy with the sentencing. While the groom may be Christian, and the bride and groom appear to be happily married, this isn’t necessarily a “no harm, no foul” situation.
This judge may very well face a misconduct charge. Personally, I’d publicly reprimand him, make him attend a physics lecture, and then write out scientific theorems as punishment. On second thought, the physics lecture might violate the Eighth Amendment.
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Rob Bodine is a Virginia attorney focusing his practice on real estate and intellectual property law. He’s currently Virginia counsel with First Class Title, Inc., a Maryland title insurance and settlement company. Rob is also a licensed title insurance agent in Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.