The Case of the Exemption Claimants: Religion, Conscience, and Identity

By Smith, Steven D. | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Case of the Exemption Claimants: Religion, Conscience, and Identity


Smith, Steven D., Brigham Young University Law Review


In the Supreme Court of Newgarth, 45001

Per curiam. Pursuant to Appellate Rule 13-6(b), this appeal consolidates three separate appeals involving different parties, and different facts, but one common issue. In each case, a defendant-appellant who has been convicted for violating a legal provision or duty admits the violation but contends that he or she should have been exempted from compliance under the New Constitution. We have been directed to no previous decisions of this Court in which this issue of constitutional exemptions has been resolved,2 and so we consider the cases together in order to achieve a rational, consistent, uniform resolution.

Crisp, C.J. Are citizens (or at least some citizens) entitled under the New Constitution to be exempted from complying with a law because they have, at least in their own judgment, exceptionally strong reasons not to comply? The question is raised on this appeal by three different claimants who offer three quite different justifications for noncompliance.

In Appeal #476-13-00, the appellant, who calls himself simply Father Edward, is a priest who carries out his clerical vocation in the County and City of Durham. on the evening of November 27, Father Edward heard the confession of a parishioner, Dick Turpin. Earlier that day, Durham police had received a report of a highway robbery in which over one million Newgarth dollars had been stolen from an armored security vehicle. From a photo lineup, the vehicle's driver had tentatively identified Turpin. The identification could not be more than tentative because the robber's face had been partly covered. After police learned that Turpin had been observed entering the confessional booth at Father Edward's church later on the day of the burglary, a subpoena was served on the priest commanding him to come before a grand jury in order to testify concerning any incriminating evidence he may have heard during Turpin's confession.

Appellant appeared and acknowledged having taken Turpin's confession, but he refused to disclose anything Turpin had told him during the confession. Father Edward explained that in his faith a confession before a priest is strictly confidential, and that he would be violating his solemn duty to the church and to God if he were to reveal what Turpin had told him. in the jurisdiction of Durham, a privilege of spousal confidentiality is recognized, as is the attorney-client privilege; but unlike in some of our jurisdictions, there is no legally recognized priest-penitent privilege. For his refusal to testify, Father Edward was accordingly held in contempt of court, and was eventually sentenced to six months in prison. He contends that this treatment violated his constitutional right to freedom of religion and that he should have been exempted from the legal duty to testify.3

In Appeal #476-13-01, appellant Francis irenic was convicted of violating the Newgarth Military Conscription Act, which requires all men upon reaching the age of eighteen to register and make themselves available for military service. The Act contains a variety of exemptions, including exemptions for men preparing for the medical profession and men who are married and have dependent children. It also exempts from military service men who have a religious objection to serving in war; "religious" is defined as being based in beliefs about duties to a "Supreme Being."4 Irenic refused to register or to make himself available for military service, stating that he had an earnest and categorical moral objection to war in any form. He did not attempt to bring himself within the statute's religious exemption, however, because as he explained, his objection is based not on any belief in duties to God, or to a Supreme Being, but rather on his commitment to the sanctity of human life.5

Irenic's conscription board rejected his request for an exemption. He nonetheless persisted in his refusal to register or serve, and he was accordingly convicted of violating the Act and was sentenced to five years in prison. …

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