August 19th, 2010
03:14 PM ET
CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears filed this report from Washington:
A state-commissioned police officer arrests a motorist for reckless driving. Does the cop's employer matter when it comes to upholding the misdemeanor conviction? A North Carolina court says yes.
The state's Court of Appeals has tossed out the guilty plea of Julie Yencer because the arresting officer works for Davidson College, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The three-judge panel found that giving campus police power to enforce state laws created "excessive entanglement" with the Constitution's First Amendment ban on government endorsement of religion, or the Establishment Clause.
"We are compelled to conclude Davidson College is a religious institution for the purposes of the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, we hold that the delegation of police power," said the court, "is an unconstitutional delegation of an important discretionary government power to a religious institution."
The ruling, if upheld in the state's supreme court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially could render religious campus police power all but impotent, with officers unable to unilaterally perform their law enforcement duties. Courts in North Carolina previously had limited police power on other religiously affiliated college campuses.
Context surrounding the arrest and the level of religious "entanglement" by the school played key roles in the court's analysis.
Despite being part of a private institution, the Davidson College Police Department is commissioned by the state's attorney general to enforce state laws on or near campus. Yencer had been stopped in January 2006 on suspicion of driving while impaired, and later pleaded guilty, on condition of her right to appeal.
The appeals court this week concluded Davidson has a "strong religious affiliation" in keeping with its "Christian tradition." 80 percent of the school's trustees must be active members of a Christian church. Students, faculty, and staff are not required to attend religious services or hold to a particular faith, but students are required to take at least one religion class.
Faculty and class officer positions also must be filled only by "Christian men and women" or those who would openly "respect" the Christian tradition.
The court somewhat reluctantly noted it was bound by precedent to rule the way it did, while expressing some independent judgment that Davidson perhaps may not be a religious institution, for purposes of the Establishment Clause. The judges noted the school's ultimate mission is to provide students with a "secular education," while maintaining sufficient academic freedom and religious tolerance.
The school can now appeal to the state high court, and perhaps from there to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices have in recent years taken a case-by-case approach to Establishment Clause cases. The justices in 1947 said the government needed to be "neutral" but "not an adversary" toward religion. The court has upheld legislative chaplaincies, tax exemptions for churches, and the mention of "God" on U.S. currency and in oaths of office.
At the same time, government-sponsored school prayer is banned, and limits imposed on aid to parochial schools. Some religious monuments and displays on public land - such as crosses and menorahs - have been allowed to stay, others ordered removed.
Legal experts said to their knowledge, the high court has never decided the constitutionality of states designating police power to private, religious-affiliated schools or institution.
The case is State of North Carolina v. Yencer (COA09-01).
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.