Freaky Friday: Exorcists Can Get Beatific Immunity

[Yes. I know it’s Tuesday. Fucking roll with it, folks, I was busy last week.]

Holy hell, and I mean that much more literally than I normally do, it’s the second Friday of the month and that means it’s time for us to get a visit from an old priest and a young priest here on Lawyers and Liquor as we dance with the Devil for this month’s Freaky Friday! This month we’re going to talk about how The Exorcist isn’t just a movie that made split pea soup just about the most un-appetizing meal anyone could ever fucking offer you while causing an entire generation of sexual deviants to look at their crucifixes in a whole new light, but also about how the exorcists are a group of folks amazingly prone to liability as the case we’ll talk about this month prove it.

So strap in, gimme three Hail Mary’s, and call your mother to make sure she’s not sucking cocks in hell while we fight the powers of darkness that, in this case, are the ones trying to cast out the demons for Freaky Friday, our exploration of the weirder side of the law.

Exorcism As A First Amendment Right

You know what people have this really bad tendency to forget? The First Amendment covers a whole lot of shit other than speech. It guarantees a right to associate with other people and gather, and it guarantees a right to religious exercise free of government interference. And, if you’re a pentecostal, it can guarantee the right of your church to absolutely fucking traumatize you when casting out the demons that are obviously inhabiting your teenage soul, at least in Texas. Yes, that’s right, there is case law that says exorcisms, even traumatic ones, can be a form of protected religious exercise in the great state of Texas, so demons better fucking beware.  At least, that’s what the State of Texas held back in 2008 with Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert264 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. 2008).

See, back in 1996 a young lady of the Pentecostal persuasion was left alone with her siblings over the weekend and spent pretty much the whole time at the local church doing such fun activities as praying really fucking hard and getting ready for a community garage sale. Now, I was raised a Christian in the south, but I was raised a southern baptist Christian in the south, and we always thought the Pentecostals were…well…just a tiny bit off, what with the whole “getting slain in the spirit” and the “laying on of hands” shit, so it really shouldn’t come as any surprise when the people who believe in babbling in tongues as a valid form of worship went a bit overboard while teens were hanging around the church late on a Friday evening getting ready to stick out a bunch of other people’s garbage for sale.

Our Young Lady, aka Laura Schubert, was cheerfully preparing for the garage sale when, according to the facts as stated in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Texas, a young man present claimed he saw a demon just lurking around the premises of the church. This, of course, being Texas, it’s likely he overreacted after seeing a mentally disabled man not locked onto death row, but certain evangelicals aren’t exactly known for their measured responses to things like “demons lurking around the church,” and as teenagers are wont to do they blew the whole thing up in a panic.  Luckily, in a perfectly rational display of adult thinking, the youth minister took charge of the rising hysteria and calmed things down by…telling the teenagers there was definitely a fucking demon lurking around the church and sending them around to anoint everything in the church with holy oil for the next several hours until 4:30 in the goddamn morning.

See? Totally reasonable response to the situation. Anyhow, Laura, like the rest of the kids, decided to hand around (without any damn sleep) to assist with an all day yard sale on Saturday, and then Sunday attended two church services, one in the morning and one in the evening.  At the morning one, Laura’s brother met the fist of the Holy Spirit had experienced a “laying on of hands,” while at the evening service Laura “began to froth at the mouth and seize in hysterics” while talking about “demons,” leading the congregation to – once again totally reasonably – believe she was possessed and start laying hands on her in an attempt to drive the devil out. Or, you know, it could have been the fact that this 17 year old girl had been moving on very little food or sleep since the Friday before in an atmosphere charged with talk of demonic entities in the middle of a church ceremony as part of a religious sect that definitely fucking believes in demons as real things that are always walking among us and have a penchant for think God coldcocks you in the middle of the service.

[Sidenote: growing up, the wildest us Southern Baptists got was when we broke out the soup crackers and grape juice once a month for communion, which we called the “Lord’s Supper.” Just FYI. Although I heard they’ve gotten wilder lately – now someone plays a guitar during the church service.

The older folks are convinced the congregation has strayed from God’s light.]

Anyhow, Laura was apparently not cured of this demon, as on the following Wednesday night she went back to church and curled into a ball in the corner after having expressed to another youth in the youth group that she didn’t want to be touched. Once again, the completely reasonable reaction of the youth minister was to scream “DEMONS!” and order the other youths present to hold Laura down while they performed an exorcism that consisted of placing their hands on her and praying while playing comforting music. Apparently after speaking the Evangelical Pentecostal Safeword of “Jesus” three times, she was let off the ground and declared free of demons…at which point she went home and proceeded to have a mental and emotional breakdown, dropping out of the church and spending years suffering from severe PTSD as a result of being held down and having the “demons cast out from her.” According to her testimony, she attempted suicide at least twice.

