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....Here's the opinion. Key passage:
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.
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.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?
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).")
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?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.
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?
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.