The excommunication of Mormon ERA activist Sonia Johnson yesterday fueled a continuing controversy over whether a federal judge who holds a high post in the Mormon church should rule in a case involving the Equal Rights Amendment.
The case involve's a challenge, brought by Idaho and Arizona and four Washington state legislators, to the congressional extension of the deadline for the ratification of the amendment.
Judge Marion J. Callister of the U.S. District Court in Boise last October rejected a Justice Department motion that he disqualify himself from the case because he is a high official in the Mormon hierarchy.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and several other members of Congress yesterday demanded a meeting with President Carter and Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to demand that the Justice Department appeal Callister's decision to stay on the case.
"We find it hard to believe that a judge who is active in the leadership of a church which sees the passage of the ERA as undermining church doctrine is representative of the type of impartiality which our judicial system stands for," the lawmakers said in a letter to the president.
Bishop Jeffrey Willis, who issued the excommunication order, has insisted that Johnson's activities on behalf of ERA were not an issue in her trial. Instead, he said, she has preached false doctrine and publicly attacked church leaders. Johnson, however, maintains that all the charges against her grew out of her activities on behalf of ERA.
Callister is a regional representative in the Mormon Church, reporting directly to the church's ruling Council of 70. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said the position was "comparable to a cardinal" in the Roman Catholic Church.
Edwards also said that 79 members of Congress have asked to join in the Idaho suit as friends of the court "because our work (the deadline extension) is being attacked."
In a related development, however, the American Jewish Congress, while supporting ERA, has criticized the Justice Department for moving to disqualify Callister. "We reject as a matter of principle any assumption that a judge's membership or even leadership in a particular religious group by itself renders him incapable of deciding any case in accordance with the law and facts," the Jewish group said.
It suggested that to exclude the judge solely on the grounds of his religion would violate the First Amendment of the Constitution and its guarantee of separation of church and state.