Sunday, June 26, 2016

Court Says Religious Autonomy Precludes Adjudication of Suit By Torture Victim

In a fascinating decision handed down June 17, an Oklahoma trial court held that the "religious autonomy doctrine" requires it to dismiss a suit against a U.S. church by a convert from Islam to Christianity who was captured and tortured in Syria because of his conversion. The facts are set out more fully in a complaint (full text) filed in 2014.  A Tulsa, Oklahoma resident who was born in Syria decided to convert, but told First Presbyterian Church leaders that his conversion had to remain confidential because he periodically traveled back to Syria and the punishment for apostasy under Sharia law was death. Despite assurances of confidentiality, the church published an announcement of his baptism in its Order of Worship, which was posted on the World Wide Web.  After traveling back to Syria, plaintiff was bound, beaten and tortured by radical Muslims who threatened to behead him. He eventually escaped.  His suit alleges that the church is guilty of negligence, breach of contract and outrageous conduct leading to extreme emotional distress.

In Doe v. First Presbyterian Church USA of Tulsa, Oklahoma, (OK Dist. Ct., June 17, 2016), the court held that the public dissemination of the names of those who have been baptized "is a key part of how the Church requires a conversion and baptism to be 'visible" to the world." The court went on to say:
the simple dispositive issue is whether the public dissemination of Plaintiff's name as a baptized person is "rooted in religious belief"....
[A] secular Court like this one must not consider claims ... that arise out of a sacrament because a sacrament is part of the most sacred beliefs of that religious institution.... Defendants' deeply held religious belief about the visible, public nature of baptism must not be disturbed by this Court. [emphasis in original]
Tulsa World reports on the decision, with additional background.