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Can a judge talk about faith?


As many Arkansans know, I am an ordained Baptist minister. I was baptized in a creek near Antoine, Arkansas, when I was 8years old, after confessing my faith during a revival. My parents, sister and brother belonged to the Harrison Chapel Baptist Church, where Rev. J.P. Story taught us to love God and others. Our family regularly worshipped with neighboring congregations in Pike, Nevada and Clark counties. Long before I became an Army officer (my first public service job), a state workers’ compensation commissioner, or an appellate court judge, I was a person of faith.

Most people do not know that I almost left law school after my first year to enter seminary. After I surrendered to the ministry in 1985, I enrolled in a nonresident seminary studies program sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1988, I was ordained for pastoral ministry after being called as pastor of Little Rock’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, a congregation affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (the nation’s largest black religious body). I served that congregation until May 2001. Since February of 2000, I have served as parliamentarian of the NBCUSA.

As a Christian minister, I have counseled couples contemplating marriage, consoled grief-stricken people struggling with the complexities of death, consulted with civic leaders about ways to address violence, education disparities, substance abuse and other social concerns and criticized conditions and actions that I prayerfully determined to be unjust. I have never used my position as a judge to advance my faith. And, I have never used and will not use my identity as a person of faith to prejudice a case as a judge.

Like so many other people for whom religious values are matters of ultimate concern, I am both challenged and comforted by my faith to live with integrity. And as a minister, I have a divine obligation to be forthright about questions of life, truth, justice, peace, hope and love. Like other Christians, I am impelled by the command of Jesus to love God and my neighbors, and I am inspired by ethical lessons (including those drawn from other faiths) that call people to respect creation, fellow creatures and the rule of God as we confront the personal, social, commercial, political and global realities of our time in the world.

None of my faith obligations interferes with my work as a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. And, the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct does not prohibit me from expressing my faith and values as a citizen and a minister. However, I refuse to hide my faith, or evade the prophetic imperatives arising from my ministry, merely because I hold a judicial office.

When Jesus said we are to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, he meant that we are to be dutiful and faithful to our governments. When he said we are to render to God what belongs to God, he meant that we are to be dutiful and faithful toward God. Whatever else that may mean, it does not require a Christian minister to be silent about the injustice of neglecting suffering people, the wickedness of rushing to wage unnecessary war and the hypocrisy of blaming homosexuals and immigrants for our national woes.

I am a Christian, a Baptist minister, a U.S. citizen and an Arkansas judge. I will keep talking about the transcendent values of truth, love, justice, peace and hope that my faith defines. I will honor the trust I hold as a judge so that my work as a judge will never be tainted by outside influences, including those involving religion.

However, the First Amendment means that no official or officious action can prevent me from living out my faith. I was a person of faith long before I entered public service. I will be a person of faith however long I am allowed to serve the public. And, when my public service ends, yes, even after my life has ended, I will remain a person of faith.

Caesar deserves my allegiance, respect, and honest service. Caesar has no right, however, to silence judges (or anyone else) from talking about and living out their faith and moral values as citizens and ministers. Caesar does not dictate when and whether I will obey God.

Wendell Griffen is a member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals. He is currently defending himself against efforts by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to discipline him for public comments, including some related to topics mentioned here. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.

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