A woman is suing a local congregation ("Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roy, Utah, an unincorporated association"), individual elders and Watchtower NY after, she claims, a judicial committee forced her to listen an audio recording of her own rape. The trial court summarized the facts as alleged by the plaintiff as follows:
At the time of the judicial committee, Plaintiff was fifteen years old. However, at the time of the conduct which led to the judicial committee, Plaintiff was only fourteen years old. This judicial committee was convened to determine if Plaintiff had engaged in pomea, defined by Jehovah's Witnesses as serious sexual sin. At this committee, Plaintiff was subjected to intense scrutiny and harsh questioning for several [four to five] hours. As part of their interrogation of Plaintiff, the members of the judicial committee played an audio tape which had been given to them by Defendant Williams. This audio tape contained a recording of Defendant Williams allegedly raping Plaintiff. Members of the committee forced Plaintiff to listen to the tape, stopping it at different times and requiring Plaintiff to describe what was happening and repeatedly accusing her of consenting to the conduct.
In 2016, the woman brought suit for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress (she initially also sued for negligence, negligent supervision and failure to warn but withdrew those claims at the pre-trial stage). The district court dismissed the lawsuit as barred by the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment (separation of church and state). The judge described the elders’ alleged conduct as “nothing less than reprehensible” and remarked that "it is... disturbing to this Court that Defendants apparently had no qualms with not only possessing but listening to the contents of an audio recording that included sexual conduct by a fourteen year old girl" and “if this conduct had occurred in a secular setting, the Court would have no hesitation in sending this claim to the jury.” Nonetheless, he concluded:
Plaintiffs claims expressly implicate key religious questions regarding religious rules, standards, and discipline, most prominently how a religion conducts its ecclesiastical disciplinary hearings. While the allegations are certainly disturbing, this Court is unable to disentangle Defendants conduct from the setting and context in which they took place <...> Despite this Court's revulsion at the allegations, it cannot hear this case without excessively entangling itself in religion, and thus declines to do so.
The appellate court unanimously affirmed that ruling. In its view, allowing the suit to proceed would require the district court "to assess religiously prescribed conduct", "the manner in which the Church conducted a religious judicial committee", and therefore "to unconstitutionally inject itself into substantive ecclesiastical matters."
The plaintiff then petitioned to the Supreme Court of Utah. The petition asks the Court to hear the case and decide how the Establishment Clause applies to intentional tort claims - whether the First Amendment "bar[s] all claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress arising out of religiously motivated conduct". In addition to local lawyers, the plaintiff is represented before the Court by The Zalkin Law Firm, P.C. and DC-based Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protectionat the Georgetown University Law Center.
Will the Utah Supreme Court grant the petition and hear the case? The chances are pretty slim - that Court grants only about 1/7 of petitions filed. Moreover, in the first six months of this year it has already granted 16 petitions, whereas in 2011-18 it didn't grant more than 24 petitions a year; in other words, its docket is almost full. Its decision on the petition will become known in the next two months.
Case docket (docket number (search term): 20190422).
Jehovah’s Witness Elders Accused of Playing Rape Recording to Victim, JWsurvey (Oct. 28, 2016) [comments are prety noteworthy].
Utah Jehovah's Witnesses church forced woman to listen to audio of her rape, lawsuit says, The Salt Lake Tribune (Oct. 16, 2016).