|Pulaski County circuit judge Wendell Griffen taking part in an anti-death|
penalty demonstration outside the state governor’s mansion, Arkansas.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen stood on the steps of the state Capitol on Friday and took aim at lawmakers and the Arkansas Supreme Court, accusing them of breaking the state's 2015 religious freedom law by scrutinizing his public displays of faith.
Backed by a cadre of supporters who appeared at a rally on his behalf, Griffen told reporters that he planned to take his case to court if sanctions against him are not lifted.
The circuit judge has been stripped of his power to hear death penalty cases since he appeared at a death-penalty protest at the Governor's Mansion in April, the same day he issued an order that temporarily halted the state's efforts to begin a series of executions.
Griffen later said his decision to lie prostrate on a cot at that April rally -- which fell on Good Friday -- was meant to portray the crucifixion of Jesus.
On Friday, donning his Panama hat like he did at the rally (though he took it off when he lay on the cot), Griffen said his actions fell under the protection of the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The law says the government cannot "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion," unless it is "the least restrictive means of furthering" a compelling government interest.
Griffen is under investigation for his conduct by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, and some Republican lawmakers have floated the idea of impeachment.
That's in addition to the Supreme Court justices removing Griffen from cases involving the death penalty.
"It has already happened. The violation [of the religious act] has already happened," Griffen told reporters Friday.
In response to the complaints filed against him with the judicial discipline commission, Griffen filed his own ethics complaint against the justices and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for not offering him a hearing before delivering sanctions.
2 of the top officials at the commission later recused from the competing cases, citing potential conflicts of interest.
David Sachar, the executive director of the commission, said Friday that the staff was looking to recruit 2 independent attorneys and 2 investigators to handle the cases.
Griffen told reporters that he had not yet been contacted by the commission and has not spoken to investigators.
Griffen did not speak at the rally that preceded his talking to reporters. At the rally, supporters from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the NAACP and local Baptist churches came to his defense.
A series of more than a dozen speakers from several states -- and one who said she was a missionary in Indonesia -- accused lawmakers of trumpeting their own brand of Christianity while chastising others.
Rizelle Aaron, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, read a list of other judges who had run into trouble with the law or been accused of breaking judicial rules without facing similar scrutiny from the courts or lawmakers. (One of the judges he mentioned, former District Judge Joseph Boeckmann, stepped down amid an investigation into sexual misconduct.)
"Where were you, Supreme Court? Where were you, impeachment legislators?" Aaron repeated several times.
Multiple speakers mentioned the religious freedom law, Act 975, which passed after an earlier version sparked heated debate over protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The bill was pulled and rewritten to more closely match language in federal law.
Asked Friday to comment on Griffen's remarks, the sponsor of Act 975, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said in a text message that he would need to study the judge's argument more closely to give a full response.
However, Hutchinson said the argument would appear to carry more weight under the earlier, failed version of the religious freedom law, which he voted against.
Source: arkansasonline.com, June 10, 2017
Religious Leaders Defend Arkansas Judge's Death Penalty Protest
Religious leaders rallied on the state capitol steps Friday in defense of an Arkansas judge's 1st amendment rights, after he was barred from hearing capital murder cases in April.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen joined about 15 religious leaders and scholars from different faiths and states in calling the actions against him a "direct attack on religious liberty."
"I rise to say, 'Shame on you!,' to those in Arkansas government, law enforcement and judicial branches who have falsely accused Judge Wendell Griffen of being biased," said Valerie Bridgeman, the dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, as a crowd of 50 people cheered. "Do the right thing, Arkansas. Do the constitutional thing."
Griffen, a Baptist preacher, came under fire on Good Friday when he lay strapped to a cot as part of a death penalty protest organized by his church in front of the Governor's Mansion, the same day he issued a ruling that blocked the state's upcoming executions.
"When Pastor Griffen silently prayed while lying on a cot in solidarity with Jesus on Good Friday, he did not impose his religious beliefs on others," said Ray Higgins, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, which is the organization that sponsored the rally.
The president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Rizelle Aaron, asked the crowd why Griffen, not other judges who have been criminally prosecuted, was targeted for impeachment with "Guinness World Record lightning speed." Then Aaron answered his own question: "His race."
"There's a great irony when a judge of justice is punished with injustice for exercising his legal right," Aaron said.
After the Arkansas Supreme Court stripped Griffen of his authority to hear death penalty cases, he sued the court and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
"It's not illegal to pray," Griffen said. "I've been targeted because I have acted consistent with my ethics and my faith and that's wrong."
Griffen argues he hasn't done anything unethical. However, the state's Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC) is investigating misconduct complaints against him.
Griffen said he has not been involved in the JDDC proceedings and plans to take legal action under the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
"I do not misunderstand what freedom means," Griffen said. "I am not a slave. I am a free man... I will fight this as long as there is fire in my body and breath in my spirit."
Several state lawmakers have called for Griffen's impeachment, including Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado.
"He's trying to use his religion to justify his mistake," Garner said. "While I think RFRA was an excellent piece of legislation, there's a distinct difference between what it was meant for and what Griffen did."
Garner doesn't believe Griffen's actions had anything to do with religious expression, classifying them as gross misconduct that would justify impeachment.
"You can't use religion as an excuse for violating the code of ethics," Garner said.
When asked if there was ever a moment he regretted his decision to lay on the cot that day, Griffen responded, "Never a moment."
"I will go to my death with 2 things in my mind," he continued. "There was 1 right place for me that day. I was there. And if I had to do it a thousand times, I'd be right back there doing that. I'll go to my maker and say, 'I'll take whatever that means.'"
The religious leaders at Friday's rally would continue to stand beside him.
"We applaud the many ways Judge Griffen serves this state and this community. Amen."
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