June 28, 2008

Witch Trials and Exorcism Get Green Light from Texas Supreme Court

Texas Supreme Court's idea of legal precedenceIn 2002, the family of Laura Schubert sued the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church for an incident that occurred in 1996. The church's staff had decided based upon the accusation of one of its younger members that Schubert was possessed by a demon that he'd seen. They forcibly held her down and performed an exorcism on her against her will. She was injured both physically and emotionally and her family won the suit. The church appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Yesterday, the court reversed Schubert's award in a 6-3 decision, ruling that church's can't be sued for performing exorcisms — even when they do so without the consent of the person being exorcized. Even if that person is injured. Churches can now perform these archaic, bizarre rituals without any concern for the well-being of their victims, because the state's Supreme Court has effectively ruled that a church's freedom of religion trumps an individuals protection against false imprisonment. According to this ruling, a church could feasibly hold a person against their will for as long as it deemed necessary, physically restrain them in any way they thought appropriate, withhold food and water, and do whatever they believed necessary to drive imaginary boogeymen from real flesh-and-blood.

Texas Supreme Court rules church can't be sued in exorcism
By MAX B. BAKER (maxbaker@star-telegram.com)

A divided Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former Colleyville church Friday, saying church members who were 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 staff's efforts to cast out demons from Laura Schubert presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unconstitutionally entangle the court in church doctrine.

Schubert described a wild night in 1996 that involved casting out demons from the church and two attempts to exorcise demons from her. The incident left Schubert physically bruised and so emotionally scarred she later tried to commit suicide. She was 17 at the time.

Justice David Medina, writing for the majority, 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 religious activity that was sanctioned by the church.

For the court to impose any legal liability for engaging in a 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," Medina wrote.

"Religious practices that might offend the rights or sensibilities of a non-believer outside the church are entitled to greater latitude when applied to an adherent within the church," Medina wrote.

He went on to say that when claims involve "only intangible, emotional damages allegedly caused by sincerely held religious belief, courts must carefully scrutinize the circumstances so as not to become entangled in a religious dispute."

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, in a stinging dissenting opinion, wrote that the majority opinion is at times "imprecise and overbroad" and imposes an "erroneous standard" that would allow a church to simply claim a "religious motive" to avoid being sued.

He wrote that this "sweeping immunity" is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and that the First Amendment "guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion's name."

"This overly broad holding not only conflicts with well-settled legal and constitutional principles, it will also prove to be dangerous in practice," Jefferson wrote.

"Texas courts have been and will continue to be confronted with cases in which a congregant suffers physical or psychological injury as a result of violent or unlawful, but religiously sanctioned, acts," he wrote...

Schubert's account of what happened over several days at the Pleasant Glade church in June 1996 is harrowing.

Schubert and her brother were involved with church activities while their parents were out of town.

On Friday evening, during preparations for a youth group garage sale, the atmosphere became "spiritually charged" when another youth said he saw a demon.

Under direction of the youth minister, the youth frantically anointed everything in the church with holy oil until, at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, the minister told the exhausted youth that they had finally been successful.

At the Sunday evening worship services, Schubert collapsed. Church members "laid hands" on her and forcibly held her arms crossed over her chest, despite her demands to be set free.

She reportedly cried, yelled, kicked, sweated and hallucinated while also making guttural noises.

She was released after she calmed down and replied with requests to say the name Jesus.

The following Wednesday, during a weekly youth service, Schubert reportedly began to act in the same manner. She curled into a fetal position and asked to be left alone. Church members thought she was in distress and held her down in a "spread eagle" position with youth members holding down her arms and legs.

During the incident, she suffered carpet burns, a scrape on her back and bruises on her wrists.

Her father, Tom Schubert, himself an Assembly of God pastor and missionary, questioned what happened at the church.

His daughter experienced angry outbursts, weight loss and self-mutilation and eventually dropped out of high school her senior year. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder...

A jury found the church and its members liable and awarded Schubert $300,000 for mental anguish, but the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth cut $122,000 from the verdict for loss of future income.

In the church's appeal to the state Supreme Court, it 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."

Justice Medina said that the court does not mean to imply that "under the cloak of religion, persons may, with impunity," commit intentional wrong, such as sexual assault or a minister having an affair with someone in marriage counseling, and get away with it.

"Freedom to believe may be absolute, but freedom of conduct is not, and 'conduct even under a religious guise remains subject to regulation for public safety,' " Medina wrote.

Pruessner, the church's attorney, agreed, saying that church members were simply trying to help Schubert and that there wasn't any evil intent.

"This was clearly a religious controversy, and I don't see how anyone can argue that they were seizing on religion as a get-out-of-jail-free card," Pruessner said. "I disagree vehemently with the spiritual beliefs of the church and how they handled it; it doesn't mean they are legally liable..."
Somebody needs to screen Justice David Medina for possible use of crack, because it's more than a little opaque as to how he thinks that churches are still regulated for public safety if someone can be held against their will and physically abused as was Schubert. AT what point does the supposed regulation kick in? A 17 year old was held against her will, restrained and injured; apparently that's not enough in Texas. Would it have been enough if Laura Schubert's bones had been broken? If she'd been pressed beneath stones? If she'd been hung by the neck until dead? What happened to Schubert is alarmingly reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century.
Look where Goodwife Cloyce sits on the beam suckling her yellow bird between her fingers!

— Ann Putnam, 1692

The First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In Texas, that now means that as long as some bunch of demon-haunted yahoos claims religious motivations for their actions, they can get away with anything they deem appropriate as a response to one of their own pointing a finger at someone and shouting "Witch!" I suppose that the Texan Supreme Court will next be taking up the thorny legal issue of whether angry mobs have the right to bear torches and pitchforks.

Perhaps if Sergio Aguiar had driven to Coleyville, Texas instead of Turlock, California before smashing his son to a pulp against the asphalt he'd be alive and free today. Anything to get those pesky demons out.

What is happening here, people?

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