Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Charity Fraud Claims May Proceed Against Christian Apologetics Ministry

In Carrier v. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Inc., (ND GA, May 13, 2022), a Georgia federal district court allowed plaintiffs to move ahead with some of their charity fraud claims against RZIM, a Christian apologetics ministry, and the estate of its founder Ravi Zacharias. Plaintiffs claims include ones of unjust enrichment and violation of the state's Fair Business Practice Act. The court describes plaintiffs' claims:

They allege that the Defendants “bilked hundreds of millions of dollars from well-meaning contributors who believed RZIM and Zacharias to be faith-filled Christian leaders,” when “[i]n fact, Zacharias was a prolific sexual predator who used his ministry and RZIM funds to perpetrate sexual and spiritual abuse against women.”... 

Responding to defendants' assertion of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a defense, the court said in part:

The Court will exercise jurisdiction over the Plaintiffs’ claims to the extent they are predicated on misuse-of-funds allegations but not faith-based allegations. At bottom, the faith-based allegations ask the Court to examine the theology and customs of Christianity and Christian apologetics to determine whether Zacharias and RZIM fulfilled the religion’s (and the Plaintiffs’) moral standards. The Court would have to make inherently ecclesiastical determinations as part of this inquiry, such as what it means to be a “faith-filled, moral, and upstanding Christian leader” ..., and whether Zacharias’s alleged sexual misconduct is “diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christianity.”... It is not the role of federal courts to answer these kinds of questions “because that would require defining the very core of what the religious body as a whole believes.”... 

On the other hand, the Court believes that the Plaintiffs’ misuse-of funds allegations do not pose the same First Amendment concerns. Those allegations, and the claims associated with them, raise what amounts to a secular factual question: whether the Defendants solicited funds for one purpose (i.e., Christian evangelism) but instead used those funds for another purpose (i.e., to perpetrate and cover up sexual abuse). That dispute “concerns the [D]efendants’ actions, not their beliefs,” and can be decided according to state statutes and common law principles.