Greensboro, N. C. (Nov. 1)
Should religious convictions play a role in the court room? Should rejection of the idea of punishment after death be regarded as depriving a man’s oath of its credibility? Should persons disavowing belief in a Supreme being be barred from testifying?
These curious but highly important questions heave been occupying the attention of the citizens of North Carolina ever since the Gastonia trial gave birth to them recently, as a by-product to the direct issues involved in that case. It may well be that the by-product will prove of even greater importance than the original case. The press of the state has been discussing the matter entirely from the point of view of atheism, i. e., whether an atheist can testify before court and whether his testimony can be regarded as valid as that of a believer, but the issue has a bearing also on all religious groups and sects which may believe in Divine punishment after death. Since the Jewish faith does not lay down any tenet concerning punishment after death this is of vital interest to the Jews.
The whole question was stirred up by the ghost of an ancient statute, dating back to 1777, which was dragged out of its musty grave by Judges Shaw and Barnhill. Judge Shaw refused to accept the testimony of Wells, whose flogging case was brought before him during the Gastonia trial, on the ground that Wells was an atheist. In his charge to the jury in connection with the testimony of Mrs. Edith Saunders Miller, Judge Barnhill directed the attention of the jurors to Mrs. Miller’s testimony, saying that she had a right to believe as she pleased (she had voiced disbelief) and that “her statements in regard to not believing in any Supreme being were admitted only as it might affect the credibility of her statements upon the witness stand, and to enable you to determine what sanctity, if any, she attached to the oath that she had taken.”
There was also another ruling on the same question, which came from Judge A. M. Stack, before whom took place the trial of four men charged with conspiracy to commit an assault on Ben Wells. One of the witnesses, Saylors, was challenged by the defense on the ground that he is an atheist, but Judge Stack held him competent to testify, holding that “there is no decision in North Carolina and no statute which holds that a man cannot testify because of what he believes.”
It was this judge who pointed out the absurdity of trying to deprive unbelievers of the right to testify especially in a state where “even a hound dog can testify.” He said: “Suppose a man should be shot down in cold blood and only an atheist should see it? (Continued on Page 4)
Would you say that man could not testify and the criminal could not be prosecuted?
“Let us look at the thing and see some of the absurdities it would lead to. Why, if that rule be followed, a man could not verify a complaint in a just civil action if anybody sued him to take his home away from him; he would lie rotting in jail because of his inability to take an insolvent debtor’s oath; and would be deprived of an occupation because nobody would want to employ a man who could not testify in event of a dispute with an outsider.
“Why even a hound dog can testify in North Carolina. Certainly he has not religious belief, but yet when a man’s life is at stake a bloodhound may testify against him in North Carolina. Surely, in a State which permits hound dogs, tombstones and old deeds to testify, a man is not barred because of his beliefs.”
Moreover, the judge pointed out, the barring of testimony by witnesses who happen to be atheists or who do not believe in punishment after death would be contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.
The taking of this issue to the highest court in the state for clarification may prove to be of far-reaching importance since North Carolina is not the only state apparently with such antiquated laws on its statute books. If some courts took a notion to follow the example of Judge Shaw and ferret out the outgrown statutes in reference to religious beliefs, many an unpleasant situation might be created not only for atheists but for the Jews as well. The application of the antiquated laws might in some instances be used to bar Jews as witnesses or else the credibility of their testimony would be questioned. The decision of the higher courts on this matter are therefore of the utmost significance, and will be awaited with interest by all who understand the implications involved.