Missouri Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Two Church (JW) Elders

[Original publication date: May 5, 2004]

Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of two church elders
by Laurie Patton, KY3 News

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., April 10 – The Missouri Supreme Court says two church elders do not have to talk to a prosecutor about a man accused of molesting two young girls. On Tuesday, the court threw out subpoenas obtained by the Texas County prosecutor to try to compel the elders’ testimony.

Prosecuting Attorney Doug Gaston says he has reason to believe that Robert Eisenhouer of Cabool confided about the crime to the elders of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Cabool. In late 1999, Gaston sought to compel Elders Richard Bloom and Charles Graham to talk to him.

In January, a circuit court judge ruled that Bloom and Graham do not have to comply with the subpoena. The prosecutor appealed. In its ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court said the circuit court judge was right to quash the subpoenas, which asked the elders to bring material relevant to the criminal case, including “personal knowledge.”

Eisenhouer is charged with two counts of first-degree statutory rape and two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy. Gaston thinks Eisenhouer confessed to the elders about the crimes. Bloom and Graham argued that the subpoena sought to violate minister-parishioner privileged communications, which can legally be kept confidential in most instances. They said forcing them to reveal the details of the conversation would violate their rights to free exercise of religion that are guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Gaston argued that a state law requires ministers to reveal minister-communicant conversations in cases of known or suspected child abuse. The elders argued that the state law is unconstitutional.

In its 6-0 ruling, the judges said that another state law, upon which Gaston also relied for the subpoenas, did not allow the prosecutor to ask the elders to bring “personal knowledge.” The judges said that law only allows subpoenas for “books, papers, records, or other material of any evidentiary nature.” The judges said “personal knowledge” is not “material” that is allowed to be subject to a subpoena under that law.

Because the Supreme Court decided the issue on a technicality, it did not decide the constitutionality of the other state law that requires ministers to reveal knowledge about child abuse. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Gaston implied that he might issue new subpoenas without asking Bloom and Graham to bring “personal knowledge” with them. That would allow him to eventually try to get a ruling on the constitutionality of that state law.

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