Court reverses judgment against church in exorcisms
AUSTIN — A North Texas Pentecostal church should not be held liable for emotional trauma a former parishioner suffered as a youth when church members physically restrained and touched her during two exorcism attempts in 1996, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The high court’s decision reverses a $300,000 judgment a jury ordered paid to Laura Schubert in 2002. Schubert was 17 at the time when fellow parishioners at the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, in an attempt to rid her of evil spirits, held her down and “laid hands” on her body as she struggled to break free.
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The original jury award was later reduced to $178,000.
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.
“The laying of hands” and the presence of demons are part of the church’s belief system and accepted as such by its adherents,” the ruling said in part. “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.”
An attorney for the church hailed the ruling. Several years ago, the church merged with another church and now calls itself the Colleyville Assembly of God Church.
The 2002 trial of the suit never touched on the religious aspects of the case, and a Tarrant County jury found the church and its members liable for abusing and falsely imprisoning Schubert, who was 17 at the time. The jury awarded Schubert $300,000 for mental anguish, but the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth shaved $122,000 from the verdict for loss of future income.
But the church raised the question of whether the Fort Worth appeals court erred when it said Pleasant Glades’ First Amendment rights regarding freedom of religion do not prevent the church from being held liable for mental distress triggered by a “hyper-spiritualistic environment.”
A majority of the court agreed, with Justice David Medina writing that while Schubert’s secular injury claims might “theoretically be tried without mentioning religion, the imposition of tort liability for engaging in religious activity to which the church members adhere would have an unconstitutional ‘chilling effect’ by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs.”
Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson was among the justices that disagreed with the majorities ruling, and in a dissenting opinion states that a church will simply have to claim a religious motive to deny a church member from bringing a claim against it.
“This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with United States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct,” Jefferson wrote. “The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion’s name.”
Schubert testified in 2002 that she was cut and bruised and later experienced hallucinations as a result of the church members’ actions in 1996. She also said the incident led her to mutilate herself and attempt suicide. Schubert eventually sought psychiatric help.
But the church’s attorneys told a Tarrant County jury that Schubert’s psychological problems were caused by traumatic events she witnessed while with her parents who were serving as missionaries in Africa.
The church contended Schubert had “freaked out” about following her father’s life as a missionary and that she was acting out to gain attention.