Sunday, August 1, 2021
Evidence of a witness’ religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness' credibility.
As the language of this Rule and the opinion of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division in M.A. v. A.A., 2021 WL 2711112 (N.J.App. 2021), make clear, evidence of a witness' religious beliefs is admissible for purposes beyond those prohibited in the Rule.
In A.A., the "[d]efendant A.A. appeal[ed] a January 21, 2021 Family Part order entered following a bench trial that appointed plaintiff M.A. as the limited medical guardian of vaccinations for their daughter." M.A. had wanted age-appropriate vaccination for their daughter while A.A. claimed she had religious objections to vaccinations.
The trial court found it was appropriate, in accord with federal case law, to adopt a sincerity analysis. The court found defendant was inconsistent in her religious beliefs and her practices. It found defendant changed her story several times, had a selective memory and lacked candor. The court was “left with the impression that [defendant was] hiding behind a falsehood of religious doctrine in order to further a philosophical and moral stance.” She “avoided questions, contradicted herself on several occasions, demonstrated selective memory and outright lied to this court during her testimony.” Therefore, the trial court found her not to be “truthful with regard to her religious beliefs,” which was the basis for her argument that she should decide whether the child should be vaccinated.
The court considered the child's best interest. Neither expert demonstrated whether immunizing Adele exposed her to a serious risk, would injure her or cause ITP. The court found that the child should be immunized “for her protection and the protection of others.” However, the trial court also was concerned with defendant's First Amendment rights to free exercise of her religion. The court resolved what it perceived as the conflict between the two by applying the federal sincerity test and then the best interest standard. The court found defendant lacked “sincerity and consistency” in her claim of religious freedom. The court also found the medical experts agreed there was a small chance of a reoccurrence of ITP and overall that vaccines were safe and effective. As such, it concluded it was appropriate for the child to be vaccinated and appointed plaintiff as sole guardian for immunization purposes. The court stayed its decision for ten days to permit an appeal.
In affirming this decision on appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division held that
The trial court's decision was not based on a misapplication of the Rules of Evidence. New Jersey Rule of Evidence 610 provides that “[e]vidence of a witness’ religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’ credibility.” N.J.R.E. 610. This Rule “does not exclude proof of religious beliefs or opinions when offered for another purpose that is material to an issue in the action.”...Another Evidence Rule provides that a person has a privilege not “to disclose his theological opinion or religious belief unless his adherence or nonadherence to such an opinion or belief is material to an issue in the action other than that of his credibility as a witness.” N.J.R.E. 512.
Defendant sought appointment as Adele's sole medical guardian for vaccinations allegedly because of her religious beliefs regarding vaccinations. Her assertion of religious opinions or beliefs, therefore, was material to the issue to be decided by the court. Testimony about the sincerity of her religious objection was not elicited as a blanket attack on her credibility based on the truth of her religious beliefs. Rather, the testimony was elicited to examine the material issue of whether her religious views against vaccinations were sincere or whether they were pretextual. The trial court did not abuse its discretion under either evidence rule by allowing such testimony.