June 28, 2008

Exorcism and the First Amendment.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed a judgment against the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church:
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, said the church's exorcism sessions were a matter of church doctrine and were thus subject to certain, though not absolute, First Amendment religious protections....

In her original suit against the church, Laura Schubert said she suffered lasting emotional trauma in 1996 when, on two separate occasions in one week, church members held her down and "laid hands" on her while she cried, kicked, clenched her fists, gritted her teeth and made guttural noises.
Here's the opinion. Key passage:
The “laying of hands” and the presence of demons are part of the church’s belief system and accepted as such by its adherents. These practices are not normally dangerous or unusual and apparently arise in the church with some regularity. They are thus to be expected and are accepted by those in the church. That a particular member may find the practice emotionally disturbing and non-consensual when applied to her does not transform the dispute into a secular matter. “Courts are not arbiters of religious interpretation,” and the First Amendment does not cease to apply when parishioners disagree over church doctrine or practices because “it is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the commands of their common faith.” Thomas v. Review Bd., 450 U.S. 707, 716 (1981). Because determining the circumstances of Laura’s emotional injuries would, by its very nature, draw the Court into forbidden religious terrain, we conclude that Laura has failed to state a cognizable, secular claim in this case. See Ballard, 322 U.S. at 86.
From the dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Jefferson, agreeing with the majority that "under the cloak of religion, persons may [not], with impunity,’ commit intentional torts upon their religious adherents":
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the Court’s holding allows. Here, assuming all facts favorable to the verdict, members of Pleasant Glade restrained Schubert on two separate occasions against her will. During the first encounter, seven members pinned her to the floor for two hours while she cried, screamed, kicked, flailed, and demanded to be released. This violent act caused Schubert multiple bruises, carpet burns, scrapes, and injuries to her wrists, shoulders, and back. As she testified, “I was being grabbed by my wrists, on my ankles, on my shoulders, everywhere. I was fighting with everything I had to get up, I was telling them, no. I was telling them, let go, leave me alone. They did not respond at all.” After Schubert “complied with what they wanted [her] to do,” she was temporarily released. Fifteen minutes later, at the direction of Pleasant Glade’s youth pastor, a different group of seven church members physically restrained her for an hour longer. After this experience, Schubert was “weak from exhaustion” and could hardly stand.

Three days later, a male church member approached Schubert after a service and put his arm around her shoulders. At this point, Schubert was still trying to figure out “what had happened” at the previous incident, “wasn’t interested in being touched,” and resisted him. As Schubert testified, “I tried to scoot away from him. He scooted closer. He was more persistent. Finally, his grasp on me just got hard . . . before I knew it, I was being grabbed again.” Eight members of Pleasant Glade then proceeded to hold the crying, screaming, seventeen year-old Schubert spread-eagle on the floor as she thrashed, attempting to break free. After this attack, Schubert was unable to stand without assistance and has no recollection of events immediately afterward. On both occasions, Schubert was scared and in pain, feeling that she could not breathe and that “somebody was going to break [her] leg,” not knowing “what was going to happen next.”...

I agree with the Court that certain claims for emotional damages are barred by the First Amendment—if Schubert were merely complaining of being expelled from the church, she would have no claim in the civil courts. But again, this case, as it was tried, is not about beliefs or “intangible harms”—it is about violent action—specifically, twice pinning a screaming, crying teenage girl to the floor for extended periods of time. ...

The tort of false imprisonment is a religiously neutral law of general applicability, and the First Amendment provides no protection against it. Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1990) (“[T]he right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).")
If you voluntarily become a member of a church that has a ritual that involves restraining individuals against their will when they are seen as possessed, can you sue the church for false imprisonment when it subjects you to that ritual?

IN THE COMMENTS: Amba writes:
It also reminds me of saying, if you knowingly married a man who was abusive, the state should not intervene in domestic violence.
Isn't it more like the case a person who decides to participate in sado-masochistic activities and then decides at some point that this isn't what she agreed to? In a tort suit, the issue would be the scope of consent. The problem in the Texas case was that the court thought it would require an examination of religious doctrine to determine the scope of her consent.

