Laura Schubert Pearson was an impressionable 17-year-old when friends in her church youth group thought demons possessed her.
Repeatedly, over two days, the youth pastor, his wife and others held the girl down on the floor of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, even as Pearson screamed, fought and begged to be released.
They cast it as wrestling with the devil.
But she said it was “like being pummeled by this very large group. These were our friends, people we hung out with.”
The 1996 episode left her physically and emotionally scarred, and “this stuff is still hard to talk about,” Pearson told the Star-Telegram after the Texas Supreme Court dismissed her lawsuit against the church June 27. The majority said the courts can’t get involved in a religious debate over church doctrine.
Pearson, now 29 and living near Atlanta with her new husband and her children, said: “You can’t use your religious beliefs to get away with harming a child.”
After the exorcism, she dropped out of high school her senior year, began to cut herself as many as 100 times over several years, and refused to leave the house. Pearson slit her wrists with a box cutter.
Her father, a former missionary and minister, became an agnostic.
But Pearson and her parents, Tom and Judy Schubert, say they are willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court in their fight against a church they once loved.
As the parents see it, Pleasant Glade members abused their daughter in the same way a husband or a boyfriend abuses a wife or a girlfriend — and all under the guise of serving the Lord.
The Rev. Lloyd McCutchen, who later merged the Pleasant Glade church with another congregation to create the Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, did not return calls seeking comment. But in 2002, he said that the congregation was a “Bible-believing Pentecostal church. For this we make no apologies.”
David Pruessner, the church’s attorney, has repeatedly described Pearson as an out-of-control, attention-seeking teenager who he once said “breathes in attention the same way we breathe in air.”
In court testimony, church members did not deny holding her down.
“None of them had a personal vendetta,” Pruessner said. “She was in a church service and screaming and in a lot of pain, so they were stepping forward to help her.”
Pearson already suffered from psychological problems caused by traumatic events she witnessed while her parents were missionaries in Africa, including “beatings and burnings,” Pruessner claimed in court documents.
When the Texas Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit against a former Colleyville church involved in a traumatic exorcism, did the justices properly defend everyone’s religious freedoms or simply get it all wrong?
Opinions about the court’s 6-3 decision in the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God vs. Laura Schubert are as sharply divided as those displayed by the justices themselves.
There also is no consensus on whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case if an appeal is filed as promised. The Schubert attorney has asked for a rehearing at the Texas high court, a request that is typically denied.
Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, writing for the majority, said the case presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unnecessarily entangle the court in church doctrine.
Medina said that while Schubert’s argument regarding physical injuries might be tried without mentioning religion, her case was mostly about her emotional or psychological injuries from a sanctioned religious activity.
For the court to impose any legal liability for engaging in a religious activity would have an unconstitutional “chilling effect” by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs, Medina wrote.
But the justice added that the court does not mean to imply that anyone may commit an intentional wrong, such as sexual assault, and get away with it.
In a biting dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said the majority’s opinion, which threw out the case and $178,000 in damages, was “imprecise and overbroad.”
“This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with United States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct,” Jefferson wrote.
Kelly Shackelford, lead attorney for the Liberty Legal Institute, a conservative nonprofit organization that defends religious freedoms and First Amendment rights, said the case shouldn’t have gone to trial in the first place.
During the trial, the incident involving the 17-year-old girl was never described as an exorcism, something that Shackelford said was a big mistake.
“This thing never should have started from Day One,” Shackelford said. “If they didn’t hear about the exorcism, this just looks mean.”
He said that courts simply can’t get into church disputes and that the U.S. Supreme Court has held since the late 1800s that people have the voluntary right to associate with whatever group they want to without government interference.
“I think it is a good decision. Long term, you don’t want judges being dragged into internal church disputes,” Shackelford said. “If you go the other way, this will be No. 1 of the thousands that courts will be called in to referee.”