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A court case in Minnesota ( Lundman v. McKown ) raises important questions for the ongoing interpretation and application of the First Amendment. The case involves a young boy’s untimely and tragic death.

The boy was a Christian Scientist. He was also a diabetic. The boy’s family, in accord with their church’s religious belief and practice, did not seek conventional medical treatment but instead used spiritual healing to deal with their son’s illness. The natural father of the boy (his parents were divorced) filed suit against the Christian Science practitioner, the boy’s natural mother and her husband, and against the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The jury awarded $5.2 million in compensatory damages against all the defendants jointly. The court then imposed punitive damages, only against the Christian Scientist church, in the amount of nine million dollars. The case is now being appealed to the Minnesota State Court of Appeals. Lundman v. McKown may well become a landmark case in the effort to maintain First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.

A number of religious organizations have joined together to file an amicus curiae brief in support of the Church of Christ, Scientist. They represent a strikingly diverse cross-section of American religious life. The participants in the amicus brief include: the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of the Nazarene, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Orthodox Church in America, and the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith.

Lundman v. McKown raises a number of issues. Punitive damages are often awarded against defendants in civil cases where there has been “wrongful” conduct. As defined by the law, for conduct to be considered “wrongful” it must be wanton and reckless, or an intentional wrongdoing. At the time of the events of this case, there was no criminal statute on the books in Minnesota making it illegal for parents to refrain from seeking medical treatment for their children. In fact, in many states there are express exceptions built into child protection statutes in light of Christian Scientist practice. Now, apparently as a result of this case, Minnesota has enacted a law requiring Christian Scientist parents to report a serious illness to the child protection agency in their area that will monitor the situation and, if necessary, remove the child from the Christian Scientist home and take the child for medical treatment.

The fundamental question Lundman v. McKown raises is whether the First Amendment would prohibit a court from imposing punitive damages against a church for a particular religious belief or practice. The amicus brief filed in support of the Christian Church, Scientist argues that “The imposition of punitive damages by civil juries against churches in an effort to force a change in their religious doctrines presents a threat to constitutional liberties beyond those immediately involved in this case. As a practical matter, no more serious danger to religious freedom exists than the power of juries to punish religious groups for beliefs or practices that in a jury room may seem distasteful, unreasonable, or outrageous.” The imposition of punitive damages against religious bodies in large sums constitutes a “significant burden” on the autonomy of these religious groups. Such large penalties actually constitute a prohibition against the free exercise of religion. A court can effectively destroy a church body through the use of punitive damage awards.

It is clear in this case that the punitive damages were awarded precisely because of the religious beliefs and conduct of the Christian Scientist church. The counsel for the plaintiff in this case stated plainly that the punitive damages being sought were intended to punish the church for its religious belief. During the trial the plaintiff’s attorney argued that, “It is with . . . First Church that you go below the surface of these policies. If you want to establish a change, if you want to deter and make a difference, it is against the First Church that a punitive damage award will make a difference.” At another point the lawyer wondered out loud if the church has “heard a message to change [its] policies.”

In preparing for the appeal of this case the plaintiff’s attorney solicited an amicus brief from the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association. He stated that the punitive damage award “will force the First Church of Christ, Scientist to reform its policies regarding seriously ill children or risk financial ruin.” The defendant’s amicus brief argues that “the jury’s nine million dollar award puts the Church to an ugly Hobson’s choice of either compromising its faith or going bankrupt. The amici believe that the First Amendment cannot be read to allow such a devastating assault on religious liberty.” The brief indicates that in proportion to the size of the church body, a nine-million-dollar award against the Church of Christ, Scientist would be comparable to a 600 million dollar award against the Southern Baptist Convention or a two billion dollar award against the Roman Catholic Church.

A second argument raised in the brief is that the threat of a punitive damage will have a “chilling” effect on a church body. The simple fact is that if a religious organization is confronted by the threat of punitive damages, it may have to give up doctrinal tenets that the court might find to be grounds for awarding punitive damages. Churches might have to stop spreading certain religious tenets, and their members could be forced to avoid acting on their beliefs.

