Defendants object to southern Minnesota county holding trials in a church

A defendant in an upcoming trial in Dodge County objected to the temporary location for the proceedings: A local church.

A southern Minnesota county is holding its trials in a church due to space limitations during the pandemic, but defendants say it’s a violation of the separation of church and state.

The fight is taking place in Dodge County, Minnesota. Its historic Dodge County Courthouse in Mantorville is too small to host court proceedings with adequate social distancing. So, court administration found an alternate site at nearby Community Celebration Church.

The Minnesota State Public Defender’s Office has objected, saying churches should be off limits.

Lauri Traub is a public defender in that region of Minnesota. She represented Lois Riess when she pleaded guilty to murdering her husband. Those proceedings took place at Kasson-Mantorville High School this summer after being moved from the courthouse.

Now, Traub has a defendant awaiting trial on felony theft charges and he doesn’t want his case decided in the church.

“First of all, the constitution separates church and state and what can be less of a separation than having a trial in a church?” Traub asked.

She believes there is no way to know or predict how jurors will ultimately feel when they have to walk into a house of worship and sit in judgement of a fellow community member.

“People could believe in a benevolent and loving God and feel it’s not their place to judge someone. People could be of the eye-for-an-eye type and judge more harshly,” she added.

For now, the theft trial is on hold as the legal team awaits a response from the state court of appeals. They write that holding his trial in a church violates his right to a fair and public trial.

Traub said schools, hotel banquet halls or even other county courthouses are all acceptable options.