Good News About The First Amendment
[Editor’s Note: The following article was written by A.P. auxiliary staff writer, Kevin Cain, who holds degrees from Freed-Hardeman University (B.S., M.Min.) and the Doctor of Jurisprudence from South Texas College of Law. His current practice focuses on litigation at the trial and appellate levels in both State and Federal Courts. A product of the distinguished Advocacy Program at South Texas College of Law, where he won multiple national and state championships and many speaking and brief-writing awards, Kevin is a former Briefing Attorney of The First Court of Appeals and serves as an Adjunct Professor at South Texas College of Law.]
Years ago, Anne Murray sang the words, “We sure could use a little good news today.” Have you ever watched the evening news and had this thought? Is there any good news out there? Sadly, human nature tends to focus on the negative. We slow down to see a police officer issuing a speeding ticket. We stop and stare at a serious car accident. As they say in the news industry, “If it bleeds, it leads.” We stare at despair. Yet, we know there is good news all around us. The problem is that we rarely hear about that good news.
From the legal arena, we often hear about lawsuit abuse, frivolous lawsuits, outrageous verdicts, criminals going free, and courts infringing on religious liberties. Surely there is some good news coming out of our judicial system that we simply are not hearing about. There is, and it comes to us from the Texas Supreme Court.
On June 27, 2008, the Texas Supreme Court held in Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert that a party cannot sue for emotional (non-physical) damages arising from a religious practice. In that case, 17-year-old Laura Schubert spent the weekend “participating in church-related activities” for the youth. On Friday evening, the atmosphere became “spiritually charged” when one of the teens announced that she saw a demon near the sanctuary. Another teen announced that she saw a “cloud of the presence of God fill the church.” These young people “testified” about these events on Sunday morning. After praying all afternoon without any substantive food, Laura collapsed. After the worship service, several church members physically constrained Laura and carried her to a classroom where she was not released until she said the name of Jesus. Laura stated during this episode that demons were trying to get to her (Pleasant Glade Assembly…,” 2008).
Laura continued in church-related activities on Monday and Tuesday without any such similar events. However, on Wednesday, she fell to the floor in a fetal position because she wanted to be left alone. Youth members were summoned and held her down in a spread-eagle position holding her arms and legs. The senior pastor played a tape of soothing Christian music while laying his hands on Laura’s head and praying. During this incident, Laura suffered carpet burns and bruises on her wrists and shoulders (Pleasant Glade Assembly…,” 2008).
Laura and her parents sued the church and its leaders alleging numerous causes of action [NOTE: a “cause of action” is a legally recognized claim, like negligence or breach of contract.] After pre-trial motions disposed of some of these claims, the case went to trial on the remaining claims of assault and false imprisonment. The jury found that Laura had been assaulted and falsely imprisoned, and awarded her $300,000 for pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity, and medical expenses (for psychiatric treatment). While Laura did suffer physical injuries from this event (scrapes and bruises), the evidence at trial related only to subsequent emotional or psychological injuries (Pleasant Glade Assembly…,” 2008).
The court began its analysis by looking to the federal case of Paul v. Watchtower Bible Tract Society of New York, Inc. (1987) from the Ninth Circuit. Usually a reference to the Ninth Circuit is bad news, as this court is considered to be one of the more liberal federal appellate courts. For example, it was the Ninth Circuit that held that the pledge of allegiance violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, before the United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling (Newdow v…, 2002). However, in the Paul case, the Ninth Circuit was faced with the practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses in shunning or excommunicating their members. The court held in that case that “[i]ntangible or emotional harms cannot ordinarily serve as a basis for maintaining a tort cause of action against a church” (Newdow v…, 2002). The rationale for this rule is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of shunning was based exclusively on their interpretation of Scripture. In other words, courts should not weigh in on the validity of these practices when doing so would require the court to engage in its own interpretation of Scripture.
The Texas Supreme Court noted that the adjudication of the claims in the present case would require an unconstitutional inquiry into the truth or falsity of religious beliefs (Pleasant Glade…”). However, the court emphasized that this rule would not allow church members to commit unlawful acts with impunity “under the cloak of religion”: “Freedom to believe may be absolute, but freedom of conduct is not” (Pleasant Glade…”). Physical harm, as such, resulting from a religious practice is not insulated from judicial review by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. It is possible that extreme conduct in the name of religion, causing only mental anguish, may not be protected under the First Amendment, but the Texas Supreme Court was quick to point out that “this is not such a case” (Pleasant Glade…”).
So, what do we learn from the Pleasant Glade case? First, keep in mind the legal context of this case. As a state case, it is not binding precedent on any state other than Texas. While this case could be persuasive authority in state and federal courts in other jurisdictions, it is binding only in Texas. Nevertheless, this case represents a trend (see other instances in the Schubert opinion) that favors religious liberties.