Chip Ahoy writes:
I should have known by the sign outside the cute little white church building that the High Octane Holy Roller Wild-Ass Aggressively Evangelical Old-World Church of Omnipresent Powerful Take-No-Prisoners God, that this might not be my style of congregation, but I decided to overlook that little signal and join anyway, and this was Texas, after all.
Jennifer asks:
Especially when you return for a service three days after they already did it to you twice?

Maybe I'm being unsympathetic but I'm straining to understand why someone would trash and scream and flail against known people for hours on end when not acting possessed would keep you physically safer and allow your physical freedom sooner?
Good observations. The screaming and crying — within the church's belief system — could have been seen as the evidence of possession. If the state says to the church, you were required to see her struggle as the reason you had to let her go, it would be saying, you are not allowed to act on your belief in demonic possession.

Joe R. says:
If she were 17 years old, I'd guess that she was being forced by her parents.
Paddy O. writes:
I was a little unsympathetic too, until I read she was 17....

My initial lack of sympathy for this as a court case was also far outweighed by my sympathy as someone interested in churchy things. In that respect this is outrageous. Because it's not about this girl at all. It's about very, very immature men and women trying to play at being super-Christians and instead being laughed at by forces natural and super-.

The girl is a victim--a victim of atrocious theology and spiritual abuse that will likely drive her away from thinking there is any comfort in churches and probably try to find comfort in less than holistic ways. Maybe not. Let's hope she is able to move on in her life, spiritually and emotionally.

34 comments:

rhhardin said...

Treat it as a statement that the court isn't going to solve all your problems.

Jennifer said...

Especially when you return for a service three days after they already did it to you twice?

Maybe I'm being unsympathetic but I'm straining to understand why someone would trash and scream and flail against known people for hours on end when not acting possessed would keep you physically safer and allow your physical freedom sooner?

amba said...

That a particular member may find the practice emotionally disturbing and non-consensual when applied to her does not transform the dispute into a secular matter.

I haven't even finished reading the quote from the opinion yet, but the word that popped into my head was, "Sharia!" Couldn't this decision be used as a precedent for arguing that the state has no business in some Muslim family dispute involving the subjugation of a woman?

amba said...

It also reminds me of saying, if you knowingly married a man who was abusive, the state should not intervene in domestic violence. (I know, intervening in domestic violence is a sticky wicket anyway -- all those stories of cops who cuffed the perpetrator only to be stabbed by the "victim.")

Chip Ahoy said...

I should have known by the sign outside the cute little white church building that the High Octane Holy Roller Wild-Ass Aggressively Evangelical Old-World Church of Omnipresent Powerful Take-No-Prisoners God, that this might not be my style of congregation, but I decided to overlook that little signal and join anyway, and this was Texas, after all.

Joe R. said...

Especially when you return for a service three days after they already did it to you twice? If she were 17 years old, I'd guess that she was being forced by her parents.

Maybe I'm being unsympathetic but I'm straining to understand why someone would trash and scream and flail against known people for hours on end when not acting possessed would keep you physically safer and allow your physical freedom sooner? Because she's a human being and not some sort of supercomputer weighing all of her options, finding the optimum solution to maximize freedom and minimize pain. I'd probably bite, kick and hit until I was free or unconscious.
The easy lesson from this is don't go to church, at least in the great state of Texas.

Paddy O. said...

I was a little unsympathetic too, until I read she was 17. Any word on what the background of her involvement is? Do her parents attend the church, like Joe suggests? That she was 17 suggests a lack of real decision making ability that is recognized by the justice system. Shouldn't this also be reflected in a case like this? Does no mean no in spiritual rape as well as physical rape? Or are we really wanting to argue that she was just a temptress with her demonic appearing ways and asked for the abuse?

My initial lack of sympathy for this as a court case was also far outweighed by my sympathy as someone interested in churchy things. In that respect this is outrageous. Because it's not about this girl at all. It's about very, very immature men and women trying to play at being super-Christians and instead being laughed at by forces natural and super-.

The girl is a victim--a victim of atrocious theology and spiritual abuse that will likely drive her away from thinking there is any comfort in churches and probably try to find comfort in less than holistic ways. Maybe not. Let's hope she is able to move on in her life, spiritually and emotionally.

