A secular advocacy organization has accused a Dallas judge of violating the separation of church and state by proselytizing to a convicted murderer in the courtroom during the final moments of a high-profile case.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) said Thursday that Judge Tammy Kemp crossed an ethical line by sharing a Bible and Christian teachings about sin and salvation with Amber Guyger, a former Dallas police officer sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in jail for the September 2018 shooting and killing of unarmed Black man Botham Shem Jean.
Guyger, who is white, shot Jean in his own apartment, which she claimed she mistook for her own.
Courtroom video shows the 204th District Court judge approaching Guyger with a Bible, which she says is her own. At that point, Guyger had already been sentenced, and the jury had been dismissed, The Associated Press reports.
In the video, the judge, still dressed in her official robes, is seen opening the Bible and pointing to a verse.
“This is your job for the next month. Right here,” Kemp can be heard saying in the video. “John: 3:16. And this is where you start.”
Kemp then reads the Bible verse aloud. The popular verse is considered by many Christians to be a summation of the faith’s teachings about salvation. The verse states, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Kemp recommends that Guyger read the entire book of John. The conversation continues for over a minute and Guyger can be seen nodding along. Guyger then rises and hugs Kemp, who embraces her back. After at least another minute of conversation and a second hug, Guyger is led away.
FFRF filed a complaint Thursday with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, insisting that Kemp was promoting her personal religious beliefs while acting in her official capacity.
“She was in a government courtroom, dressed in a judicial robe, with all of the imprimatur of the state, including armed law enforcement officers, preaching to someone who was quite literally a captive audience,” FFRF’s letter reads. “Delivering bibles, bible studies and personal witness as a judge is an abuse of power.”
FFRF is asking the commission to investigate Kemp’s actions.
Prosecutors had requested Guyger serve at least 28 years. She will be eligible for parole in five years.
Earlier in the trial, Kemp permitted Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean to hug Guyger while delivering his victim impact statement. The younger brother said he forgave Guyger, doesn’t think she should go to jail, and said he hoped she would dedicate her life to Jesus.
FFRF said that while it is “perfectly acceptable” for Brandt Jean to express religious beliefs in court, “the rules are different for those acting in a governmental role.”
HuffPost has reached out to Kemp’s office for comment.
Kemp ran as a Democrat during her bid for office in 2014, AP reports. During her campaign, she reportedly placed an ad in a local magazine where she called herself a “woman of faith with strong Christian values” and revealed that she and her husband had fasted and prayed about her decision to run.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that judges acting in their official capacity must not proselytize.
“By distributing a Bible and telling the defendant it is her ‘job’ to read a religious text as she’s on her way to prison, Judge Kemp has sent a message to all defendants who come before her that their religious beliefs could affect the outcomes of their cases and their sentences,” Laser told HuffPost.
Monica L. Miller, legal director for the American Humanist Association, said that her advocacy organization isn’t planning legal action over the issue at this time. But she said Kemp’s behavior “obliterated” the line between church and state.
“Compassion belongs in our courtrooms,” Miller said. “Personal bibles, admonishments to follow John 3:16, and Christian privilege do not.”