Second, freedom of religion is not without limits. The court expressly recognized that a cause of action or lawsuit can be maintained for physical injuries that result from a religious doctrine and the practice that results from such teaching. For example, the Bible teaches that we are to baptize others (Matthew 28:19). However, if I, through violent force, baptize some unwilling person, I can be sued for any physical injuries that may result. But I cannot be sued for upsetting someone by teaching that their soul is lost because they are not baptized.
Likewise, the Bible teaches us to share the good news of God’s Word with the world (Matthew 28:19). Yet, if I chase someone down and tackle them so I can tell them about God’s grace and love, and injure them in the process, I can be sued for any physical injury that may result from my over-zealous evangelistic tactic. On the other hand, if I preach that one cannot be saved outside of Jesus and this offends Hindus, I cannot be sued for emotional distress. (Keep in mind that a person can be sued for anything, but a court should dismiss such a lawsuit as it violates the First Amendment. Clients frequently ask if they can be sued for doing something, and I always respond that you can be sued for anything. The question is will they prevail in their suit).
Third, religious error will usually get you into trouble in more ways than one. None of these unfortunate events would have resulted if the teens had not been artificially manipulated into an emotional, “spirit-filled” frenzy. Clearly, they had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). These events are also a direct result of a failure to properly understand the role and duration of miracles and the laying on of hands (see Miller, 2003, 23:17-23). A misunderstanding of the Scripture can result not only in spiritual ruin, but legal ruin also.
Inversely, notice that our civil laws protect religion as it is prescribed in the Bible. Righteousness, as it is defined in the Bible (Psalm 119:172), does not require us to physically harm those around us. While physical warfare was a part of the Old Testament system, such is no longer the case today as we live under a better covenant. Jesus made this point clear when Peter drew a sword and attacked Malchus. Jesus said: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52; cf. John 18:36). True Christian living that is consistent with God’s Word will keep us from intentionally physically injuring those around us. New Testament Christianity does not dictate that we kill God’s enemies, attack infidels, torture pagans into submission to Christ, or physically discipline unfaithful members of the body of Christ. God calls us to peace—peace with Him and our fellow man. This point could not have been made more clearly than when Jesus said, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). By inspiration, Paul described the extraordinary way we should treat our enemies:
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink” (Romans 12:17-20).
A person whose life reflects this mandate from Romans is certainly not lawsuit-proof (as no person is these days), but he is clearly not as likely to be convicted of wrong-doing.
This is consistent with the portrayal of early Christians, who, when accused of fabricated allegations of treason, responded that the Christian religion would, in fact, cause them to be better citizens (seeMattox, 1961, pp. 73,83). Likewise, conforming to God’s holy Word will most protected us from the laws of our civil government. Remember the words of Paul: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same” (Romans 13:3).
Finally, it is refreshing to see a court protecting our religious liberties, rather than tearing them down. But, what should we do if the unthinkable happens? What if courts held that the First Amendment did not protect us from lawsuits for preaching the truth on salvation, withdrawing fellowship from unrepentant Christians, or refusing to hire someone because of their “sexual orientation”? What should we do if, rather than protecting Christians, the law allows others to persecute us through legal channels for doing God’s will? What then?
We continue to do what is right, and we rejoice in persecution. The apostles were arrested by the high priest and Sadducees for preaching God’s Word (Acts 5:17-18). After being miraculously released from prison, the apostles immediately started preaching Jesus again (Acts 5:19-21). The apostles were arrested again and told not to preach in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:27-28). Peter and the apostles responded by proclaiming a fundamental principle of the Christian’s relationship with the government: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Initially, the Sanhedrin wanted to kill the apostles in response to this statement (Acts 5:33), but after some thoughtful reasoning, they beat the apostles and warned them to preach no more (Acts 5:34-40). After the apostles were beaten and warned, they left rejoicing, that’s right, rejoicing because they were considered worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).
Consider the second verse of the national song “Faith of Our Fathers”: “Our fathers, chained in prison dark, were still in heart and conscience free; How sweet would be their children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for Thee!” How true, but we are more likely to face persecution in the form of a lawsuit than face death as a consequence of our devotion to God. We are more likely to be sued, than beaten, for proclaiming God’s Word and living it. Yet, whether we face peace or persecution, love or lawsuit, blessings or beatings, we must remain faithful to God, and continue to vote for men and women who are likely to protect our religious liberties (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
The good news is not that a court is protecting my religious liberties, although I am truly grateful for that. No, the real good news is that we, like the early Christians, are still in heart and conscience free to serve God. With or without the protection of the law, we must serve God. That is good news.
Mattox, F.W. (1961), The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation—EXTENDED VERSION,” Reason & Revelation, 23:17-23, March, [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/2569.
Newdow v. U.S. Congress, 313 F.3d 500 (9th Cir. 2002).
Paul v. Watchtower Bible Tract Society of New York, Inc., 819 F.2d 875 (9th Cir. 1987).
Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, S.W.3d, 2008 WL 2572009 (Tex. 2008), [On-line], URL: http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/historical/062708.asp.
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