Quayle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Quayle said...

I always wonder why people believe in a God that is intellectually stupid and physically limited?

You'd think that any God worth believing in and following would fully understand and support the rational behind our tort laws, and could easily cast out an evil spirit from a person without needing his followers to break the law.

I mean, when the Roman Centurian's beloved servant was sick and he came to Jesus to see if Jesus might be able to do anything, Jesus said, "I'll come with you and heal him." The Centurian said, "No, you don't need to come to my house. Just say the word."

In other words, if you really have the power that everyone reports, you obviously don't need to actually be there to heal my servant.

But I guess the, what was the name of the church...... the High Octane Holy Roller Wild-Ass Aggressively Evangelical Old-World Church of Omnipresent Powerful Take-No-Prisoners God - I guess the members of that church haven't read that part of the New Testament yet.

James said...

If you voluntarily become a member of a church that has a ritual that involves restraining individuals against their will when they are seen as possessed, can you sue the church for false imprisonment when it subjects you to that ritual?

Of course. You may not win, but you can almost certainly sue.

Richard Dolan said...

Normally consent can be revoked at any time, and once revoked, the alleged tortfeasor cannot excuse his conduct by claiming that the victim agreed to the allegedly offensive conduct. There was an odd case in NYC a while ago, involving a Columbia graduate student who was arrested for tying up and sexually assaulting another student over a period of days. The defense was consent (to an admittedly weird, S/M kind of thing), but (if I remember the case correctly) he was eventually acquitted.

I don't see any reason why the religious context generates a different result. The church members are free to practice their rituals on consenting believers, but not on non-consenting people. The defense is factual (did she revoke her prior expression of consent? was continued attendance at the church itself sufficient indication of consent to defeat the tort claim? did the defendants know or should they reasonably have known that her consent was revoked?). That defense has nothing much to do with the First Amendment.

It would be a different case if the claim was that the defendants had subjected the plaintiff to a ritual that was not permitted by religious doctrine or had misapplied the ritual. That's the flavor of Ann's snippet from the majority opinion. But then the majority takes a very different turn: "That a particular member may find the practice emotionally disturbing and non-consenual when applied to her does not transform the dispute into a secular matter." Well, why doesn't lack of consent, assuming it was communicated and understood, have exactly that effect? In other contexts, we have no trouble accepting the idea that "no" means "no," even if the victim consented when the conduct began and the alleged attacker says he thought it really meant "keep going."

Paddy O. said...

I always wonder why people believe in a God that is intellectually stupid and physically limited?

Spot on. And yet, this has driven so much of church history. And the history of other religions.

The folks who actually believe in a brilliant and powerful God are the ones who have made profound positive differences and help transform lives to live in freedom. But because of the nature of things its the people who see a need for physical power and attack who get into the positions of power. Just as its the folks who say God is all about getting rich who have enough money to spout their message on television.

former law student said...

This is excellent news for anyone planning to revive the Aztec religion. Human sacrifice is part of the faith's belief system and accepted as such by its adherents. While dangerous and in fact lethal, this practice is not unusual for the Aztecs and take place in the faith with some regularity. They are thus to be expected and are accepted by those in the faith. That a particular member may balk from human sacrifice when it is her turn does not transform the dispute into a secular matter. "Courts are not arbiters of religious interpretation."

TMink said...

I wonder what % of Christians believe in an actual devil and demon posession? I worked with a Satanist who believed in both. People in her coven would invite posession and then do gross things to each other.

I am not sure that believing in personified evil is bad theology, but I agree that the Supreme Being of the Universe would not require multiple sessions and physical assault to banish one of His creations from another.

Trey

Titan said...

This is excellent news for anyone planning to revive the Aztec religion.

Aztec! Regular Christianity is enough.

Did you hear that Louisiana governor and possible McCain-VP Bobby Jindal participated in exorcisms? Read his own description of it here.

I, obviously, think this disqualifies him from being on the school board. Other people disagree, and I lock my doors at night.

Titan said...

