So a rabbi walks into a jail cell ...

So let's say that you are covering a news story that focuses on some Catholic organizations that have been accused of fraud. Right in the middle of the scene is a Catholic priest who has been close to the accused and was clearly in communication with them during the time in question. The prosecutors say that they want the priest to testify against the Catholics who are accused of fraud -- or they will throw him in jail.

If you are an experienced religion-beat reporter or a legal-affairs reporter, what's one of the first angles that you need to explore in this case?

The key words may or may not be "clergy privilege."

In other words, the priest's legal team may or may not be able to argue that he cannot be forced to testify about privileged private communications with members of his flock, whether these contacts took place under the seal of confession or not.

In most states, laws have been crafted to extend the same protections that are given to confessors to to other clergy and corresponding religious leaders (although these protections are hotly debated and not all laws are identical, for reasons that echo the arguments about "shield laws" to protect journalists).

I thought of this church-state wrinkle (or synagogue-state wrinkle) when reading an intriguing news feature in the Los Angeles Times about the troubled legal history of one Rabbi Moshe Zigelman. This is one case in which it is clear that the laws of man and God are both at the heart of the story. Here's the top of the report:

Two years ago, Rabbi Moshe Zigelman went to prison rather than testify against fellow Jews in a federal tax-evasion case and receive a lesser punishment.

Now, federal prosecutors are threatening him with a return to jail unless the 64-year-old devout Hasid agrees to testify before a grand jury regarding the federal government's ongoing probe of tax evasion in his Orthodox Jewish sect. ... They will ask a judge to order him to testify or be found in contempt.

His attorney says Zigelman, a teacher of scripture and son of Holocaust survivors, will again refuse, citing his religious principles.

Zigelman's unyielding religious stance has led to attorneys wrangling in a federal courtroom over the rare intersection of the modern U.S. legal system and the ancient Jewish doctrine of mesira, a prohibition for Jews against informing on other Jews to secular authorities.

The story contains all kinds of interesting material about the roots of "mesira" and why some Jewish scholars believe that the concept is no longer relevant, in this case and/or many others.

It's also important that this particular case is about fraud and, in the church-state arena, officials have more freedom to dig into religious matters when they are linked to fraud, profit or clear threats to the life and health of believers.

I can understand why the mesira angle plays such a prominent role in the story. Clearly, that is part of the defense here. It should dominate the story. Readers are told, for example:

Prosecutors have said the rabbi's position is unsupported by Talmudic law, according to court papers filed by Zigelman's attorneys. Defense attorneys contend that he is again being asked to make the obvious choice between heaven and earthly jail cells, and that no prison time will be able to get Zigelman to go against his religion and face ever-lasting punishment.

"No earthly sanction will ever make Rabbi Zigelman abandon his religious precepts," Michael Proctor, an attorney for Zigelman wrote in court papers.

Nevertheless, I kept waiting for someone in the story to discuss the issue of clergy privilege and no one ever did.

To tell you the truth, I do not know if this legal wrinkle is part of the story or not. I do know one thing: Someone should have asked about it, somebody in the courtroom or somebody in the newsroom. If this is not part of the story, I'd love to know why.

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