Hey, did you know most churches believe that if you kill yourself you’re going to hell?

The Court Case

So, it’s pretty clear at this point why Laura and her parents felt the need to step out of the church’s guidance and seek recompense from the Temple of Justice, where your religious beliefs in the long-leggity beasties of the underworld don’t come into play. Several of the grounds that she sued on were dismissed as being “religious practices” that barred her recovery, but others the church didn’t object to and the whole shebang went to trial, where Laura promptly won a verdict in excess of $300,000. Then the church appealed, stating that, of yeah, the physical part of her claim (namely the “being held down and prevented from leaving against her will” parts) should have been dismissed because the church totally had a constitutional right to do that as part of its exercise of its religious principles.  The appellate court gave the church a hearty “get thee behind me, litigant!” and affirmed the lower, but the whole thing went before the Supreme Court of Texas which looked at the case and, by a vote of 6-3, decided that holding a teenage girl down and refusing to let her leave because the youth minister determined she was possessed by demons was completely reasonable and a protected exercise of the church’s religion and threw the whole thing out.

I know, right? But there’s a reason for this.

The Consent Doctrine: A Demon’s Worst Enemy

Alright, you need to understand that the Pentecostal Church really fucking believes in demons. I mean really believes in them. They call this the “deliverance ministry,” and generally it holds that people in a state of religious excitement are prone to being possessed or overcome by spirits, both good and bad, and therefore in need of the faith and healing power of their fellow congregants. That normally comes in the form of congregants “laying on hands” and praying over them, holding them as they shake, shout, and shimmy their way into heaven or hell, respectively.  So it’s not like what happened to Laura was far out of the bounds of what would be expected in one of those churches.

And that, folks, was the linchpin of the court’s decision. In determining the fine line between “religious exercise which the court cannot interfere with” and “something the court has to fucking interfere with, religious or not” the court has determined a number of tests, one of which is called the “Consent Doctrine” and has some roots in the basic law of torts: you can’t recover for an injury if you’ve consented to the activity that caused the injury.

Now, it’s not like Laura walked out and said “Please restrain me and place your hands all over me any time you think I may have a demon in me,” and in fact it’s really unlikely anyone injured in such a religious activity would say that, so the courts have looked at the consent doctrine as a two step process:  1) Was the activity that caused the injury a regular activity in the worship of the church and 2) was the person injured a member of the church? If so, the courts say it there is a reasonable presumption that the person consented to the activity.  At that point the burden shifts to the person making the claim to show they could not or definitely (and clearly) did not consent. If the injured person can’t show that…well, no collection for you because you consented to the harm by becoming a member of the religion.

Of course, this is limited in how it treats shit, and had the church cut off Laura’s hand or something it likely would have been thrown into the pit of liability without a second thought, because your religious principles aren’t protected if they harm society as a whole by going against some well held public policy. But in this case, the court determined, Laura was a regular member of the church who was aware of the belief and practices regarding demons, and therefore implicitly consented to it. As such, allowing Laura to collect was, in essence, forcing the church to abandon a deeply held part of their religious practice by threatening all churches with liability for practicing a tenet of their faith. So Texas kicked the whole thing.

Now, there were dissents as well, who thought the whole matter should be determined on “neutral principles,” which is basically “stop looking at it as a religious matter and determine if we’d allow for liability under these same facts if the church wasn’t involved at all,” but that lost out the day because religion fucking complicates things. So, in the end, the essential ruling of the Supreme Court of Texas was “If you join a religion that believes in exorcising demons at a moment’s notice, you don’t get to bitch about them exorcising demons from you. Choose another faith.”

Which…sucks for Laura Schubert.

There is a Silver Lining.

Laura took this experience and used it as a motivating factor to do a shit ton of good in her life with the love and support of her family, and even though she lost the case on appeal, she viewed the chance to expose and strike back at her exorcists as an empowering moment in her life.

Which is about the best thing to happen here: by trying to drive out the demons, they created a goddamn angel.

In Nomine Patri…

That’s all for this month on the Freaky Friday session of Lawyers and Liquor. Join me next Friday where we’ll do the Fetish Friday for Part 2 of “It’s still rape,” by popular demand. Until then, I’m gonna go throw myself down some stairs, then have like four or five sequels made about me.