In June, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a church is not liable for injuries its members inflicted while performing an exorcism. The Court misapplied the law and, in doing so, set a dangerous precedent.
In June 1996, 17-year-old Laura Schubert attended weekend events at her church, the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God. Friday consisted of preparing for a garage sale the following day, but the activities were interrupted when one of the church members claimed he saw a demon near the sanctuary. This created an atmosphere that was, as the Court put it, “spiritually charged.” To ward off the evil spirit, the youth minister instructed everyone present to anoint everything with holy oil. At 4:30 a.m., he told everyone that God had revealed a vision to him and that they were all right.
Despite little sleep, Laura worked at the garage sale and then attended church Sunday. At the service, she collapsed to the floor. As the church describes it, she was “slain with the spirit,” a condition that had affected her brother earlier in the day. Several members “laid hands” on her and prayed for her. Additionally, they held her arms and legs down, despite her pleas to be freed. According to witnesses, Laura screamed, kicked, gritted her teeth, foamed at the mouth and cried. In court, she testified that during the episode, Satan was trying to get her, and church members temporarily released her only after she complied with their demands to say “Jesus.” Fifteen minutes later, however, the youth minister instructed seven church members to restrain Laura again, after which she was exhausted and could hardly stand. The moment when she collapsed to the time when she was finally released spanned two hours.
On Wednesday, Laura attended the weekly youth service. The youth minister testified that Laura exhibited some of the same behavior as the previous Sunday. She curled up in a fetal position because she said she wanted to be left alone. Church members, however, saw that as a sign of stress. Soon after, a male church member approached Laura and put his arms on her shoulders. She resisted and told him that she did not want to be touched. The man persisted and, as Laura testified, she soon was being grabbed again by several members.
She testified that eight members held her in a “spread eagle” position, pinning her arms and legs. Because of this, Laura suffered several bruises, a scrape on her back and carpet burns. She also began to have mental problems, for which she met with several psychologists and psychiatrists. She became depressed and suicidal and even dropped out of her senior year in high school. The following November, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Court’s Decision
Laura’s parents then sued the church on her behalf, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault, battery and child abuse, among other things. The church immediately claimed that it had protection under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. Despite that claim, a jury found the church liable and awarded Laura $300,000.
On appeal, however, the Texas Supreme Court refused to address Laura’s physical injuries, stating that the proof at trial revolved around only Laura’s “emotional or psychological injuries.” This is despite the fact that Laura testified that she had physical injuries and showed her parents her injuries after the incident at the Wednesday youth worship.
Thus, because it said it had to address only Laura’s emotional injuries, the Court relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent that said injuries that are solely psychological and occur within the confines of a religious practice cannot be compensated. To do so, the Court said, would require it to delve into the truth or falsity of a religious belief, an analysis that is strictly forbidden in cases of free exercise of religion. Consequently, the court said it could not compensate for emotional injuries that were “religiously motivated,” and it dismissed the case.
The Law and How the Court Misapplied It
For all the cumbersome and technical analyses that frequently accompany U.S. Supreme Court opinions, the Court has done the public a favor when it comes to cases involving the free exercise of religion: The Court has held that laws do not restrict the free exercise of religion as long as they are generally applicable to the population as a whole.
The case that introduced this precedent involved a Native American’s claim that Oregon’s law prohibiting peyote use unnecessarily infringed on his right to practice his religion.
The Court disagreed, saying that the law was not targeted at any one group. Peyote simply was in a list of substances banned by the Oregon government that happened to affect Native Americans. Thus, because the law was applicable to everyone in Oregon, the plaintiff could not successfully claim that it infringed upon his religious rights.
Despite this precedent and clear-cut rule, the Texas Supreme Court faltered in its analysis in refusing to hold the church liable for Laura’s injuries. Laws that prohibit the kind of conduct in which the church engaged are applicable to everyone; they are not geared toward the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God or any religion for that matter. If Laura had incurred these injuries in a non-religious setting, liability would not be a question.
This case is scary enough for the fact that a church injured a child and will not be punished for it, but the scarier prospect is the precedent the case sets. From now on, at least in Texas, a person inflicting an injury upon another merely needs to claim that he or she had a religious motive for doing so.
If the Court had rightly considered Laura’s physical injuries, the case might have turned out differently, but emotional damages are just as severe as their physical counterparts, sometimes even more so because of their lingering effects. Laura’s injuries were real, regardless of where and under what circumstances they occurred. She should have been compensated despite the fact that she was injured by those who had a sincere, religious motive.
The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom is one of the most cherished rights in the Constitution. It has been instrumental in allowing people of all faiths to practice their religion without fear of governmental intervention. That freedom, however, has limits, and the Constitution simply does not give protection to those who injure a child.
Jeff Stanglin is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He previously practiced criminal law and personal injury law in Texas.
Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, __S.W.3d__, No. 05-0916, slip op. (Tex. June 27, 2008).