BY MICHAEL WOJCIK
MADISON - The popular movie "Miracle on 34th Street" placed a Christmas icon - Santa Claus - on trial. The Scopes Monkey Trail of 1925 challenged in a courtroom the practice of teaching a scientific concept - evolution - in schools. What if a judge and teams of highly skilled attorneys and top experts were to place the very existence of God - the Maker of heaven and Earth - on trial?
Several of New Jersey's best attorneys and experts - believers in God and atheists alike - have been preparing to do legal battle in a highly anticipated "mock trial" - presided over by an actual sitting federal judge - to determine the very existence of the Creator. This mock legal proceeding, titled "A Trial an Eternity in the Making," will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 8 at St. Paul Inside the Walls: the Catholic Center for Evangelization at Bayley-Ellard here.
"Debate is healthy. For people returning to the Church with open hearts and minds, it is necessary for them to know that they entering a place where dialogue is welcomed," said Father Geno Sylva, St. Paul's director and diocesan vicar for evangelization. "I would rather people focus on discussion and debate over the existence of God, rather than offer no consideration about why we are here, if anyone was put here, and for what purpose."
Lawyers will argue both sides of the cleverly named fictional case of "John Paul Holley (recalling Blessed Pope John Paul II, joined with the word "holy") v. Faith Knot (referring to a person, who does "not" have faith in God). The case involves a dispute between two siblings over the will of their wealthy mother, May, a Catholic, who started to question God's existence in her later years. Her will leaves that issue to be resolved by her children, Holley, a devout Christian, and Knot, an atheist, Father Sylva said.
If Holley and Knot can agree about God's existence, their mother's $100 million estate would be donated to religious causes. If the siblings agree that God does not exist, the estate would be evenly divided among them. If they try to circumvent her wishes, they receive nothing, Father Sylva said.
The money seems tempting, but Holley refuses to say there is no God. Knot, the non-believer, is equally fervent; she would even donate her share to non-religious causes. By pretrial ruling, the court has ordered that Holley will bear the burden of proving there is a God. St. Paul's Outreach to Catholic Lawyers will sponsor the trial, which will be open to the legal community and the public at large, said Father Sylva.
"A sticky issue? Absolutely. But putting on such a controversial and public trial encourages some heavy dialogue in an era when God is often ignored," Father Sylva said. "Such a trial helps perpetuate those conversations held over the holiday table, and hopefully nurtures some of that spirit and belief often buried in our souls."
Presiding over the mock trial will be the Hon. Madeline Cox Arleo, magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Some of the Garden State's best legal and academic minds will be battling out the existence of God in the courtroom, including Michael Critchley of Critchley, Kinum & Vazquez, LLC; Joseph LaSala of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP; Kathleen Murphy of Connell Foley, LLP; Timothy Donohue of Arleo, Donohue & Biancamano, LLC; John Lenz, Ph.D., chair of the classics department at Drew University, Madison; and Sherif Girgis, doctoral candidate at Princeton University and a student at Yale Law School.
The mock trail will begin with a welcome from Father Sylva. This legal proceeding will continue with the stipulation of exhibits, reports from expert witnesses, opening arguments from the plaintiff and defendant, cross-examination of expert witnesses and summations by the plaintiff and defendant. It will conclude with a question-and-answer session with the trail masters that will explore questions, such as "What legal techniques worked and which did not?" Father Sylva will deliver closing remarks.
"At the mock trial, people will get to see trial techniques from some of New Jersey's best attorneys," said Louis Madugno of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, a member of the Outreach to Catholic Lawyers. "Also people who attend will see that the Church is changing - that there are two sides to the debate and to keep an open mind."
"The greatest minds in the world have been debating this issue for ages, while many of us question why we mortal humans even have the right to question such a thing," Father Sylva said.
In fact, the genius Albert Einstein, a believer, claimed that his "religion consists of humble admiration of the illimitable superior Spirit." Charles Darwin wrote in his controversial "The Origin of the Species:" "There is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one," Father Sylva said.
"With this trial, we in the diocese wanted to engage members of the legal community and reach out to them in a way that would interest them," said Father Sylva, who praised a team of seven attorneys for spending countless hours preparing the legal arguments for both sides. "This trial in 2012 in New Jersey may do two things - reaffirm that God created the world or may affirm something else entirely."
To register to attend the mock trial, call St. Paul's at (973) 437-9741.