Saturday, June 28, 2008

Texas High Court Says Exorcism Claims Entangle Court in Religious Dispute

In Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, (TX Sup. Ct., June 27, 2008), in a 6-3 decision, the Texas Supreme Court yesterday rejected a lower court's award of damages to young woman for false imprisonment and assault by the senior pastor, youth minister and several members of an Assembly of Gods Church. The lawsuit grew out of psychological injuries suffered by then 17-year old Laura Schubert from a "laying of hands" on her to exorcise demonic forces from her. The court held that deciding the case would unconstitutionally entangle it in matters of church doctrine. the majority said:

We do not mean to imply that "under the cloak of religion, persons may, with impunity," commit intentional torts upon their religious adherents.... Moreover, religious practices that threaten the public’s health, safety, or general welfare cannot be tolerated as protected religious belief.... But religious practices that might offend the rights or sensibilities of a non-believer outside the church are entitled to greater latitude when applied to an adherent within the church....

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits courts from deciding issues of religious doctrine. Here, the psychological effect of church belief in demons and the appropriateness of its belief in "laying hands" are at issue. Because providing a remedy for the very real, but religiously motivated emotional distress in this case would require us to take sides in what is essentially a religious controversy, we cannot resolve that dispute.

Chief Justice Jefferson in a dissent joined by Justice Green and in party by Justice Johnson said:
After today, a tortfeasor need merely allege a religious motive to deprive a Texas court of jurisdiction to compensate his fellow congregant for emotional damages. This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with United States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct. The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion’s name.
Justice Green also filed a separate dissent as did Justice Johnson. Today's Austin American-Statesman reports on the decision.