705.6Impeachment: Religious Beliefs [Rule 610]
- Evidence of the religious beliefs or opinions of a witness may not be used to enhance or attack the witness’s credibility.
- However, evidence of religious beliefs may be admitted for the purpose of showing the witness’s interest or bias.
The Basic Rule
Rule 610 – Religious Beliefs or Opinions
Evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature his credibility is impaired or enhanced; provided, however, such evidence may be admitted for the purpose of showing interest or bias.
Rule 610 prohibits the admission of evidence about a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions for the purpose of attacking or supporting the witness’s credibility based on his or her religion. G.S. 8C-610. In other words, a party may not introduce evidence of a witness’s religious faith for the purpose of showing that it makes the witness more honest or trustworthy, nor may a party offer evidence about a witness’s absence of faith (or adherence to an unusual or unpopular faith) for the purpose of showing that it makes the witness less credible. See, e.g., State v. Kimbrell, 320 N.C. 762 (1987) (reversible error to allow prosecutor to impeach defendant by cross-examining him about his participation in black magic and devil worship).
There are, however, two circumstances in which evidence about a witness’s religious beliefs may be admitted.
Interest or Bias
First, Rule 610 contains an exception that allows evidence of religious beliefs or opinions to be admitted for the purpose of showing “interest or bias” (for example, to show that the witness disliked the victim due to a religious difference, or that the commission of the offense was motivated by a religious purpose). See G.S. 8C-610; State v. Shamsid-Deen, 324 N.C. 437 (1989) (where defendant was accused of raping his daughters, no error in permitting cross-examination of defendant about his Muslim faith and the dominant roles that fathers typically occupy in it “to show how he was able to intimidate his daughters over such a long period of time”); State v. Klinger, 226 N.C. App. 202 (2013) (unpublished) (no error where state was allowed to present evidence of defendant’s satanic beliefs to show “the ‘grooming process’ defendant used to ‘bond[ ]’ with Randy and prevent disclosure of the sexual abuse perpetrated by defendant, a process that involved talking with Randy about Satanism and introducing him to satanic writings, symbols, and rituals”); see also State v. James, 322 N.C. 320 (1988) (finding no error under Rule 610 where prosecutor made a passing reference in his closing argument to the fact that defendant chose to affirm rather than swear on the Bible before testifying – prosecutor’s argument focused on the actual content of defendant’s testimony, and did not ask jury to disbelieve defendant based on his affirmation).
Opening the Door
Second, the bar against offering evidence about a witness’s religious beliefs for the purpose of attacking or enhancing the witness’s credibility no longer applies if the opposing party “opens the door” to those questions. See State v. Westall, 116 N.C. App. 534 (1994) (after defense counsel cross-examined a witness about “what the Bible meant to him and what significance swearing on the Bible had for him,” the state was properly permitted to ask the witness on redirect about the sincerity of his oath, whether he was a Christian, and whether he went to church: “the defense ‘opened the door’ to this line of inquiry” by asking questions about “the sincerity and solemnity with which the witness took the oath”).