by Marlee Tomlinson, Contributing Writer • 4 min read
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit granted a request for an en banc hearing in United States of America v. Corrine Brown. This means First Liberty Institute and our volunteer network attorneys will have the opportunity to argue the case before the court’s full panel of judges.
In July 2016, a federal grand jury indicted former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud charges. The issue at hand occurred during her 2017 jury trial, when a federal district court removed a juror from a deliberating jury when he stated to other jurors that he had prayed and trusted the Holy Spirit’s guidance as he deliberated.
Upon questioning by the judge, the juror confirmed that he had no political, religious, or moral beliefs that would prevent him from serving as a fair and impartial juror, or impair his ability to decide the case based on the facts and the law presented at trial.
The juror, in his most significant statement, said:
“My religious beliefs are going by the testimonies of people given here, which I believe that’s what we’re supposed to do, and then render a decision on those testimonies, and the evidence presented in the room.”
Despite this statement and the lack of proof beyond the strict standard of “reasonable doubt,” the district court still found the juror unable to deliberate on the evidence, and thus disqualified him from serving on the jury.
But his disqualification wasn’t a result of the prayer itself—it was his belief that his prayer had been answered. How can the court require a juror to take an oath under God, but then subsequently punish him for praying?
No American should be disqualified or cancelled because they pray, or because they believe God answers their prayers.
As our legal team prepares to present this case before the 11th Circuit, we should remember that this circuit court is now comprised of a majority of conservative-appointed judges. In fact, this is one of the circuit court “flips” that have occurred in the last three years as a result of the president’s efforts to appoint originalist judges in America’s federal courts.
The ratio of conservative-appointed to liberal-appointed judges on a circuit court makes a tremendous difference. Courts staffed with a majority of judges whose credentials, prior decisions and judicial philosophy reflect a commitment to protect the First Amendment make it all the more likely that the final ruling will be in favor of religious liberty.
Consider Circuit Court Judge William Pryor’s dissent to the juror’s dismissal, in which he stated:
“Of course, if religious jurors may pray for God’s guidance, it follows that they must be entitled to receive God’s guidance, or at least to believe that they have received it…Indeed, [this ruling] provides discriminating lawyers with a tool to target and eliminate certain demographics from jury service.”
In other words, if the Circuit Court’s prior decision stands, then millions of Americans would potentially run the risk of being disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.
True religious freedom under the First Amendment means having the freedom to pray, whether publicly or privately. And of course, this also includes having the freedom to believe God answers your prayers and being able to act and live according to those answers or beliefs. Americans who believe they experience God’s guidance should not be automatically disqualified from jury service.
Stay-tuned for further FLI Insider updates on this case as First Liberty continues fighting to overturn the district court’s decision.