Biblical References at Trial

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, Georgia’s intermediate appellate court, wrote about a topic I touched on two years ago. In an extremely short opinion, this Georgia court was faced with the question of how far lawyers can go in referencing biblical passages in the Bible or other religious texts. The Defendant in Powell v. State appealed his conviction for aggravated assault. Defendant only had two issue on appeal. The first was an evidentiary issue the court did not have to address because the defense attorney did not actually object to the question at trial.

The second issue on appeal was more interesting: to what extent can lawyers use the Bible and other religious texts or quotes from religious leaders at trial? Given what I guess was inconsistent statements made by the witness, the prosecutor said in closing:

[L]et me call your attention to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four books of Bible, first four books in the New Testament. They all have a little minor inconsistency between each of them, here and there, and that’s because of perspective. But what do we call those four books of the Bible, ladies and gentlemen? We call them the gospel truth, ladies and gentlemen, the gospel truth.

In Reptile, which is probably the leading source book on trying plaintiffs’ personal injury cases, Biblical references are appropriate and should be used at trial. The premise is simple: most of us believe in God and view the world – to varying degrees – from the lens of faith. This is true for many of us who don’t wear sweater vests. Obviously true for people who wear their religion on their sleeve. (Not saying that is a bad thing, but you know what I mean.) So the rules of Scripture command authority as the “ultimate rules” for not only the faithful but the agnostic and even atheists. The latter idea – that atheists won’t be offended – is a big point for trial lawyers who don’t want to antagonize a jury in their final opportunity to plead their case.

The Georgia appellate court took what I thought was an easy way out, finding that the argument was not allowable because jurors were not asked to base their decision on religious principles. Which is how is it always going to be. The court said the prosecutor did not “exhort jurors to reach a verdict on religious grounds.” Well, no duh. No lawyer is going to be silly enough to say that you should give your verdict as a matter of religious faith. Any Biblical reference is going to be in the same margin this one was.

I wish the court had just said “Biblical references are fair game.” Because they are. If I can quote George Washington at trial, you can’t discriminate against Jesus because he is believed by many to be the Son of God. What a goofy cut off that would be.

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