A Personal Interest?

On May 18, the North Dakota Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Dakota v. Family Life Services (FLS), in which the pro-abortion state attorney general placed an entire pro-life ministry into state-governed receivership.

The State additionally urged the trial court to appoint a new governing board for this religious ministry, to be made up of members whom the court and the attorney general considered to be sufficiently religious and of sufficiently like mind with the former board to carry out the ministry’s mission. Attorney Peter Crary, on behalf of FLS, appealed, citing the ministry’s First Amendment right to autonomy and freedom from state interference.

Herb Titus, founding dean of Regent University Law School, wrote the appellate brief for FLS and argued the case. The courtroom was filled to capacity with Christians concerned about the rights of a ministry to operate free from state takeover. Attorney Crary long ago realized that the trial court judge was taking a very personal interest in the case, but how much of an interest became alarmingly clear shortly after the Supreme Court hearing.

At the hearing, the Justices clearly expressed their displeasure at the judge trying to make decisions on a religious basis. Several days later the trial judge wrote an unprecedented letter to the Supreme Court stating that he had listened to the webcast of the oral argument. “Based on the questions posed,” he wrote, “it may assist the Justices in understanding what the trial court did by reviewing pages 55, 1254- 1260 of the transcript.” In effect, the trial court was trying to argue the case on appeal! Two defendants filed written objections.

On May 31, 2000, the Court ruled: “As there is no authority for the trial court’s submission, it is rejected and will not be considered by this Court.” Most astounding is the fact that the transcript pages cited by the judge relate solely to one of the defendant’s credentials as a minister of the gospel.

The judge was explaining to the Supreme Court that he had to remove and reappoint the FLS board of directors because this defendant was not religiously qualified to run a ministry! Thus, in trying to justify his actions to the Supreme Court, the trial court was driving home the defendants’ point, i.e., that the court has no business ruling on the religious qualifications of individuals involved in a private religious ministry. Please keep this case in your prayers. After 4-1/2 years, there is hope that justice may finally be served.