Texas high court tosses exorcism lawsuit

Giotto ArezzoThe newspaper coverage of the Texas Supreme Court's ruling that tossed out a lawsuit against a Pentecostal church over an incident that resulted in a 17-year-old girl being held down on the floor of the church has been more than solid. The two articles from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have been a model in careful use of religious language and balance. Max Baker is conscientious in his use of religious terminology, presents both sides of the story, explains the narrow nature of ruling effectively and gives readers a sense of what is or is not likely to happen in this 12-year legal battle. Baker's article on the ruling appropriately lays out the court's ruling in detail and then gives legal experts on both sides of the debate room to let it out:

Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, writing for the majority, said the case presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unnecessarily entangle the court in church doctrine.

Medina 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 sanctioned religious activity.

For the court to impose any legal liability for engaging in a religious activity would have an unconstitutional "chilling effect" by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs, Medina wrote.

But the justice added that the court does not mean to imply that anyone may commit an intentional wrong, such as sexual assault, and get away with it.

One must remember that this is Texas, the same state that is struggling with what to do over the legal mess they are in with the FLDS sect. To say that the majority's opinion was aware that people would look to this opinion to see how it could reflect on that case would be an understatement.

The key to the 20-page opinion in my humble opinion is that Laura Schubert's case (who now goes by Laura Schubert Pearson) was based on the assertion that the events at the church caused her physical and emotion damage. However, there was no evidence of physical injuries to take to the jury, and her testimony at trial dealt only with her emotional and psychological injuries stemming from the incident that involved religious activity. The state's highest court does not want people to be able to sue and get damages for emotional injuries coming out of religious events.

The "expert debate" following the explanation of the court's opinion gives both sides of the issue in reasonable, if not predictable, detail.

Next to the story on the legal issues coming out of the decision is a rather lengthy article on the history of the case. Overall the article deals with the religious issues in a fairly informative and balanced way. Partly because the church stopped apparently cooperating with the media, Shubert's side of the story is featured prominently:

Laura Schubert Pearson was an impressionable 17-year-old when friends in her church youth group thought demons possessed her.

Repeatedly, over two days, the youth pastor, his wife and others held the girl down on the floor of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, even as Pearson screamed, fought and begged to be released.

They cast it as wrestling with the devil.

But she said it was "like being pummeled by this very large group. These were our friends, people we hung out with."

The article does not use the church's refusal to comment as an excuse to not include their side of the story. Baker drew on material from the church's attorneys during the legal proceedings to show that the church viewed Schubert "as an out-of-control, attention-seeking teenager who he once said 'breathes in attention the same way we breathe in air.'"

As for Schubert's father, who was an Assemblies of God minister and missionary at the time of the incident, he has resigned and become an agnostic. I'm sure you could write an entire separate article on that part of the story.

My last observation is that I hope the Star-Telegram follows up on this matter and not only from a legal perspective. From a religious perspective, the Assemblies of God, is the world's largest Pentecostal denomination with about 57 million adherents. Overall, Pentecostalism crosses over into several Christian denominations and is not easily defined.

Why are people attracted to Pentecostalism? From what religious traditions do new adherents come? How do the children of Pentecostal believers respond to the faith? The trickiest question evolves around the incident in the lawsuit: what is the church's doctrine and core religious beliefs? These are all complicated questions that don't have easy answers.

Saint Francis exorcising demons in Arezzo, fresco of Giotto used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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