Texas high court rules 'laying of hands' protected by law

Steve Korris Jul. 10, 2008, 6:26am

Justice David Medina

AUSTIN – A district judge somehow carried out an appellate court order to hold a trial about a church without mixing religion into it, but now the Texas Supreme Court tells him he shouldn't have held a trial about a church at all.

On June 27, six of nine justices tore up a $300,000 verdict that jurors in Tarrant County District Judge Paul Enlow's court awarded against Pleasant Glade Assembly of God for false imprisonment.

The majority held that the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution protected the pastors and members who held a teenager and restrained her for hours.

Plaintiff Laura Schubert, now an adult, receives Social Security disability benefits due to trauma from events at Pleasant Glade.

Justice David Medina wrote that "the First Amendment does not cease to apply when parishioners disagree over church doctrine or practices."

He wrote, "Because providing a remedy for the very real, but religiously motivated emotional distress in this case would require us to take sides in what is essentially a religious controversy, we cannot resolve that dispute."

Justices Nathan Hecht, Harriet O'Neill, Dale Wainwright, Scott Brister and Don Willett joined Medina.

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justices Paul Green and Phil Johnson dissented in a doomsday tone.

"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.

He argued that the majority treated church membership as an across-the-board buffer to tort liability.

"The tort of false imprisonment is a religiously neutral law of general applicability, and the First Amendment provides no protection against it," he wrote.

Schubert, 17 years old in 1996, spent a weekend at Pleasant Glade while her parents took a trip. She and other teens talked about demon possession.

At Sunday evening service, she collapsed.

"Laura had not eaten anything substantive that day and had missed sleep because of the spiritual activities that weekend," Medina wrote.

Members laid hands on her, forcibly held her arms across her chest, and prayed.

They released her after she complied with requests to say, "Jesus."
Her parents returned Tuesday.

Wednesday evening, at a youth service, she curled up and writhed on the floor. Others restrained her, this time with greater force.

Her father Tom Schubert, himself a missionary, talked it over with senior pastor Lloyd McCutchen and sent him a letter reporting Laura had terrible nightmares.

The Schuberts found another church and sued Pleasant Glade, McCutchen, youth pastor Rod Linzay and congregation members.
Pleasant Glade moved to dismiss the suit as an unconstitutional burden on religious practices. Enlow denied the motion.

Pleasant Glade petitioned for relief at the Second District appeals court in Fort Worth.

Second District judges held that Enlow must proceed to trial, but they told him he could not let the jury hear testimony about religion.

Enlow complied, and after trial the jury found that pastors and members assaulted Schubert and falsely imprisoned her.

Jurors awarded $300,000 for pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity and medical expenses.

They apportioned half to McCutchen, a fourth to Linzay, and the final fourth to members.

Pleasant Glade appealed, and the Second District affirmed the verdict.

Pleasant Glade appealed to the Supreme Court, successfully.

Medina wrote that the First Amendment did not protect Pleasant Glade from a claim of personal injury.

"But Laura's case was not about her physical injuries," he wrote. "Although she suffered scrapes and bruises during these events, her proof at trial related solely to her subsequent emotional or psychological injuries."

Assessing emotional damages would embroil the court in an assessment of the propriety of religious beliefs, he wrote.

"The 'laying of hands' and the presence of demons are part of the church's belief system and accepted as such by its adherents," he wrote.

"That a particular member may find the practice emotionally disturbing and non-consensual when applied to her does not transform the dispute into a secular matter," he wrote.

Jefferson countered that, "After today, a tortfeasor need merely allege a religious motive to deprive a Texas court of jurisdiction to compensate his fellow congregant for emotional damages."

He wrote, "This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct."

He wrote, "The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion's name."

David Pruessner represented Pleasant Glade. William Wuester represented Schubert.

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