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Passing plate OK, pitch for funds not

A Virginia judge can pass the collection plate at church, but the judge may not want to preach during the stewardship campaign, according to a new ethics advisory opinion for judges.

Virginia’s Canons of Judicial Conduct clamp down on fund-raising activity for fear the prestige of the judge’s office will be perceived as leverage to solicit funds.

Virginia’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, in its May 28 Opinion 08-1, said a regular religious service is not a “fund raising event” merely because it traditionally includes collection of small donations.

But it’s clear, the committee said, that a religious service is a “fund raising event” if it involves soliciting money for a special purpose, such as a building fund, or if it includes a call for a pledge of future contributions at a certain level.

The facially neutral ethics rules limit judges’ involvement in religious organizations in the same way as other organizations. It’s the nexus of public activity and fund raising that causes concern. Judges can help plan fund raising and help manage an organization’s funds, but generally they may not personally participate in the solicitation of funds.

Judges can speak of their personal religious faith, but a judge should not act as a pastor or minister at a regular church service, or take a position during a religious service on issues of public controversy, such as abortion, the environment or criminal sentencing matters, the committee opined.

Evangelically inclined jurists may want to study the advisory opinion, which examines whether a judge when preaching may encourage others to become Christians or to become a member of a particular church.

A judge may engage in one-on-one solicitation only if the solicited persons or those affiliated are not likely ever to appear before the court on which the judge serves, the committee concluded.

Judges probably understand better than anyone the committee’s admonition that they are “the subject of constant public scrutiny.”

Four of the nine committee members dissented from the majority’s conclusion that a judge should not act as a pastor at a regular church service, saying the majority went too far, making Virginia the “only state whose ethics advisory committee would prohibit judges unequivocally from acting as ministers.”
By Deborah Elkins

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