On Friday, members of the legal community gathered in the Jefferson County Courthouse to hear a group of judges and faith leaders discuss the responsibilities lawyers have to promote peace in Birmingham. Lawrence King, Bernard Nomberg, and Khaula Hadeed (Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim lawyers, respectively) organized and moderated the panel in response to the multiple bomb threats phoned in to the Birmingham Jewish Community Center and the death threat sent to the Birmingham Islamic Society.
King opened the proceedings by recalling the violence of Birmingham’s past and his desire to be more than a passive bystander. He said that in the wake of the threats to Birmingham’s religious institutions, he was reminded of the “unfortunately now iconic” pictures from the Civil Rights Movement of Birmingham police turning fire hoses on marching children.
“This time, when I looked at [the pictures], I didn’t look at the firemen, I didn’t look at the policemen, I didn’t look at the little black children, I didn’t look at the hose. This time, I looked at the blurry faces in the background of the photograph. I looked at the white people who stood there watching with their arms crossed, doing nothing, letting it go on, in their minds perhaps thinking, ‘This is bad, I wish this wasn’t going on.’ Perhaps some of them were glad it was going on. I don’t know,” King said.
“But they all stood there and did nothing, and as I looked at it, I said, ‘I don’t want to be that guy. Not anymore. If I’m not going to be, if I’m not willing to be, if I’m not informed of my faith enough to be, if I’m not courageous enough to be, part of the solution, then I will remain part of the problem.’”
King introduced the first speaker, Father Doug Vu, the rector at UAB’s St. Stephen the Martyr Chapel. King called him “the first part of the joke that brings us together: a priest, an imam, a rabbi walk into a courtroom,” adding, as the audience laughed, “You knew I was going to go there at some point.”
Vu called on the legal profession to always respect the dignity of the human person, quoting from the Book of Genesis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the words of Pope Francis to argue that everyone has a moral obligation to encourage human flourishing among all members of society.
Vu spoke about the need to temper justice with mercy in regards to “sinners against society.” Those who break the law should be justly tried and punished, Vu said, “but we have to be merciful when we grant the sentences. And we need to help the men and women who suffer in society or who permit sin against society — they too need to be forgiven, healed, so that in the time that they have to do penance in jail and prison, they can be renewed, so that when they go out of jail or prison, they can become a holy and productive citizen of the world.”
The other faith leaders speaking each touched upon similar themes when they stepped up to the lectern. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-el explained that traditionally, rabbis have served as both spiritual leaders and legislators for the Jewish community, and told the lawyers present to look to their efforts as a model to balance justice and mercy in their decisions.
“In Judaism, justice and mercy are complementary, not divisive or separate from each other. And the rabbis portray them both as very important, integral parts of society to endure, for the universe to endure from day to day,” Miller said. “None of us want to live in a world where there is only justice. And none of us want to live in a world where all is forgiven, and justice is not demanding. So we need to have both justice and mercy in balance with each other. So lawyers have a role in promoting peace in our community by being those agents of welding justice and mercy . . . so that our society can endure from one day to the next.”
Miller also spoke the difference between holding ideals and actually acting upon them, imploring his listeners to actively pursue peace in the community.
His words were echoed by Reverend Kip Laxson of Asbury United Methodist Church, who argued that “faith cannot be lived in absentia or at a distance” but requires struggle and active engagement with to improve the world. Laxson said he has actively sought to promote interfaith dialogue with his congregation and members of the Muslim community despite receiving death threats and hate mail for bringing Muslim speakers to his church. He said that despite the hostility, he believed that building bridges between religious groups is vital to society.
Imam Sameh Asal of the Birmingham Islamic Society described lawyers’ work defending the innocent as a form of charity, and noted that the profession is indispensable for the survival of society because lawyers prove to the citizenry that the legal system can be trustworthy and fair. He recounted the reports of hundreds of lawyers descending on airports across the nation in the wake of President Donald Trump’s first executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, all in an effort to ensure that those with valid green cards who had been detained would have adequate legal representation.
“Here, personally, I was impressed to see [the detainments] being challenged and people feeling assured, regardless of the controversy that people might bring, that people can find lawyers and, thank God, a factor of assurance that if something happens to them, then they have good people to resort to,” Asal said. “They assure people their rights and in giving them that assurance, in giving them that, people when they panic about something, when they are in fear, when they are in suspicion, need something to help them and give them hope and say, ‘It’s not the end of it.’”
Joyce Vance, the former United States attorney for the North District of Alabama, also recalled the actions of lawyers in response to the executive order as a moment of pride for the profession.
“I think that we have a role to play in putting the rule of law into action,” Vance said. “And this is an opportunity to put to rest all of the bad lawyers joke that all of us having been hearing throughout the years, because no matter what your view is on the subject of immigration and the president’s executive order and the need for immigration reform in this country, when President Trump’s executive order went into effect with no lead time, so it was issued and it was in place, and lawyers from around this country volunteered to go into airports, suddenly lawyers were the heroes,” she said.
“We were celebrated. And it didn’t really matter if you thought that in the long run there needed to be immigration reform, we all understood that translators who had served alongside U.S. troops in the Middle East shouldn’t be stopped from entering this country and sent back into peril in their countries of origin, or the people who held green cards who really were entitled to enter this country should not be held up because they were Muslim. And so without regards to the politics of the issues, lawyers played a role in implementing the rule of law. I think that we’re all obligated to find ways to do that in our communities.”
The two judges who spoke both called for greater engagement from lawyers with the political processes of the nation. Presiding Jefferson County Circuit Judge Joseph Boohaker, who provided his courtroom for the panel to use, said that members of the legal profession need to stand up for the principle of unity that he described as underlying the founding of the United States, rather than encouraging polarization and tribalization.
Retired Jefferson County Circuit Judge Houston Brown, who was the first African-American presiding judge in the county, expressed his frustration with the rise of racist rhetoric and violence, which he said reminded him of the violence he saw growing up in Birmingham before the Civil Rights movement. Wearing an original pin from the 1963 March on Washington, Brown noted that when he started practicing law 45 years ago, the state legislature was composed of 62 percent lawyers, while today that number is only 26 percent.
“One of the ways that I see lawyers beginning to do something about these terrible conditions is to do what lawyers have always done in the past . . . step up the plate. Run for political office. Get involved. We sorely need leadership; that’s what’s lacking in this state,” he said. “If you look at the 3,000 lawyers-plus in Birmingham, and the 16,000 in the state, we have the smarts, we have know-how, we have the experience to participate and participate on a high level.”