Ann, I believe you like Hitchens. Here is an on-point passage from his book:

I pose a hypothetical question. As a man of some fifty-seven years of age, I am discovered sucking the penis of a baby boy. I ask you to picture your own outrage and revulsion. Ah, but I have my explanation. I am a mohel: an appointed circumciser and foreskin remover. My authority comes from an ancient text, which commands me to take a baby boy's penis in my hand, cut around the prepuce, and complete the action by taking his penis in my mouth, sucking off the foreskin, and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva.

...

In New York City in the year 2005, the ritual, as performed by a fifty-seven-year-old mohel, was found to have given genital herpes to several small boys, and to have caused the deaths of at least two of them. In normal circumstances, the disclosure would have led the public health department to forbid the practice and the mayor to denounce it. But in the capital of the modern world, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, such was not the case. Instead, Mayor Bloomberg overrode the reports by distinguished Jewish physicians who had warned of the danger of the custom, and told his health bureaucracy to postpone any verdict. The crucial thing, he said, was to be sure that the free exercise of religion was not being infringed.

Palladian said...

"Free Exercise Clause, law, religion, Satan, sex, Texas, torts"

Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!

rcocean said...

Look she came back the church voluntarily. So, the "she was forced to go" is absurd.

Secondly, we need to keep the courts OUT of religion. Separation of church and state works both ways.

Third, I'm tired of people acting as if 17 year olds are "kids". In one year, this "girl" will be allowed to vote, marry, get a job, i.e. be an adult. I don't believe she was "forced" to go to the church. And I find it unbelievable that she didn't know about the practice of laying on hands.

If fascism comes to America, it will come shouting "What about the children?!."

Titan said...

Look she came back the church voluntarily. So, the "she was forced to go" is absurd.

But that's not the point. The Court didn't find that there was "consent" or even that "it was her own damn fault." (Both reasonable positions, given the facts.)

The Court found that even if there was a tort the Court couldn't do anything about it because it would "chill" the exercise of religion.

IOW, "Yes, what you did may have violated the law, but we can't punish you for it because it might convince you not to do it again."

Paddy O. said...

I'm tired of people acting as if 17 year olds are "kids".

That's not "people", that's the court system which recognizes there is a distinction with those still legally juvenile. This is true in every other aspect of society--even sex. Why should it be different with religion.

I wonder what % of Christians believe in an actual devil and demon posession?

I would say a good, good many in one way or another. And believing in this isn't bad theology, it's actually pretty much very good theology. The bad theology comes out in how it was discerned and approached by them. Methinks they had more influence from The Exorcist than from their Holy Bibles.

What they did is absolutely not the laying on of hands. That is just that--laying on of hands, and for the purpose of healing or prayer or blessing. Not for constraint and abuse. They thought her subhuman because of the demon and treated her that way--something entirely absent from any example in Scripture.

Anyone who has been part of those kinds of churches knows how quickly they can turn from nice sounding spiritual conversation to increased emotional/spiritual/physical abuse. Getting caught up in that doesn't mean a person has agreed to how much others want to impose. And like rapists such religious people get caught up in their religious fervor and keep going. They couldn't let go and the girl who likely chose aspects didn't choose to be treated like this. She certainly didn't choose to be treated as demon possessed, I imagine. I know women who were treated like this for being considered rebellious, or for other behavioral issues.

Either she was demon possessed and they were too immature to do anything about it, and abused her out of their earnest attempts. Or she wasn't and out of their immaturity they treated her as she was and abused her because of their foolishness. Either way the bad theology was flowing, and at a certain point society steps in--which is unfortunate, but given church history it's better that than to allow such abuse to be widespread. The church is hurt more by allowing those things than by a court stepping in and saying "none of that".

rhhardin said...

The girl is a victim--a victim of atrocious theology and spiritual abuse that will likely drive her away from thinking there is any comfort in churches and probably try to find comfort in less than holistic ways. Maybe not. Let's hope she is able to move on in her life, spiritually and emotionally.

A passage in Maldoror!

