“Bizarre” Religious Attire in Court

Religious Attire in the Courtroom: The General Rules

Judges have broad discretion in establishing rules of practice in their own courtrooms.  This power includes standards of personal appearance and attire. 

Sometimes, the judge’s dress standards must yield to someone’s sincere religious beliefs.  For example, the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause generally requires the judge to allow Jews to wear yarmulkes and Sikhs to wear turbans in court.

Other times, someone’s sincere religious beliefs must yield to the other constitutional concerns of the judge. 

For example, in one case, the criminal defense attorney was an ordained Catholic priest.  The judge properly refused to allow the priest to wear his clergy clothing in a jury trial in order to assure an impartial trial. (Larocca v. Gold, 662 F.2d 144 (2nd Cir. 1981)

In another case, nineteen members of the sect of Nation of Yahweh were charged with sixteen homicides, arsons, firebombing, and extortion.  About fifty members of the church wanted to wear their long white robes and white turbans in court as spectators.  The judge properly banned the religious garb in order to ensure a fair trial and to protect jurors from improper influence or intimidation. (U.S. v. Yahwah, 779 F. Supp. 1342 (S.D.Fla. 1992)

“Bizarre” Religious Attire

One of my favorite cases involving religious attire in the courtroom took place in Tennessee. Try to visualize it.

The criminal defendant appeared in court largely naked except for brown and white fur he tied around his private parts.  He attached fur around his ankles and shoulders. He wore goggles over his eyes.  His face and bare chest were painted green.  He had a human skull dangling from his waist. He was holding a large stuffed snake. He was also carrying several other “ornaments,” including a military gas mask.

The judge immediately exclaimed, “I will not put up with this foolishness.” The defendant pleaded, “this is spiritual attire and it is my religious believe that I have never worn anything else in court but this when I am on trial.” The judge held the defendant in contempt for dressing “like a chicken” in his courtroom.

The defendant appealed the contempt ruling. Incredibly, the appellate court reversed the ruling of the trial judge, because he did not hold an adequate hearing as to the defendant’s religious beliefs.

Personally, I can’t think of a single religion on the entire planet whose believers are required to dress like the defendant.  But then, what do I know. (State v. Hodges, 695 S.W.2d 171 (Tenn. 1985)).

(Past Articles at http://www.londonedition.net)

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