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Court upholds ban on judge hearing death-penalty cases

A federal appeals court has dismissed a challenge by an Arkansas circuit court judge who had been banned from hearing death-penalty cases after he protested against capital punishment.

Judge Wendell Griffen—also pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock—claimed the state’s supreme court had violated his free speech and religious rights. The court stopped him from hearing capital cases after he participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration on Good Friday in 2017.

Although a lower court had ruled Griffen’s lawsuit could proceed, in a 2-1 ruling the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. It denied his claims on several grounds, saying Griffen had not engaged in a “protected activity,” with the ban applying to his role as a public employee.

“Nothing in the order affects his right to practice religion,” the federal panel said. “Thus, it is ‘properly viewed as a neutral law of general applicability’ that does not offend the free exercise clause.”  

A Baptist church, New Millennium advertises itself as “inclusive, progressive and welcoming,” including to members of the LGBTQ community. 

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