LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas judge facing possible disciplinary action and calls for impeachment over his involvement in an anti-death penalty protest said Friday he believes his actions were protected under the state’s religious freedom law.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen spoke to reporters after attending a news conference on the state Capitol steps held by a group of religious and civil rights leaders who voiced support for Griffen.
“We will not be silent while Arkansas pretends to believe in religious freedom with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act while at the same time attempting to punish somebody for exercising the very freedom that we’ve enshrined in the statute,” Griffen said.
On April 14, Good Friday, Griffen issued a temporary restraining order that barred the state from using a certain drug in executions until a medical supply company’s claim that the state obtained the drug improperly was resolved. The ruling, later vacated by the state Supreme Court, came days before the state was planning to execute eight inmates over an 11-day period, although rulings by other courts caused the postponements of four of the executions.
On the same day he made the ruling, Griffen appeared at an anti-death penalty protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion, where he lay strapped on a cot.
The state Supreme Court later barred Griffen from hearing any cases involving the death penalty, and the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission opened an investigation into whether Griffen violated the state’s rules of judicial conduct.
One of those rules is: “A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”
The Arkansas House also adopted rules for bringing forth articles of impeachment against a sitting elected officials amid calls by some legislators for Griffen’s removal from the bench because of his participation in the protest.
In 2015, the Legislature approved and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law Act 975, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits any governmental action that places a substantial burden on a person’s free exercise of religion unless the action furthers a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner possible.
“I’ve been targeted because I have acted consistent with my ethics and my faith, and that’s wrong,” Griffen told reporters Friday.
He said he believes his rights under RFRA have already been violated.
“I have been stripped from hearing any death-penalty cases, period. That’s a violation that’s happened,” Griffen said.
Asked if he planned to take court action under RFRA, Griffen said, “It is a RFRA violation, and unless it is cured, there will be court action. That’s a yes.”
State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, who has been at the forefront of calls for Griffen’s impeachment, said in an interview Friday he did not agree with Griffen’s interpretation of RFRA, which he said is intended to protect individuals and private businesses from government infringement on their right to religious expression.
“That is a completely different situation than a government official, elected, with a position of power, who has a set of rules, who violates those rules, in my opinion, through his actions,” said Garner, a lawyer.
Griffen is also pastor of New Millenium Church in Little Rock. More than a dozen religious and civil rights leaders from Arkansas and other states participated in Friday’s news conference, which was organized by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Speakers said Griffen’s opposition to the death penalty is rooted in his Christian faith and that it has never influenced his rulings from the bench, which they said are always based on the law. Some said other judges have stated positions on issues, committed ethical violations or broken the law without receiving as much backlash as Griffen.
Some said Griffen is being denounced by people who often assert that their Christian faith guides them but disagree with the way Griffen’s faith guides him.
“It feels like Judge Griffen is being punished for being the wrong kind of Christian,” said Stephen Reeves, advocacy coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta.