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There’s a time and a place for the Pledge of Allegiance, Chico attorney William Mayo believes, and it’s not in the courtroom. On Tuesday, the 55-year-old criminal defense lawyer confirmed he has filed complaints with the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance against two rural judges who allegedly lead Pledge recitations in their courtrooms at the start of each day. The complaints accuse Butte County Superior Court Judge Stephen Benson and Tehama County Superior Court Judge John Garaventa of violating judicial neutrality by improperly forcing their own religious and political beliefs upon everyone in their courtrooms, including criminal defendants. Mayo takes particular exception to the phrase “one nation under God” in the 31-word Pledge. “For those who do not share the judges’ religious belief that there exists a God — and who wish to instill and maintain non-monotheistic values in their lives — this intrudes into their right to be free of a government-sponsored religion,” Mayo wrote in complaints to the CJP and California Chief Justice Ronald George. “It is also a clear facial First Amendment violation that contravenes every Establishment Clause principle that the U.S. Supreme Court has ever enunciated.” Mayo’s complaints ask that the CJP issue a cease-and-desist order and require the judges to forgo their “daily religious and political indoctrination” of those in court. Mayo has also filed motions in both courts, demanding that Benson and Garaventa “dispense with leading the defendants, defense counsel and others in attendance in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.” The hearing before Benson is set for Sept. 14, while the one in front of Garaventa is scheduled for Sept. 15. The 58-year-old Benson, who was elected to the bench in 2000, couldn’t be reached on Tuesday, and Garaventa, a 53-year-old appointed in 1998 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, declined comment. However, Dennis Murray, the presiding judge in Tehama County Superior Court to whom Mayo also complained, said he didn’t think it was against the law for a judge to lead the Pledge in a courtroom, and thought the propriety of doing so is something that “reasonable minds can differ about.” “It’s not a practice I engage in,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it.” Butte County Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Roberts couldn’t be reached. Benson’s courtroom in Oroville is about 60 miles southeast of Garaventa’s in Red Bluff, and Mayo — owner of the Mayo Law Clinic, which specializes in defending clients against criminal and administrative charges — said Tuesday that the Pledge routine is similar in both. “The way it works,” he said, “is the judge appears in court, the bailiff advises everybody in the audience to rise and salute the flag, and engages in the Pledge of Allegiance. We’re being compelled to pledge our allegiance to the government, and I don’t think that’s a subtle indoctrination.” In his complaint to the CJP, Mayo argues that the judges’ recitation is “coercively compelling” a criminal defendant to “confess his sins before God and country” and, thereby, prejudicing his case. Mayo’s complaints contend that the Pledge in a courtroom is so coercive that it could “give rise to a veritable constitutional challenge to every guilty (or no contest) plea” heard by Benson and Garaventa. “Simply put,” Mayo wrote, “state-sponsored religion in a courtroom is absolutely prohibited and neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the defendant attendees is questionably voluntary (although, we think not), can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause.” Victoria Henley, the CJP’s director and chief counsel, couldn’t confirm the filing of Mayo’s complaints because cases aren’t public unless formal charges are filed. But she said she wasn’t aware of any complaint ever being filed before regarding a judge’s recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. San Francisco lawyer Jonathan Arons, an expert on ethics, said Mayo’s complaints would be stronger if he pointed to some judicial canon that the judges were violating. But even without that, he said, there is something to be said about the apparently coercive nature of the judges’ recitations. “Here people are ordered [to participate],” he said, “so there may well be something to the fact that the coercive nature of it — and the appearance of bias if you will — may certainly be present. “What if you don’t stand? Is the judge going to hold it against you?” Mayo said Tuesday that he has no particular religious or atheistic leanings, but was baptized, confirmed and once married in a Christian church. He also said he has no general personal feelings about the Pledge of Allegiance, but definitely finds its recitation in a courtroom by a sitting judge “particularly troublesome.” Mayo also said he’s not worried about any consequences stemming from challenging the judges. “In situations of law or matters of truth,” he said, “I have determined it is far better to stand one’s ground and, at the same time, possibly incur the wrath of an irate judge than it is to get on bended knee and succumb to the wishes of those wielding power — judicial or otherwise.”

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