In 2006 Julie Anne Yencer was arrested for drunken and reckless driving by a Davidson College police officer. She pleaded guilty but then appealed and asked a North Carolina state court to dismiss the charges because of Davidson's affiliation with the Presbyterian Church.
The college police officers' powers, including their power to arrest her, she argued, violated the separation of church and state. Why? Because, she argued, the officers ultimately answer to trustees, 80 percent of whom must be, under the college's bylaws, active members of a Christian church. Her lawyer argued that the state’s power cannot be exercised by a sectarian institution.
In August the North Carolina Court of Appeals sided with Yencer and found that the existence of a police force at the Davidson campus amounted to an “excessive entanglement” of government and religion, relying on Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The Court stated that they were bound by precedent and in essence urged the state to appeal so that the North Carolina Supreme Court could weigh in on the issue.
The North Carolina Supreme Court will soon hear this case and then, hopefully, sort out an establishment clause question that could well decide the fate of police departments not only at Davidson but also at Wake Forest and Duke Universities, two other institutions with religious affiliations mentioned in their bylaws but who operate in a highly secular manner.
It is my hope, in a time when we should all be concerned about the welfare and safety of university students, that the Supreme Court reverses the ruling of the Court of Appeals and reinstates the guilty verdict.
Before I start, and I can already hear the secular engines revving up to chastise me for what will be viewed as theistic views, my reasoning has nothing to do with religion or “putting God back in schools” (for surely an omnipotent and omnipresent God would never have left).
Let us set aside for the moment the fact that the defendant in this case admitted her guilt and was guilty of a crime. Let’s take a look at the argument that there was “entanglement” and that the state’s power was being exercised by a sectarian institution. Was it really being exercised by the institution or was it being exercised by police officers who just happened to be paid by a private, religiously affiliated, institution but who were bound by law to uphold the laws of the state?
Did these police officers stop the defendant for failing to properly adjust her veil and just then discover she was somewhat squiffy? Was she stopped because she had failed to offer the correct propitiations in chapel the week before? No of course not. She was stopped for dangerous driving (a very mortal crime unless it was a blazing chariot) and then it was discovered that she was over the legal limit. These officers were applying the laws of the state, the fact that they were being paid by an institution that has religion in their bylaws matters not a jot to me and should not matter to others.
Candidly, when one looks at the tax breaks received by religious institutions and, I might add, by some of the hucksters who appear on television every week to bilk people out of their hard earned cash, it is refreshing to see a police force, enforcing laws for our protection, who are being financed by private dollars. We taxpayers are receiving a benefit. They are governed and “policed” (for want of a better word) by the same laws that govern municipal police forces; they are graduates of the same training programs, and there is no religious litmus test they must pass or religious qualification they must hold in order to be appointed to their office. These officers answer to the state and people of North Carolina. If they followed religious based directions or orders they could no longer serve as police officers.
If Ms.Yencer could show that the Davidson College Police Department was subject to religious edict or control that overrode the secular laws that govern other police departments then she would have my vote. If she could show that she was stopped because of some moral injunction, perhaps an order to target young adults who have surrendered to the temptations of this earth, then she would have my vote. If, as appears to be the case, she hangs her hat on the fact that a police force that is regulated by secular laws and policies, is merely financed by an institution that has a religious affiliation then I am afraid I must come down on the side of the state’s argument and I hope that our Supreme Court will do the same. Hopefully they will follow in the footsteps of the Indiana Court of Appeals holding that allowed Valparaiso, with their Lutheran connections, to keep their police force, Myers v. State, 714 N.E.2d 276.