A three-judge panel of federal appeals court on Monday dismissed a lawsuit testing the boundary between religious liberty and judicial restraint.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that Arkansas Judge Wendell Griffen’s lawsuit challenging his disqualification from hearing death-penalty cases must be dismissed. The ruling overturns a lower court decision that Griffen, who also serves as a Baptist pastor, can sue justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court for discipline based on the judge’s moral views on capital punishment.
Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., claims the Supreme Court justices violated his constitutional rights when they permanently barred him from presiding over death penalty cases after he joined fellow church members in an anti-death penalty demonstration on Good Friday in 2017.
Judge Griffen responded with a lawsuit claiming his religious views on the death penalty have nothing to do with his ability to rule impartially on matters of secular law. Griffen claims the disqualification was in retaliation for his exercise of free speech and religion rights as an African-American.
U.S. District Judge James Moody ruled April 12 that Griffen stated a plausible claim and the lawsuit could move forward. In an unusual procedural move, however, two appeals court judges said Monday the lower court judge got the case wrong and ordered the decision reversed.
U.S. Circuit Judges Steven M. Colloton of Des Moines, Iowa, and Duane Benton of Kansas City, Missouri, said the ban on death penalty cases applies only to Griffen’s role as a public employee and protects an interest by the state to ensure integrity of the courts. A third judge, Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, filed a dissenting opinion saying the majority went too far in dismissing the case in its entirety.
Griffen’s lawyer, Mike Laux, said he and his client “are indeed disappointed” by the ruling and will seek reconsideration by the full 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We have known since day one that this was going to be an uphill battle every step of the way,” Laux said on social media. “Cases like this are never cakewalks, but we are undaunted and prepared to continue this important fight for this great judge.”
New Millennium Church is an interracial congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The church has been affiliated with CBF since its formation in 2009 but this year for the first time boycotted the group’s annual national gathering to protest hiring practices that discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We refuse to engage in a charade whereby claims about professed devotion to the Great Commission of Jesus and buzz words such as ‘big tent’ and ‘denomi-network’ are used by CBF to justify excluding married LGBTQ Baptists from mission field and other employment opportunities,” Griffen explained in a recent blog.
Last year CBF officials including Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter traveled to Little Rock to show support for Griffen’s right to serve simultaneously from the pulpit and the bench.
“Those who serve in government are not disqualified from having religious beliefs and exercising their religious beliefs in ways that are protected by law,” Paynter said at a rally organized by religious and civil rights leader in June 2017.