RELIGION=PASSION AND PREJUDICE ?
Michael deHaven Newsom
mnewsom at LAW.HOWARD.EDU
Tue Mar 7 15:10:34 PST 2000
David Guinn wrote:
> As reported on the Law News email service:
> Court Voids Death Sentence After Jury Heard Bible References
> Former Clayton County, Ga. prosecutor D. Brandon Hornsby's use of
> quotations from the Bible prompted the Georgia Supreme Court to reverse
> a death sentence. Hornsby quoted several Old and New Testament passages
> about bloodshed or the taking of a life to make his arguments about the
> use of punishment as deterrence. (Fulton County Daily Report -- For
> complete story, see
> Personally, I am torn between an idealistic commitment to allowing and encouraging religious dialogue in the public sphere and the pragmatic realization that religious language can be manipulative and inflammatory. Any thoughts?
This is about as tough as it gets for those of us who do not want to banish God-talk from the public square. The problem, of course, is that there is God-talk and then there is God-talk both with respect to different religious
traditions and indeed even within particular religious traditions. To add to the problem, there is the matter of majoritarianism, and, as you correctly point out, that religious language has power. [I would say that it can be
coercive, but that is an earlier discussion and one must move on.]
My preferred answer is richness and diversity in God-talk. The practical problem is how does one ensure that there is such diversity in fact, and that the majority simply does not co-opt the discourse. (This is the concern expressed
by three of the concurring Justices in Lee v. Weisman, even though they take as a given, without any empirical basis or analysis, that the majority will elbow out of the way the God-talk, the religious language of minority or
dissenting religious groups and traditions.)
Until we can find some way to ensure that diversity then the court has to set aside the verdict when just one form of God-talk was heard from, as was the case here.
Having said that, I wonder whether I would be prepared to dismiss the claim of an atheist criminal law defendant that any God-talk, no matter how diverse, was prejudicial.
Michael deHaven Newsom
School of Law
> David E. Guinn, JD, PhD
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