Are Pastors Exempt?

You’d be surprised how often I’m asked, “Are ministers (rabbis, preachers, priests, chaplains, etc.) really exempt from Jury Duty?”  That’s like asking an attorney what the Statute of Limitations is for a car accident.  For example, for a personal injury sustained in an automobile accident in the state of Alabama, the Statute of Limitations is two years.  In Florida, it’s four years, and in Kentucky, it’s just one.  But if the person died in the accident in Florida, then it’s two years.  In Illinois, the time allotted by law to file a lawsuit for the damage to your vehicle in an auto accident is five years, but the time allowed to sue the person who hit you for your injuries sustained in that same accident is two years.  Then again, the time you have in which to sue your own insurance company for coverage for the same accident is ten years.

So, as a member of the clergy, are you exempt from jury duty?  In the past, it was not uncommon for people who were otherwise qualified to serve on a jury to seek exemption based on their occupation. Occupational exemptions included physicians, attorneys, coroners, first responders, and clergymen. The reason members of such professions were exempt was that they performed functions necessary to the public interest. However, shortly after the turn of the century, twenty-six states eliminated occupational exemptions entirely, and an additional nine placed stringent restrictions on them.  Currently, in some states, automatic occupational exemptions are only available to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, Clerks of Court, and Judges.

Now that you know there is a good chance that you can indeed be called upon to serve on a jury, the next question is, “Do I morally, ethically, or ecclesiastically feel that I can sit on a jury?”  Matthew 7:1 tells us to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  Several verses in I Corinthians instruct us to decide matters within the church and not to sit in judgement of those outside the church.  But aside from the Bible, Church Law does not contradict State Law and prohibit members of the clergy from serving on a jury where the law of the land would require them to do so.

So, now that you have this inner struggle, what do you do?  First, you check the statutes of your state and see if you may be eligible for occupational exemption.  If not, you may be allowed one deferment without giving a reason.  If you are not allowed a deferment or are called to serve after a deferment, then without a doubt, you must participate.  

Once you’ve checked into the Courthouse, you’re put in a jury pool and divided into groups.  After filling out some paperwork, each group is assigned a courtroom where you’ll be given a number.  At that point, the Plaintiff’s attorney and the Defense attorney will give a brief overview of what the case is about and why their client should win.  Once you know what the case specifically entails, whether it’s a civil case or a criminal case, then you’ll also have a better idea of whether or not your conscious will allow you to remain on the jury.  

Then the attorneys will each ask questions of the potential jurors, one by one.  They might ask general things such as, “What do the bumper stickers on your car say?” then they’ll ask more personal questions such as, “Do you believe in capital punishment?” or, “Do you believe sex offenders can be rehabilitated?”  Finally, the judge will ask each person if they have any type of undue hardship which should cause consideration from exemption of jury duty.

This jury selection process is what’s known in the legal community as “voir dire.”  After each of the potential jurors are interviewed, the judge may automatically excuse someone.  If that happens, that person is generally escorted out before the next step.  Then both attorneys are assigned a certain number of “peremptory challenges” (usually three each), which they may use to strike a potential juror without having to give a reason.  This peremptory challenge allows an attorney to dismiss a potential juror who might harbor prejudices that could infringe upon the rights of their client to a fair trial.

As a member of the clergy who may not feel comfortable serving on a jury, here’s what you need to know:  Depending on the type of case and the scheduled length of the trial, it might be a hardship for you to be unavailable to your congregation for that length of time, especially if you are alone in your church.  The judge may excuse you early on for this reason alone.  Because clergy members come into contact with so many people in the professional lives, it’s not out of the scope of possibility that you know someone involved in the trial.  This may be enough of a conflict of interest to get you excused from jury duty.  Oftentimes, clergy work closely with first responders as well as government officials.  This, too, could be considered a conflict of interest when you would have to listen to testimony from these individuals.  Finally, there is a preconceived notion that pastors, ministers, rabbis, priests, etc., have a tendency to be more sympathetic to criminals, and this notion alone may be enough to warrant a dismissal of jury duty.

At the end of the day, while your state may not allow you to claim occupational exemption from jury duty, there is still a good chance that you may not have to serve.  Just leave the matter in God’s hands and pray for His will.  And if He sees fit to place you on that jury, trust that He has a reason, and listen for His instruction as far as how to vote or how you might be used to change the mind of another juror who may not know God.

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Dean Burnetti is a personal injury attorney who practices law in Central Florida.  He received a Pastoral Ministries degree from Oklahoma Baptist Seminary in 1980, and he dedicates a portion of time at his law practice to assisting clergy members with legal matters involved in their service to the Lord.

*Unless otherwise noted, the legal opinions given above apply to clergy personnel in the State of Florida.  It is important to note that each member of the clergy should be aware of current laws that govern their own state.  Furthermore, the information contained herein is a legal opinion, and should not be construed as legal advice.

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Dean Burnetti is a personal injury attorney who practices law in Central Florida. He received a Pastoral Ministries degree from Oklahoma Baptist Seminary in 1980, and he dedicates a portion of time at his law practice to assisting clergy members with legal matters involved in their service to the Lord.
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