Court Hears Church Confession Case

Associated Press/February 27, 2001

Jefferson City, Mo. -- A prosecutor asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to allow him to subpoena religious leaders who listened to a man who allegedly confessed to sexually abusing two children.

Texas County Prosecutor Doug Gaston wants to use Robert Eisenhouer's statements as evidence against him in a rape and sodomy case. Eisenhouer's wife told investigators that Eisenhouer confessed his sexual involvement with the children to church elders, Gaston said. But she declined to testify, and the church officials' testimony was needed as proof of the confession.

A judge previously quashed subpoenas against the two Jehovah's Witness church officials, saying the state law that Gaston relied upon violates the federal Constitution's First Amendment protection of freedom of religion. The law says that any legal shield for communication -- except that between an attorney and client -- does not apply to situations involving suspected child abuse or neglect.

But Gaston asked the Supreme Court to overturn that decision. ``If we compel the elders of the church to testify against the church members, doesn't that in some way affect the exercise of their religious beliefs?'' Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said.

``It absolutely does,'' Gaston replied, but he said it is a permissible infringement because the intent of the state law is to protect children.

Joy Hutcheson, an attorney for the church officials, said the law ``directly attacks religion.''

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