"We need more moral leadership in America, not less."
From KARK TV-4 News. Video and story here.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Religious leaders rallied on the state capitol steps Friday in defense of an Arkansas judge's first amendment rights, after he was barred from hearing capital murder cases in April.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen joined about 15 religious leaders and scholars from different faiths and states in calling the actions against him a "direct attack on religious liberty."
"I rise to say, 'Shame on you!,' to those in Arkansas government, law enforcement and judicial branches who have falsely accused Judge Wendell Griffen of being biased," said Valerie Bridgeman, the dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, as a crowd of 50 people cheered. "Do the right thing, Arkansas. Do the constitutional thing."
Griffen, a Baptist preacher, came under fire on Good Friday when he lay strapped to a cot as part of a death penalty protest organized by his church in front of the Governor's Mansion, the same day he issued a ruling that blocked the state's upcoming executions.
"When Pastor Griffen silently prayed while lying on a cot in solidarity with Jesus on Good Friday, he did not impose his religious beliefs on others," said Ray Higgins, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, which is the organization that sponsored the rally.
The president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Rizelle Aaron, asked the crowd why Griffen, not other judges who have been criminally prosecuted, was targeted for impeachment with "Guinness World Record lightning speed."
Then Aaron answered his own question: "His race."
"There's a great irony when a judge of justice is punished with injustice for exercising his legal right," Aaron said.
After the Arkansas Supreme Court stripped Griffen of his authority to hear death penalty cases, he sued the court and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
"It's not illegal to pray," Griffen said. "I've been targeted because I have acted consistent with my ethics and my faith and that's wrong."
Griffen argues he hasn't done anything unethical. However, the state's Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC) is investigating misconduct complaints against him.
Griffen said he has not been involved in the JDDC proceedings and plans to take legal action under the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
"I do not misunderstand what freedom means," Griffen said. "I am not a slave. I am a free man... I will fight this as long as there is fire in my body and breath in my spirit."
When asked if there was ever a moment he regretted his decision to lay on the cot that day, Griffen responded, "Never a moment."
"I will go to my death with two things in my mind," he continued. "There was one right place for me that day. I was there. And if I had to do it a thousand times, I'd be right back there doing that. I'll go to my maker and say, 'I'll take whatever that means.'"
The religious leaders at Friday's rally would continue to stand beside him.
"We applaud the many ways Judge Griffen serves this state and this community. Amen."