By MAX B. BAKER
The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colleyville church Friday saying that church members involved in a traumatic exorcism that ultimately injured a young woman are protected by the First Amendment.
In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God’s efforts to cast out demons from the Laura Schubert presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unconstitutionally entangle the court in church doctrine.
In a 1996 lawsuit against the church, Schubert described a wild night involving the casting out of demons from the church and two separate attempts to exorcise demons from her.
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.
After the 2002 verdict, Pleasant Glade merged with another congregation in Colleyville.
MAX B. BAKER, 817-390-7714