Sunday, February 20, 2011

Using Prison Chapel As Courtroom Violates Establishment Clause; But Harmless Error

Jones County, Texas has designated the Chapel at the French Robertson Unit of the Department of Criminal Justice as a branch courthouse. It is used for non-jury proceedings when French Roberson inmates are charged with offenses.  In Lilly v. State of Texas, (TX App., Feb. 17, 2011), an inmate who pleaded guilty to assaulting a public servant challenged on free exercise and Establishment Clause grounds the holding of his criminal proceedings in the Chapel which contains various religious depictions. The court concluded that use of the Chapel constituted an Establishment Clause violation, saying:
If it is appropriate to use a Christian chapel as a courtroom, it must also be permissible to use a synagogue, mosque, or temple for the same purpose. A reasonable observer watching a trial in any of these facilities would perceive that a message supporting that particular religion was being sent to those in attendance.
The court went on to conclude however that the Establishment Clause violation played no role in petitioner's decision to plead guilty, so there is no basis to reverse his conviction or sentence.