May 20, 2015

Can a Judge Legally Lead Prospective Jurors in Sectarian Prayer?

This is Swampyank's copy of "The Jury&quo...
This is Swampyank's copy of "The Jury" by John Morgan, painted in 1861, and now in the Bucks County Museum in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many of you have been summoned for jury duty. And if so, you know that you are legally obligated to report when summoned. When the summons arrives, you cannot simply ignore it. In fact, it typically informs you of the punishment for doing so. On this basis, it seems reasonable to characterize being summoned for jury duty as at least somewhat coercive. You have to report. And once you do report you cannot just get up and leave until you are excused by the judge. Seems a touch coercive, doesn't it?

Now suppose that when you report for jury duty on the date indicated in the summons, the judge presiding over the whole affair personally leads you and all the other prospective jurors (all of whom were required to report that day and who cannot simply leave whenever they want) in a blatantly sectarian prayer with multiple references to "Jesus Christ." Nothing about this prayer exercise is presented as optional or voluntary; you are instructed to bow your head. Is this legal? Anybody have any idea? And if not, what options does one have in such a situation?

Update: After doing a bit more reading on this subject, my best guess is that it might be legal for a judge to engage in sectarian prayer in this manner thanks to Town of Greece v. Galloway. I suspect the key factor would come down to whether the context was determined to be sufficiently coercive. It seems to me that it would because a potential juror who objects to the prayer cannot get up and leave. This appears to fail Justice Kennedy's coercion test as articulated in Lee v. Weisman, although I recognize that this might not apply.

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