In a 6-3 decision Friday, the court ruled that the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God's efforts to cast out demons from the girl presents a dispute over religious conduct that would unconstitutionally entangle the court in church doctrine.
A 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, then 17. The jury awarded her $300,000 for mental anguish, but the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth shaved $122,000 from the verdict for loss of future income.
The church then 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."
A majority of the high court agreed with the church. Justice David Medina wrote that while the young woman's secular injury claims might "theoretically be tried without mentioning religion, the imposition of tort liability for engaging in 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."
But Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, in a dissenting opinion, stated that the "sweeping immunity" is inconsistent with U.S. States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the Constitution's protections for religious conduct, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in its online edition Friday.
"The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion's name," Jefferson wrote.
The young woman testified in 2002 that she was cut and bruised and later experienced hallucinations after the church members' actions in 1996. 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 had "freaked out" about following her father's life as a missionary and was acting out to gain attention.
After the 2002 verdict, Pleasant Glade merged with another congregation in Colleyville, a Fort Worth suburb.