Religious freedom case over Roy church discipline matter is revived by Utah Supreme Court
ROY — The Utah Supreme Court has revived a religious freedom dispute, instructing an Ogden court to take another look at a suit filed by a woman who alleged Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders in Roy subjected her to humiliating discipline as a teenager after she accused a fellow church member of rape.
In 2008, four church elders at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Roy convened a disciplinary hearing to determine whether the 15-year-old girl had engaged in “unclean sexual conduct” and, if so, whether she was “sufficiently repentant.” They had an audio recording of the rape, which had been provided by the male, and played it while questioning her, “suggesting that she consented to” the sexual acts, the lawsuit alleged.
The suit alleged the church intentionally inflicted emotional distress and humiliation on the girl, and the church advanced a defense of religious freedom from government interference in church disciplinary matters.
Second District Judge Mark DeCaria in 2016 dismissed the woman’s civil suit, saying the court could not disentangle the claimed damaging conduct from religious freedom protections under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
DeCaria ruled — and the Utah Court of Appeals later agreed in 2019 — that the woman’s claims “expressly implicate key religious questions regarding religious rules, standards, discipline and most prominently how a religion conducts its ecclesiastical disciplinary hearings.”
DeCaria said he viewed the elders’ conduct as “reprehensible” and said he would have “no hesitation in sending (the claim) to the jury” if it the case had “occurred in a secular setting.”
But in an opinion issued Thursday, the Utah Supreme Court said it was overturning the claim’s dismissal because DeCaria’s and the Appeals Court’s rulings relied on a case-law test that has since been discarded by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That old standard, established by the nation’s high court decades ago, set out a test for lower courts to judge whether “excessive entanglement” of religious practices barred successful civil litigation.
Under the new approach adopted by the high court in a pair of recent cases, the lower court now should “focus on the particular issue at hand and look to history for guidance as to the correct application of the Establishment Clause in this case,” the Utah justices ruled.
“In vacating the district court’s order, we are in no way criticizing the district court or the Court of Appeals for failing to follow the approach identified” in the more recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, the justices said.
DeCaria has since retired, so a different judge in the Ogden court will handle the case upon its return. Efforts to contact attorneys who argued the appeal — Karra Porter for the church and attorneys from Georgetown Law who represented the woman — were not immediately successful Monday.
The lawsuit said that upon hearing the recording, the teenager cried, trembled and pleaded with the elders to stop forcing her to relive the scarring experience. They did not stop, and instead continued to play the recording, on and off, for hours, it said.
The suit said the girl suffered humiliation, anxiety, nightmares, loss of appetite and poor performance in school.
In their arguments to the Utah Supreme Court last year, her attorneys said she “continues to experience distress, including embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and spiritual suffering.”
Summarizing the constitutional issue in its analysis, the Utah court said the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause protects religious bodies to govern themselves in accordance with their own beliefs, free from government interference. On the other hand, the court said, no segment of society and no institution within it “can exist in a vacuum or in total or absolute isolation from all its other parts.”