The Texas Supreme Court on Friday threw out a jury award over injuries a 17-year-old girl suffered in an exorcism conducted by members of her old church, ruling that the case unconstitutionally entangled the court in religious matters.
In a 6-3 decision, the justices found that a lower court erred when it said the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God's First Amendment rights regarding freedom of religion did not prevent the church from being held liable for mental distress triggered by a "hyper-spiritualistic environment."
Laura Schubert testified in 2002 that she was cut and bruised and later experienced hallucinations after the church members' actions in 1996, when she was 17. Schubert said she was pinned to the floor for hours and received carpet burns during the exorcism, the Austin American-Statesman reported. She also said the incident led her to mutilate herself and attempt suicide. She eventually sought psychiatric help.
But the church's attorneys had told jurors that her psychological problems were caused by traumatic events she witnessed with her missionary parents in Africa. The church contended she "freaked out" about following her father's life as a missionary and was acting out to gain attention.
Abuse and false imprisonment?
The 2002 trial of the case never touched on the religious aspects, and a Tarrant County jury found the Colleyville church and its members liable for abusing and falsely imprisoning the girl. The jury awarded her $300,000, though the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth later reduced the verdict to $188,000.
Justice David Medina wrote that finding the church liable "would have an unconstitutional 'chilling effect' by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs."
But Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, in a dissenting opinion, stated that the "sweeping immunity" is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the Constitution's protections for religious conduct.
"The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion's name," Jefferson wrote.
After the 2002 verdict, Pleasant Glade merged with another congregation in Colleyville, a Fort Worth suburb.
A message left for the church's attorney Friday evening was not immediately returned, and calls to two numbers listed in Schubert's name went unanswered.