Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology

Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology is a case that explores the outer limits of discipline. The church of Scientology did several things that are outside the norm for a "church discipline" case in terms of degree, but not kind. While a member of the church, the church failed to provide him with adequate psychological care for a manic depressive illness. To prevent a member from leaving they engaged in unlawful imprisonment and kidnapping. But they did this essentially the same reason many other churches try and prevent members from leaving. Finally, once the member had successfully left they engaged in a campaign to get him to join the church again, by applying pressure, in this case they used fraud to destroy his business

Essentially this is a very extreme version of: nouthetic counseling, not recognizing the right of members to quit, shunning or other practices to try and bring someone to "repentance". Again as far as I know no Christian church of substantial size in modern centuries within the USA has gone this far, or close to this far, in terms of degree but they do agree with the basic principles.

The fraud, which consisted of having Scientology members not pay bills owed Wollersheim had been centrally organized as part of a policy to attack "enemies of the church" in an organized fashion, a policy the church called "fair game". That is, in the case of Wollersheim the church of Scientology engaged in an organized conspiracy to commit felonies, which is yet another felony called racketeering. However, the Church of Scientology argued their policy of fair game, was a religious protected procedure and they were entitled to full first amendment protections. The state of California and the US Supreme court disagreed. The court agreed that the states cannot in any way burden belief itself in any way. However they held that expressions, that is acts, are subject to regulation. They outlined the "4 part test" for regulating expression of belief, using Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) as a precedent:
  1. Important or compelling state interest
  2. Burden must be essential to advance that interest
  3. Minimum burden to advance that interest
  4. Must apply equally, i.e. non discrimination
The subsequent cases interpreting these four words make it clear that while the free exercise clause provides absolute protection for a person's religious beliefs, it provides only limited protection for the expression of those beliefs and especially actions based on those beliefs. ( Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) 310 U.S. 296, 303-304 [84 L.Ed. 1213, 1217-1218, 60 S.Ct. 900, 128 A.L.R. 1352].) Freedom of belief is absolutely guaranteed; freedom of action is not. Thus government cannot constitutionally burden any belief no matter how outlandish or dangerous. But in certain circumstances it can burden an expression of belief which adversely affects significant societal interests. To do so, the burden on belief must satisfy a four-part test. First, the government must be seeking to further an important - and some opinions suggest a compelling - state interest. Second, the burden on expression must be essential to further this state interest. Third, the type and level of burden imposed must be the minimum required to achieve the state interest. Finally, the measure imposing the burden must apply to everyone, not merely to those who have a religious belief; that is, it may not discriminate against religion. (From II.A of Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology) .
In particular criminal acts or acts that violate civil laws are not protected:
If the Biblical commandment to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to render unto God what is God's has any meaning in the modern day it is here. Nothing in Paul v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc. of New York or any other case we have been able to locate even implies a religion is entitled to constitutional protection for a campaign deliberately designed to financially ruin anyone - whether a member or nonmember of that religion. Nor have we found any cases suggesting the free exercise clause can justify a refusal to honor financial obligations the state considers binding and legally enforceable. One can only imagine the utter chaos that could overtake our economy if people who owed money to others were entitled to assert a freedom of religion defense to repayment of those debts. It is not unlikely the courts would soon be flooded with debtors who claimed their religion prohibited them from paying money they owed to others.
We are not certain a deliberate campaign to financially ruin a former member or the dishonoring of debts owed that member qualify as “religious *891 practices” of Scientology. But if they do, we have no problem concluding the state has a compelling secular interest in discouraging these practices. (See pp. 884-886, supra.) Accordingly, we hold the freedom of religion guaranties of the United States and California Constitutions do not immunize these practices from civil liability for any injuries they cause to “targets” such as Wollersheim.
Of interest to the general readership the courts determined the level of emotional harm required for church discipline to become a tort:
For reasons set forth in section II, we have concluded Scientology is not constitutionally immunized from civil liability for its cumulative course of conduct to intentionally inflict emotional injury on Wollersheim. However, this course of conduct does not supply a suitable predicate for a cause of action based on negligent infliction of emotional injury. These actions are potentially actionable only when they are driven by an animus which can properly qualify them as “outrageous conduct.” That is, they must be done for the purpose of emotionally injuring the plaintiff, or at the least with reckless disregard about their adverse impact on plaintiff's mental health. (III)

The Church of Scientology appealed this decision twice to the United State Supreme Court, and twice to the California Supreme Court. The Church of Scientology lost all of these appeals. The original damages were $30m, these were reduced to $5m and then with interest and legal the final payment was $8.6m. The decision is now final. The full citation and subsequent history of the case is enormous due to the extensive appeals:
Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology, 212 Cal.App.3d 872, 260 Cal.Rptr. 331 (2d Dist. 1989), review denied, (Cal. Oct. 26, 1989), review denied, mot. granted, 495 U.S. 902, 110 S.Ct. 1920, 109 L.Ed.2d 284 (1990), cert. denied, 495 U.S. 910, 110 S.Ct. 1937, 109 L.Ed.2d 300 (1990), vacated, remanded, 499 U.S. 914, 111 S.Ct. 1298, 113 L.Ed.2d 234 (1991), on remand, 4 Cal.App.4th 1074, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 532 (2d Dist. 1992), reh'g denied, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 532 (Cal.App. 2d Dist. 1992), review granted, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 182 (Cal. 1992), review dismissed, cause remanded, (Cal. July 15, 1993), cert. denied, 114 S.Ct. 1216, 127 L.Ed.2d 562 (1994).

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