Officer in contempt case argues religious freedom
YOUNGSTOWN — A filing in the contempt-of-court case of Youngstown police officer Thomas Wisener states he quoted the Gospel of Matthew on March 18 before Judge Carla Baldwin found Wisener in contempt and ordered him taken to jail for not wearing a mask during an earlier hearing.
Wisener’s attorney, Daniel Leffler of the Ohio Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, filed Wisener’s merit brief in Wisener’s appeals court case recently, saying Wisener “informed Judge Carla Baldwin that the Bible tells him in Matthew Chapter 22 to love the Lord God with all my heart, with all my soul and all of my mind.”
It added that “Wisener testified that since God has given him a genuine and strong-held conviction, failure to follow it would prevent him from loving the Lord my God with all of his heart, all of his soul and all of his mind.”
The filing states that Wisener’s beliefs also are found in in the book of Titus, which references, “…God, who never lies… .” “As a Christian, Wisener believes he was called to emulate the character of God (Jesus Christ), which means that he should not communicate what he believed was a lie, that wearing a mask will protect other people or that it will save their life.”
The filing also quotes the book of Timothy, which says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love of self control,” interpreting this to mean “having no fear,” adding, “Wisener believes he cannot fully love and submit to God if he lives in fear of a virus.”
Baldwin ordered Wisener immediately taken to serve 10 days in jail and fined him $250 for refusing to wear a face covering Feb. 23 when he reported to Youngstown Municipal Court for a hearing before visiting Judge David Fuhry.
Wisener was in court Feb. 23 to testify if necessary in his capacity as a police officer in a criminal case. He was subpoenaed to attend the hearing. Fuhry advised Wisener on Feb. 23 he was in violation of the court’s mask requirements and advised him the possible penalties were a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. The court set a hearing for March 18 before Baldwin, who found Wisener guilty.
Leffler went to the 7th District Court of Appeals March 18, and that court ordered a stay of execution of Wisener’s sentence pending the outcome of an appeal. Wisener was released from the jail that day.
Wisener’s appeal document stated that during the March 18 hearing, Wisener’s pastor, Matt Mager, whose church is on Canfield Road in Youngstown, testified that Wisener left his previous church because it required a mask to attend. “Mager said he believed Wisener’s beliefs were genuine and were a deeply held religious belief,” the filing states.
Youngstown Municipal Court Administrator David Magura told The Vindicator on March 18 that the mask order in effect Feb. 23 and for about six months before that required everyone entering the court building to wear protective facial coverings. Individuals with “medically a documented reason preventing them from wearing the facial covering” had to let the court know, he said.
Wisener’s filing states that on Feb. 23, he checked in at the security desk and spoke with security officer Dave McKnight and informed McKnight he could not wear a mask. He sat on a bench outside of a courtroom waiting for the case to be called.
Security officer Angela Minor walked by and asked Wisener if he would wear a mask, and Wisener said he could not, the filing states. Minor said she had to notify the Youngstown Police Department internal affairs unit. Later, Magura told Wisener to sit in the back of the courtroom.
The defendant in Wisener’s case did not appear for the hearing. Wisener left the courtroom and obtained a copy of the subpoena for work purposes, the filing states. He went back to the court to have the assistant law director validate his subpoena, and the assistant prosecutor asked Wisener to wait for Fuhry.
“Judge Fuhry, while still on the bench, called Wisener to the bench. Judge Fuhry informed Wisener that he was likely in contempt for not wearing a mask, and a contempt hearing would be scheduled in the future,” the filing states.
The court changed its mask mandate Feb. 28 to no longer require employees and the public to wear a facial covering if they are fully vaccinated, Magura told the Vindicator on March 18.
The merit brief filing states that Baldwin erred in finding Wisener in contempt of court.
Wisener socially distanced while in the court building, followed Magura’s directions and did not “interfere with a court process or the administration of justice. But for being instructed to enter the courtroom and sit in the back row, Wisener would not have had to enter the courtroom or the view of the judge. He was, at best, a passive bystander,” the filing states.
The filing argues that Wisener had a “bona fide religious belief” and “suffered violations of his 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion and his 14th Amendment rights to privacy, personal autonomy and identity.” The mask mandate also violated a section of the Ohio Constitution that “preserves the free exercise of religion,” the filing states.
The filing asks the appeals court reverse the guilty finding or reduce the 10-day jail sentence to time served.