Ignoring the crime involved in this story (and no doubt the resentencing will give the correct penalty for such a conviction), it seems like we should not only be worried about the separation of church and state in the legislative prong of the triumvirate.

It is nice to see secularism win the day in the responsible judicial side of things.


Omaha World-Herald, June 6, 1998
Judge's Bible Reading Gets Sentence Set Aside
by Nancy Hicks, World-Herald Bureau

Lincoln -- The prison sentence of a Nebraska man convicted of sexually assaulting a minor was set aside Friday by the Nebraska Supreme Court because the judge read Bible verses condemning homosexuality before announcing the sentence.

The high court said that Aaron Pattno should be resentenced by a different judge because Sarpy County District Judge George Thompson, in reading the Scripture, left the impression that the sentence was based on his own religious bias against homosexuality.

"Because the trial judge interjected his own religious views immediately prior to sentencing, a reasonable person could conclude that the sentence was based upon the personal bias or prejudice of the judge," the high court said in an unsigned, 6-0 opinion.

Pattno, 25, pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child in August 1997. He had met the 13-year-old male victim through an Internet chat room. The two met secretly for several months and eventually engaged in kissing and fondling, according to the Supreme Court record.

Before sentencing Pattno to 20 months to five years for sexual assault of a child, Thompson read a passage from the New Testament condemning homosexuality.

The passage from Romans 1 included references to "dishonorable passions" and "committing shameless acts."

In an appeal of the sentence, Pattno said the judge obviously was biased against him because of his sexual orientation and thus imposed an excessive sentence.

Pattno argued that he should have received probation because of his clean criminal record, the unlikelihood that he would repeat another offense and the circumstances surrounding the crime.

The state argued that the judge's statements were merely personal observations and did not reflect his personal views regarding homosexuality. In addition, the sentence imposed fell within statutory guidelines, the state said in the appeal.

The case initially was taken to the state's Court of Appeals but, in February, the Supreme Court decided to hear it.

Marc Delman, the attorney for Pattno, said the decision made clear the importance of the separation of church and state.

The high court referred to previous cases in which judges had shown bias or the appearance of bias, including communication with the parent of a murder victim and communication with the defendant. Delman said this was the first case that he had come across in recent Nebraska history that dealt with reading of the Bible.

In the decision Friday, the Supreme Court quoted from a 1991 federal appeals court decision: "Courts, however, cannot sanction sentencing procedures that create the perception of the bench as a pulpit from which judges announce their personal sense of religiosity and, simultaneously, punish defendants for offending it. Whether or not the trial judge has a religion is irrelevant for purposes of sentencing."

Mere statements of religious expression by a judge or remarks that suggest that a judge dislikes the crimes committed by a defendant are not necessarily indications of improper bias or prejudice, the Nebraska Supreme Court wrote.

In the Pattno case, the sentence itself was clearly within the statutory limits, the court said. But because the judge read the Scripture and then stated he had considered the circumstances and the "nature . . . of the defendant" in reaching the sentence, "a reasonable person who heard the judge's comments could have questioned the judge's impartiality."

Pattno, who is serving the sentence, could be resentenced to probation or could receive a sentence similar to the one set aside, Delman said.


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