When a priest testifies in court, can a Catholic juror make an impartial decision about whether the cleric is telling the truth or not?

Yes, said the District of Columbia Court of Appeals yesterday, unless the juror has demonstrated a bias for or against priests.

The decision by the three-judge panel affirmed armed burglary and armed robbery convictions of Lawrence Coleman and Terry Lindsay after a jury trial in D.C. Superior Court. Both were sentenced to nine to 27 years in prison.

In October, 1975, the two men went to the rectory of St. Paul and Augustine Catholic Church in northwest Washington, ostensibly to arrange a baptism, the opinion said. Instead, they robbed two priests at gunpoint.

The priests testified against the two men. In its opinion, the appeals court rejected the defendants' argument that all Catholics should have been excluded from the jury because they cannot make a neutral judgment as to the credibility of a priest as a witness. It is not known if any Catholics were on the jury.

No qualified juror can be excluded from service merely because of his religious belief, Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. wrote for the court.

As to the question of neutrality. Newman noted ". . . in the age of the increasing secularization of our society, it may be equally plausible that the word of a cleric would be regarded no more highly by jurors than the word of a layman."