Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free Exercise of Exorcism Trumps Tort Damages for Mental Trauma

Texas Supreme Court (6 to 3) shields ministers from civil tort liability for acts performed on teenager to remedy demon possession - including assault and physical restraint - where injuries for which damages were sought and awarded by the jury were in the form of mental anguish rather than bodily injury. $300,000 judgment in favor of church member, who was 17 at the time of the exorcism, overturned.

Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert,
No. 05-0916 (Tex. 2008) (Majority Opinion by Justice Medina) (constitutional law, church and state, first amendment freedom of religion protects church's and ministers' acts related to exorcism of demons made the basis of intentional tort claims by church member who sought and recovered damages for mental anguish and post-traumatic distress).

To avoid excessive entanglement with matters of religious doctrine, Texas Supreme Court grants ecclesiastical tort immunity to Church sued for infliction of emotional distress and mental anguish by young church member, reverses $300,000 awarded by jury, and dismisses the personal injury suit as non-justiciable by characterizing it as a purely religious matter which cannot be subjected to adjudication by the state.

Majority holds that various spiritually charged demon abatement activities [the term exorcism is not used] were too closely intertwined with religious belief to be actionable as torts where recovery was sought for mental anguish and suffering rather than bodily injury. Court notes that members of churches voluntarily submit themselves to the church's religious doctrines and rituals, including the risk of mental anguish arising from adherence and implementation of such precepts, including disciplinary actions by church authorities. The high court also rejects the argument that the church defendants were estopped from invoking First Amendment protection because they had not made that argument with respect to the intentional tort claims at issue in a prior mandamus proceeding. With no less than four opinions, including partial concurrences, and three dissents, the Court was highly fractured in this rather remarkable separation-of-church-and-state case.

Chief Justice Jefferson delivered a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Green joined, and in Parts II-A, III, and IV of which Justice Johnson joined. Justice Green delivered a dissenting opinion. Justice Johnson delivered a dissenting opinion.

HOLDING: 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. Accordingly, we reverse the [Fort Worth] court of appeals’ judgment and dismiss the case.

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