July 31, 2008

Prohibiting the free exorcism thereof

Every once in awhile, you have to double check the calendar, to make sure it really is the 21st century ... A.D.*

Last month the Supreme Court of Texas overturned a series of lower decisions to hold that even physical injuries sustained during an "exorcism" are not actionable, because the First Amendment's Free Exercise of Religion Clause protects a church against the courts interfering in its affairs, no matter how bizarre and outrageous.

One Friday evening in 1996, Laura Schubert, 17, was preparing for a garage sale at her Pentecostal church with a group of teens when another teen announced he'd detected a demon lurking nearby. A "youth minister" appeared and, hearing the tale, decided there were indeed demons afoot, and the teens scrambled until dawn smearing petroleum (or possibly vegetable) products around the church.

Finally the youth minister announced that a cloud full of god had entered the church and the sleepless teens held their garage sale.

The next evening, Sunday, an exhausted, starving, and likely hypoglycemic Laura Schubert collapsed in church. Her fellow worshipers took this reaction to be a manifestation of demon possession and carried her to another room, where she was physically restrained and "pummeled" for two hours by seven individuals, despite her kicking, flailing, and screaming to be freed.

Following a 15-minute intermission, the youth minister again appeared with seven other individuals, and proceeded to subject Schubert to another hour of physical and psychological abuse.

During the following week, yet another church member grabbed Schubert and she was again attacked by eight more Pentecostals. Eventually she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a series of psychological and personal setbacks in addition to the physical injuries she sustained during the "exorcisms."

She sued the church on a variety of claims and won a $300,000 judgment, which was affirmed on appeal. Last month the TX Supreme Court not only threw out the judgment but dismissed the case entirely, stating that the church and its members are immune from civil judgment thanks to the Free Exercise Clause.

The case is very likely to reach the United States Supreme Court, which several years ago — led by Antonin Scalia — decided that the Free Exercise Clause does not even protect an individual Native American's ceremonial smoking of a cactus plant.

The 6-3 decision, Pleasant Glade [sic] Assembly of God v. Schubert, is available here, along with the dissents in separate files.

* This is what we old timers used to use before a mischievous cabal of secularist devils replaced it with "C.E."


Tom said...

Your right to practice your religion ends within my personal space.

Friggin nutjobs.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, the reasoning is just as magically tinged as the exorcism:

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

That would seem to require the court to make a determination as to whether the assault victim is an "adherent." Is that not "deciding issues of religious doctrine?"

Rick Esenberg said...

It's an interesting case but just a bit more complicated than whether the church is immune from civil liability for any religous practice. Shubert's claim, or so the majority thought, was all about emotional distress and it was not possible to separate the alleged false imprisonment from the religious statements about demons and possession in assessing the claim. For that reason, the majority believed that Shubert's claim inevitably required an assessment of the reasonableness of the religious claims that the church made. And that would be a violation of the free exercise clause.

I am skeptical that SCOTUS will take the case because of that factual messiness. It may not be a good vehicle for testing the limits of free exercise protection against civil liability for religious expression.

illusory tenant said...

just a bit more complicated ...

Indeed, and the issues you mention as presenting difficulty in separating from one another are what seemed to pose the problem for the majority and I understand why a court would -- and should -- be hesitant to sort through any sect's religious beliefs.

But it's easy enough to separate out the physical -- or what the court calls "secular injuries" -- from the psychic injuries, and I don't quite see how the Free Exercise Clause provides civil immunity to the individuals named in the suit to inflict those.

If somebody is being physically restrained and asks to be let go, her jailers shouldn't be allowed to hide behind a religion clause.

illusory tenant said...

Is that not "deciding issues of religious doctrine?"

That's a good question, given the former defendants' attempts to demean the character and motives of Ms. Schubert in the press.

But I suspect the court would simply rely on an adherent's sworn testimony that they are, or were, an adherent.

If the opposition raised questions of the quality of the said adherent's adherence, then the court would likewise avoid insinuating itself into that debate.

Anonymous said...

simply rely on an adherent's sworn testimony

I suppose. But it seems more squiggy than that. Is the alleged adherent willingly adhering to church doctrine, or their parents'/spouses' wishes/commands? Can an adherent adhere to some parts of church doctrine and not others, say a liberal Catholic in a conservative parish? Would an Islamic woman have to renounce her faith to pursue redress for an "honor" punishment?

kay said...

If the US Supreme court upholds the Texas court isn't it going to basically open the door for plural marriage in the Mormon religion and any others that may have that belief?
I just don't see them supporting the Texas court because it would open the door to way too much crazy with religion as the ultimate excuse for behavior that would otherwise be illegal.