Texas court rejects appeal over Bible ordered off lawyer’s table

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Texas trial court judge did not violate a criminal defendant’s First Amendment free-exercise-of-religion rights when he ordered him to remove his Bible from counsel table, a state appeals court has ruled.

Detwonne Monshay Alexander contended that a trial court judge in Lamar County, Texas, committed constitutional error when he prevented Alexander from prominently displaying the Bible atop his attorney’s table in the courtroom where jurors would see it. Alexander was convicted on charges involving delivery of cocaine in a drug-free zone and received a 60-year sentence.

Alexander appealed, claiming two points of error in his trial. He contended first that there was insufficient evidence in the record to corroborate the testimony of Alexander’s alleged accomplice. The other issue — and the one given more detailed treatment by the appeals court — concerned the trial judge’s directive to remove the Bible from the table.

On appeal, the court in the 6th Texas Appellate District in Texarkana rejected Alexander’s claims and affirmed the conviction in its March 11 ruling in Alexander v. State of Texas. With respect to the Bible-display issue, the trial court noted that generally the display of items in the courtroom is within the trial judge’s discretion.

The appeals court noted that courts from other states had addressed similar issues. In State v. Albertson (2006), a Minnesota appeals court determined that a trial judge’s order to remove a Bible from counsel table did not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights. “A compelling interest of conducting a trial in a secular, impartial, orderly manner justified the district court’s order,” the Minnesota court reasoned. However, a trial judge in Ohio stated: “I’m not going to order that a defendant can’t have a Bible in the courtroom.” See State v. Jackson (2008).

Thus, the Texas appeals court noted, “either position — allowing any particular, non-germane display or restricting it — is within the sound discretion of the trial court in the control of trial proceedings.” The court then directly addressed the argument advanced by Alexander that his free-exercise rights were violated.

“Without proof to the contrary, simply displaying a Bible on the counsel table does not constitute the ‘exercise’ of religion,” the Texas appeals court wrote. “This act is nothing more than a particular, easily recognized book being prominently displayed to jurors.” The court also noted that the “record contains no showing that Alexander’s religious practice or beliefs required him to prominently display his Bible during trial.”

The appeals court did reject part of the trial court’s justification for ordering the removal of the Bible. The trial court apparently agreed with the state that Alexander’s act of displaying the Bible might amount to testimony and constitute a waiver of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The Fifth Amendment includes a protection against self-incrimination.

The Texas appeals court found no conflict or potential conflict between the Fifth Amendment right not to be a witness against oneself and the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion because “the presence of a book on counsel table does not constitute testimony.”

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