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Nebraska Supreme Court Overturns Sileven’s Jail Sentence

January 4, 1985

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday unanimously overturned an eight-month jail sentence for contempt imposed on the Rev. Everett Sileven, a fundamentalist pastor whose church school was the focal point of a protracted controversy with state education officials.

The high court ruled that the Cass County District Court erred by handing down criminal contempt sanctions against Sileven after he initially was charged with civil contempt.

″Well, praise the Lord 3/8″ Sileven, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church, said from Louisville when he learned of the decision. ″I’m glad it’s overturned. Certainly I’m glad they saw fit to do this.″

Sileven contended that the district court violated his constitutional right to notice by pursuing criminal sanctions.

Judge William C. Hastings, who wrote for the court, said, ″We concluded that although the contempt proceedings were noticed as a civil contempt, may very well have been intended as a civil contempt, and were conducted as a civil contempt, in that (Sileven) was not advised of his rights against self- incrimination, the sanction imposed was very definitely criminal in nature.″

Sileven was sentenced to eight months imprisonment in the Cass County Jail by District Judge Ronald E. Reagan for ″willful contempt″ in April 1984. He served 37 days of the sentence and was later released on $10,000 bond.

The sentence stemmed from Sileven’s violation of the lower court’s injunction barring him from operating the Faith Christian School until it met state education regulations.

Cass County Attorney Ronald Moravec said he wasn’t surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, saying the trial court had failed to ″give Sileven a chance to remedy the problem.″

Moravec said he may ask the district court to dismiss the case, saying Faith Christian apparently is now operating within state requirements.

The Legislature passed a measure last year that gave church schools the legal right to operate in the state without meeting the same standards required of other public and private schools.

Moravec said he also may seek a new hearing to pursue civil sanctions against Sileven or initiate criminal contempt hearings.

Although it ruled the trial court erred in the criminal sanctions, the Supreme Court rejected Sileven’s argument that the trial court erred in finding him guilty of willful disobedience because his religious beliefs forced him to disregard the injunction.

″It appears ‘willful’ means the violation was committed intentionally, with knowledge that the act was in violation of the court order,″ Hastings said.

″The record fully supports the conclusion that Sileven knew he was violating the court’s order and that he chose to intentionally violate it,″ he said. ″The fact that he felt he found a reason in the form of his conscience does not detract from the fact that he acted ’willfully.‴

Sileven argued that state regulation of the school would violate his constitutional rights to freedom of religion because he considers the school an extension of the church.

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