The Supreme Judicial Court next month hears arguments on a case involving a Somerville landlord - and pastor at a local church - convicted of pushing a Muslim tenant down the stairs, several weeks after the landlord had screamed at the woman and her kids about how Muslims were wicked and would burn in hell.
After a jury convicted Daisy Obi, 73, pastor at the Adonai Bible Center, of assault and battery last year, a Somerville District Court judge sentenced her to two years in jail, but suspended 18 months of that on several conditions - including that she attend a class at Harvard or the Islamic Society of Boston on Islam. She was also required to tell any prospective tenants at her Pinckney Street triple decker about her conviction - which came after at least two other tenants had gotten protective orders against her for allegedly abusive behavior.
In an appeal now before the state's highest court, Obi's lawyers argue that forcing a Christian minister to learn about Islam violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from forcing any particular religion on people.
Government pressure to participate in a religious activity is an obvious indication ghat the government is endorsing or promoting religion. ... It is beyond dispute that the Constitution guarantees that the government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise. ...
This condition amounts to coercion because if Dr. Obi does not learn about the Muslim faith, she will be in violation of her probation, with jail time as possible punishment. Lastly, the object of the coercion is religious. The judge singles out the Muslim faith for Dr. Obi to learn about. The judge singled out Muslim people that "need to be respected." The judge imposed the Muslim religion on Dr. Obi, a Christian minister. ...
This Court should consider the ramifications if courts order a Jewish person to "learn" about and "respect" Christians or Muslims, or a Muslim was ordered to
"learn" and "respect" the Jewish or Christian religion.
In its written response, the Middlesex County District Attorney's office retorted that the requirement to attend a class on Islam is "reasonably related to the probationary goals."
The purpose of requiring the defendant to enroll in a course to understand Islam has a legitimate purpose of deterring future violence against those practicing Islam and encourages her to better understand others, so that she may conform her conduct to anti-discrimination laws.
Nor does the condition amount to undue coercion in violation of the Establishment Clause. In order to survive an Establishment Clause challenge based on coercion, there are generally three questions: "first, has the state acted; second, does the action amount to coercion; and third, is the object of the coercion religious or secular?" Here, it is clear that there is state action, as the condition is a court-ordered probation requirement, and the defendant would suffer consequences if she failed to complete the requirement. However, the object of the condition is not that she adopt or be discouraged from any religious practice -- or even that she attend a Muslim religious service ... -- but merely that she educate herself; therefore the condition neither advances nor inhibits religion.
Just in case the court sides with Obi, however, prosecutors continue that even if the justices strike the Islam-class requirement, Obi should still serve the rest of her sentence; that the court should send the sentencing back to the judge in the case to simply remove that one condition.
Although Obi was not charged with a hate crime, Judge Paul Yee used her earlier screaming at the tenant and her children to craft his sentence:
I was really struck by the victim's testimony, Ms. Gilhan Suliman, that prior of this incident Ms. Obi was yelling at her in May and screaming that Muslims need to be in hell. That Muslims are wicked people. That was said, to her and her children. This is in May, three months before this alleged incident. It just seems to me somewhat out of character and then, again, in June of 2012, Ms. Obi is yelling and at Ms. Suliman's children, screaming that they're wicked children, that they're evil since they're Muslim and clearly Ms. Suliman is Muslim. She does wear the cover over her head. She practices the Muslim faith. It seems to me a woman of God would be respectful of another human being who is made in God's likeness. But she did not.
The judge said this was why he ordered a mental-health evaluation of Obi and that when that came back clear he concluded:
It seems that this is just an evil deed on your part, and that's how I treat someone who disrespects another human being. Disrespects another human being that she would push someone to cause them serious bodily injury or death. It's a very serious matter. It's not a shove.
He told Obi:
I do want you to learn about the Muslim faith. I want you to learn about the Muslim faith. I want you to enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam, All right. I want you to at Harvard Divinity School when you went, the Harvard extension, or you can go to the Islamic Society of Boston here in Cambridge. All right. You have to give. some kind of written documentation to the probation that you have in fact done that. I do want you to understand people of the Muslim faith, and they need to be respected. They may worship Allah, a God that's different from you, but they need to be respected.
Lawyers for Obi, who said she couldn't possibly have pushed the woman down the stairs because she was in her own apartment praying at the time, argue the overall sentence is "cruel and unusual punishment" for an ordained minister in her 70s with no criminal record.
Also at issue: Whether Yee improperly overruled a defense challenge to a prospective juror who, like the tenant, wore a head scarf. The judge and prosecutors say it's pretty obvious the lawyer sought to have her removed because she appeared to be Muslim. Obi's attorneys denied it was because of religion - women who are not Muslim can wear head scarves as well - and that the judge failed to even hold a hearing to ask the woman about her religious beliefs.