When one individual harms another, the latter individual sometimes can file a suit for civil damages. Such suits that do not involve breach of contracts are called torts. The religious clauses of the First Amendment raise the issue of whether individuals should be allowed to sue religious entities for similar damages.
Courts have differed on how to deal with the practice of ‘shunning’
Kent Greenawalt (2006:290–325) has examined a number of cases involving the issues surrounding religious groups and torts. One case deals with the practice of some religious groups (chiefly the Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses) of shunning those whom they believe to have fallen from the faith. Courts have varied in their treatment of this practice. In Bear v. Reformed Mennonite Church (1975), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that shunning could be so severe as to interfere with the state’s interest in preserving family life, whereas the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in Paul v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (1987) that the practice did not call for state intervention.
Citing a letter by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard calling for “suppressive persons” to be “tricked, sued, lied to, or destroyed” (Greenawalt 2006:298), a California court decided in Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology of California (Ct.App. 2d. Dist. 1989) that the First Amendment did not protect such behavior. Greenawalt argues that courts have more cause to intervene when actions appear designed to protect a religious group from criticism rather than to redeem the victim or preserve the group’s purity.
Courts have ruled on embarassing information disseminated by churches
Some individuals have sued churches that disclosed embarrassing facts about them, as was the case in Guinn v. Church of Christ (Okla. 1989), in which a member sued a Church of Christ after its elders informed their members and those of surrounding churches that she was engaged in fornication. In this case, the Court believed that the church had more rights to pass on information about its members than about nonmembers. In cases in which churches disseminate information that happens to be untruthful, defamation claims can be raised.
Courts have considered lawsuits over religious ‘brainwashing’
Some courts have considered torts that have arisen from claims of fraudulent recruiting or “brainwashing” by religious entities. Such claims are particularly difficult to win when they involve adults who have voluntarily joined an organization. Further claims have arisen after harm has befallen individuals who had sought church counseling. Greenawalt notes that clergy malpractice can sometimes be distinguished legally from similar malpractice by psychiatrists on the basis that the state licenses the latter but not the former. He thinks it is especially inappropriate to hold religious entities liable for bad advice that they may be thought to have given.
Churches have less protection when harm results from direct actions rather than from advice. For example, in recent years the Roman Catholic Church has settled a number of suits arising from claims of sexual abuse by priests. Like other employers, churches face greater liability in circumstances where they have known of behavior and done little to stop it.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.