Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Americans United) has joined a coalition of faith and civil liberties groups in fighting a "biblical strategy" used by a Florida prosecuting attorney who convinced a jury to vote for the death penalty by presenting explicitly religious evidence to the jurors and repeatedly citing the Book of Romans.
In an amicus brief filed yesterday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United and other groups asserted that Anthony J. Farina’s sentencing was prejudiced because prosecutor John Tanner argued that the Bible – specifically the Book of Romans – called for the death penalty. Tanner cross-examined a minister who had counseled Farina in prison, arguing with him over questions about the nature of the Bible, the crucifixion of Jesus and the Christian concept of forgiveness. Tanner asserted that the “infallible word of God” mandates capital punishment.
“Portions of this trial read like a medieval debate on the nature of God, not a proceeding in a secular American court,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Punishment for crimes should be based on what the law allows, not what someone believes the Bible mandates.”
Americans United reports that during the sentencing phase of the trial, Tanner grilled Farina’s pastor, the Rev. James Davis, demanding to know his interpretation of passages in the Book of Romans.
In his summation, Tanner again alluded to the portion of Romans that provides that those who “rebel against the authority … will bring judgment on themselves,” by arguing to the jury that Farina and a co-defendant “brought this judgment upon themselves.”
The jury subsequently voted 12-0 in favor of the death penalty.
In the brief, AU and the other groups assert that this injection of religion into secular court proceedings was highly irregular and improper.
“There is no constitutionally legitimate basis for a prosecutor to inject religious teachings into the jury’s choice of life or death in a capital case,” reads the brief. The brief continues:
"The state courts of Florida are not ecclesiastical courts, and the entanglement of religious doctrine in a criminal trial is the kind of breach of church-state separation that not only prejudices the defendant but also injures the interests of the diverse religious communities that thrive in our society in part by virtue of their independence from the operations of the state.
"The Constitution prohibits the application of religious law to criminal defendants precisely because different religious groups (including different Christian denominations) have differing views about theological rules and the interpretations of biblical texts – such as the teachings of religion regarding the morality of capital punishment. Prosecutor Tanner’s use of Pastor Davis to instruct the jury that religious law called for a sentence of death was grossly improper."
The brief asserts that Tanner “invited the jurors to deliver justice in accordance with religious, rather than secular, law” and that he “grossly prejudiced Farina’s right to a fair trial.”
In addition to Americans United, groups signing the brief include the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Jewish Women, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The brief in the Farina v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections case was drafted for the groups by Andrew L. Frey, Evan M. Tager, Brian D. Netter and E. Brantley Webb of Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, D.C., with assistance from Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United, and Arielle Gingold of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.