Does Christian Privilege Undermine Justice in Our Legal System?

justice statue

When we think of secularism, we think of how the government is supposed to be neutral on matters of religion. At the very least, the government is not supposed to pass laws favoring any one religion over others. One topic within secularism that I don't think I have ever addressed has to do with the degree to which professions of religiosity in general and Christianity in particular might be expected to influence the outcome of a criminal trial. It is not that I think this would be a common occurrence; however, I would be surprised if it did not happen with some regularity in places like Mississippi.

What I have in mind is the scenario where the attorney representing someone accused of a crime finds creative ways to make sure the judge and jury know that the defendant is not just a Christian but the "right kind" of Christian. That is, an especially devout and politically conservative Southern Baptist. We might characterize it as the "one of you" defense. Jurors are going to be less likely to want to punish someone who reminds them of themselves. And while we'd desperately hope that judges would be above such nonsense, what I have observed in a few Mississippi courtrooms would suggest that this is not the case.

I suspect that this sort of defense would be successful more often than not. After all, "true Christians" don't do bad things. It sounds like this guy is "one of us," so I'm sure he must not have done whatever he's being accused of doing. I suppose this would be a form of Christian privilege, but I feel uncomfortable using that label to describe it. It seems so much worse than that. I think we all know that the notion of equal treatment under the law is largely a myth, but preferential treatment for Christians under the law is one of those things few want to consider.

I'm not sure how much evidence there might be that this is a problem in a criminal context, but I have heard plenty of stories that lead me to believe it is a serious problem in a family court context. I have heard many reports of judges presiding over child custody disputes making it clear that they were interested in the "moral character" of each parent. Around here, that's thinly veiled code for Christian piety. The parent who attends the right church seems more likely to be awarded custody.

These cases are especially frustrating because everyone seems to know (or at least strongly suspect) what is happening but feel they have little recourse. Hell, I've personally witnessed trial court judges leading prospective jurors (i.e., persons legally required to show up for jury duty) in explicitly sectarian prayer on multiple occasions. I have no trouble believing that many of these judges would favor Christians whenever possible.

The U.S. Constitution is supposed to apply in every one of the states that make up the United States. It does not, and our current Supreme Court has repeatedly signaled that the separation of church and state is no longer secure. When one thinks about everything at stake in many courtrooms, the possibility of Christian bias influencing outcomes is a real concern.

For what its worth, I did contact a couple of the national secular organizations the last time I was confronted with mandatory sectarian prayer imposed by a judge when reporting to jury duty. I did not receive a response from either. That was disappointing to say the least.