The Common Good
March-April 1996

Dear Judge Wynn

by Various Authors | March-April 1996

What do we do when conscience and the law are at odds?

ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 14, 1995, 39 ministers and church workers appeared in the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Patricia Wynn. They had been arrested the previous week for praying in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, where they proclaimed the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortu- nate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights" (10:1-2).

After guilty pleas. Judge Wynn handed down an unusual sentence to the protesters. Each of them was assigned the task of writing a letter to the judge explaining their understanding of the rule of law in our society, giving their justification for breaking the law, and staling why they felt their action was differ- ent than that of the man accused of assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The following excerpts from those letters address the relationship between Christian conscience, civil disobedience, and the rule of law-and offer compelling testimony to lives of integrity, conviction, and action.
—The Editors

"In imposing this sentence I assumed that each defendant had already given some thought to his or her decision to break the law. With this sentence I hoped to make each defendant reflect more deeply on the consequences of the conduct and the difficulties of drawing lines when it is the individual who decides under which circumstances 'the end justifies the means.'
Such line drawing becomes even more complicated when the individual believes that the particular conduct in violation of the law is sanctioned by a higher power. The purpose of this sentence was to require each defendant to re-examine his or her conduct with these issues in mind."
Judge Patricia Wynn is the D.C. Superior Court judge who sentenced the Capitol Rotunda defendants.

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