Maldoror notices that the blood is boiling in his young interlocutor's head; his nostrils are swollen; his lips are flecked with a white foam. He feels his pulse; it is beating very fast. Fever has taken hold of this delicate body. He fears the consequences his words will have; the wretch sneaks away, frustrated with not being able to converse longer with the child. When even in mature years it is so difficult to master our passions, poised between good and evil, how hard must it be for so inexperienced a mind? How much more relative energy is required! The child will escape at the price of three days in bed. May it please heaven that his mother's presence should restore peace to this sensitive flower, the frail exterior of a fine soul!

Lykiard is a better translation.

P. Rich said...

Radical beliefs are not, and cannot be considered, rational. To expect rational behavior from any radical group or individual is itself an irrational expectation. I hope I haven't confused you, Pookie. Or you, Althouse, all cozily ensconced in your Obamalove cocoon.

Ann Althouse said...

1. I just asked a question. I did not take sides.

2. This has nothing to do with Obama. Nor do I "love" Obama or any other politician.

Kev said...

I should have known by the sign outside the cute little white church building that the High Octane Holy Roller Wild-Ass Aggressively Evangelical Old-World Church of Omnipresent Powerful Take-No-Prisoners God, that this might not be my style of congregation, but I decided to overlook that little signal and join anyway, and this was Texas, after all.

I'll ignore the Texas slam, but otherwise, you're right--it is a cute little white church (or at least it was at the time of the incident; a quick Googling notes that they have since merged with another AG congregation and moved to a different campus). The building began its life as a schoolhouse, to give you some idea of the "cute" factor.

I realized when I read the name of the church that I pass by this place at least once a month. The cute little white building remains, but it's inhabited by a Baptist congregation at the moment.

Beth said...

Couldn't this decision be used as a precedent for arguing that the state has no business in some Muslim family dispute involving the subjugation of a woman?

Amba, that was my first thought on reading this post, and it worries me even more now that I know she was 17.

Where are those who on this blog regularly decry the coming dhimmitude?

blake said...

Where are those who on this blog regularly decry the coming dhimmitude?

They're probably somewhere pointing out where the state has buckled to Islamic interests while bringing Christians under attack.

I mean, if I had to guess.

reader_iam said...

... "These practices are not normally dangerous ... "

OK, but what happens when they are?

... her father, Tom Schubert, who was a minister and missionary with the church at the time of his daughter's exorcisms, ...

Ahem.

reader_iam said...

At one time, despite being a cradle Episcopalian, I attended a church of this type for a while. (I would have been, hmmm, let me see--well, gee!--16 and 17). It was precisely this sort of thing which eventually drove me right back out of those doors.

Of course, I wasn't raised in that tradition, nor were my parents involved in that church.

reader_iam said...

A jury, which was not permitted to hear references to the exorcisms, ordered the church to pay Schubert $300,000 after finding it liable for falsely imprisoning and abusing her. [Emphasis added.]

Huh. Now, that's interesting.

Titan said...

reader_iam:

The trial court probably did that to prevent the jury from punishing the defendants for being radicals.

reader_iam said...

Apparently the parents were out of town, and the father himself questioned what happened, and then later the family filed suit. (Also, it seems that the first incident came later in a weekend allegedly featuring some rather intense youth activity.)

I'd be curious if the father came to wonder if any choices he made rendered his daughter more vulnerable.

reader_iam said...

Here's an article back in 2002, following the verdict now overturned. It's not the source for a couple of things referenced in my just previous comment; I accidentally zapped that tab in Firefox.

Revenant said...

I don't see why it matters that the girl had been a member of the church.

Suppose I was a member of a group of people that went around cutting off the little fingers of innocent victims. Then, one day, the group turns on me and cuts off MY finger. Can I not sue them for mutilating me? I don't see why the fact that other victims of the group have a potential tort against ME would prevent me from suing. I might not win, since the jury isn't likely to be sympathetic to me... but I can try, can't I?

Tironius said...

It might be similar to someone deciding to involve themselves in sado-masochistic behavior, whereby they know that some punishment will happen.

But that person, has THE RIGHT AT ANY TIME to quit and say NO. Freedom of religion does not involve the legal power of people to hold someone down or to touch them at all, regardless of her knowledge that such a thing is likely to come up.