Drawing the Line Between Being Religious and Being Insane

Writing for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Joseph Laycock presents a peculiar intersection of religion and law with “The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson” (Part I, Part II).

John Errol Ferguson was found guilty of 8 murders committed in 1977 and 1978 and is sentenced to death by the State of Florida. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and proclaiming himself to be the “Prince of God,” Ferguson occupies a puzzling space between what is considered insane and what is considered religious. Since federal law does not allow a mentally ill person to be executed, several psychiatrists have examined Ferguson to determine if he is, in fact, “truly” mentally ill. Laycock writes:

Christopher Handman, Ferguson’s lawyer, argued that Ferguson in no way met these requirements, explaining: A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.

The psychiatrists, appointed by Governor Rick Scott, disagree with Handman, deciding that Ferguson is religious and not insane. Ferguson’s execution, then, depends upon the court system determining whether or not he is “authentically” religious or “genuinely” mentally ill. Again, Laycock explains:

On October 16, after hearing two days’ worth of testimony from psychiatrists, Judge Glant declared in his opinion that Ferguson’s “‘Prince of God’ delusion, as well as his religious beliefs in general, shows a man who has a remarkably clear and relatively normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one.” In other words, Ferguson was competent to be executed because his strange beliefs qualified as a religious viewpoint rather than insanity.

Ferguson’s story does not end here. This decision was appealed and on October 20 Ferguson received a stay of execution by Judge Daniel Hurley of the U.S. District Court, in part because Religion Scholars John Kelsay and David Levenson of Florida State University filed an amicus brief stating that Ferguson’s beliefs do not resemble Christianity. On October 23, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta lifted the stay ruling that Hurley had abused his discretion. Ferguson was served his last meal. Then the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ordered another stay of execution, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to review the case.

In the follow up to his original story, Laycock insists that Ferguson’s case illustrates the need for Religion Scholars to reconsider the ways that they understand “religion” and, while they are at it, “madness.” He explains:

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality.

Indeed, scholarship on religion has consequences; however, it is not everyday that scholarship on religion directly effects an individual in such dramatic ways.

Texas Religion

Texas appears to be gearing up for another court case about religion and free speech in public schools. This academic year, cheerleaders at Kountze Independent School District decided to include Bible verses on their banners and signs for their middle school and high school football games. During pregame festivities for the first game of the season, the Kountze football team ran through a sign that read ““I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” The superintendent, Kevin Weldon, prohibited the cheerleaders from making more signs with religious messages and now finds himself in court. The cheerleaders, their parents, and the Texas attorney general argue that the school district is unfairly limiting the free speech of students. Weldon’s lawyers argue that although the superintendent personally agrees with the cheerleaders’ signs, he is merely upholding the law set by another Texas court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court decided that student-led prayer at football games was unconstitutional. We’ll have to wait and see what the Hardin County Court decides as District Judge Steven Thomas extended a restraining order on district officials for 14 more days, allowing the cheerleaders to display their signs for another two weeks, before the case proceeds.

Read the full New York Times article, “Cheerleaders With Bible Verses Set Off Debate,” here.