What, for instance, would happen if a woman sued a church for teaching that abortion is not a moral option in the case of an inconvenient pregnancy? What would happen if a jury could be persuaded by a zealous lawyer that such a teaching is mentally damaging to the woman? What if this woman died during childbirth? Would her family be able to sue a church that counsels strongly against abortion? Conceivably a jury could impose a multi-million dollar punitive judgment against the church. Or, what would happen in the case of a church sued by a homosexual who claims that the church’s teaching that homophile behavior is an intrinsic moral evil is a violation of his/her civil liberties? The list could go on. The brief points out that it is not adequate to argue that punitive damage awards will only prevent unprotected conduct. A court ruled in 1971 that “any system that punishes certain speech is likely to induce self-censorship by those who would otherwise exercise their constitutional freedom” ( Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29, 64 [1971], Harlan, J., dissenting).

The third point raised by the amicus brief is the specter of a jury imposing its religious biases on a religious organization. The brief argues that because the power to impose punitive damage is the power to destroy, punitive damages may be used-indeed, have been used-to harass and suppress unpopular movements. During the civil rights efforts in the 1960s suits were used in an attempt to thwart the movement. The brief points out that the Supreme Court has recognized that the First Amendment does place limitations on the power of juries to impose punitive damages in defamation cases. The brief argues that juries must be instructed that they can only punish churches for clearly illegal activities, not for constitutionally protected religious activity. Thus, in this case, since there was no criminal law on the books that prohibited parents from practicing spiritual healing, the punitive award improperly penalized the church for its religious doctrine. The fact is that there is religious bigotry in this nation. Unpopular or misunderstood religious dogma can be subject to the whim of a jury. Religious beliefs, the brief emphasizes, must be protected under the First Amendment.

The issue is not whether a religious group should be free to do anything it wants to do, without regard to the law. Nor do the participants in the amicus brief necessarily believe that one should rely only on prayer, to the exclusion of conventional medicine, in the case of illness. They do, however, support the right of the Christian Scientists to adhere to religious beliefs and to practice these beliefs without undue restraint by the government. No one suggests that religious organizations may engage in illegal activities with impunity. Churches must remain liable for compensatory damages for negligence or for intentional misconduct for which they are legally responsible. For instance, if a church ignores one of its workers who has been known to have engaged in illegal activities, the church, if aware of this situation, may be held liable in compensatory damages for the worker’s illegal activities. In Lundman v. McKown , however, the church was acting in accord with its religious doctrine and practice, which the state had not passed legislation against. We are dealing here with a fine line, but a very important one. The argument against the Christian Scientist Church is not that the activity of the church was illegal, but that it was wrong. Thus it is the Christian Scientists’ belief and the practice of that belief that is at issue.

The imposition of punitive damages in this case and in others like it is a burden on the free exercise of religion which the First Amendment is designed to prevent. The amici argue that in this case the First Amendment does provide a source for judicial constraint against punitive damages awarded on the basis of religious belief and practice. Further, at a bare minimum, a court should instruct juries on the limitation imposed by the First Amendment in regard to punitive damage awards.

The issues raised by this case are pivotal to debates raging across our country in regard to the so-called separation of church and state. They strike deeply at the right of free exercise of religion. As more traditional religious teachings are looked upon with disfavor and even open hostility on the part of the nation’s cultural leaders, the threat of societal disfavor may grow larger. The specter of group-think on religious issues is a direct threat to religious liberty.

Not only is religious discourse being written out of the public discourse of our day, it now appears that activist courts are willing to let juries impose crippling monetary awards against church bodies. Persecution against religion has taken many forms over the centuries. Huge monetary awards are as potentially harmful as more direct forms of persecution in terms of their capacity to punish a particular religious point of view. This case will be an important test of how our nation wishes to understand and apply the First Amendment. And that is why many are watching with great interest to see if the “wrong” ideas will be penalized.

The Rev. Paul T. McCain is Assistant to the President of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.