Thursday, February 19, 2009

Church liability for acts of individual members

Last week a woman in Florida filed a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, alleging that the church was liable for the death of her 20-year-old son. The lawsuit alleged that the young man committed suicide after two Scientologists convinced his father, also a Scientologist, to take away the son's anti-depressants. It now appears very unlikely that the case will go to trial; police reports released this week apparently refute most or all of those claims. But it caught my attention because similar liability claims have been made against the LDS Church, alleging that the Church was liable for the wrongful acts of its individual members.

Since most churches are operated by professional clergy, most lawsuits against denominations are based on the actions of ordained clergy. The Mormon Church differs in that it employs virtually no clergy on the congregational level, relying instead on a "lay clergy." So while some Mormon leaders (such as bishops or stake presidents) could clearly be seen as agents of the Church, most of the congregation are not church agents, despite the various tasks or responsibilities to which they may have been assigned.

Like the recent Scientology lawsuit, there have been several lawsuits against the LDS Church in the past 20 years that claimed the Church was liable for the actions of its members. The most serious of these cases alleged sexual abuse by members of Mormon congregations. Some of these lawsuits also included liability incurred by church agents (i.e., bishops), but they have also allege that the LDS Church was liable for the abuse committed by one of its members.

As a matter of policy, I think no religious group should be liable for the wrongful acts of its members unless those individuals could be said to be agents of the denomination. But some courts have held just that. In a highly-publicized 2005 lawsuit in Washington State, the Mormon Church was found liable for the actions of a man who sexually abused his two step-daughters. But on appeal before the Washington Court of Appeals, that portion of the jury verdict was reversed and the Church was held not to be financially responsible for the step-father's liability.

Court still seem to be struggling with the difference between clergy members and parishioners in the Mormon Church. Part of this may be due to the practice of a lay clergy. A bishop may clearly be an agent of the Church, but what about and Elders' Quorum president? A home teacher? A Sunday School teacher? I also think this confusion is due in part to an unfamiliarity with the structure of Mormon congregations. It would be hard to imagine a similar ruling against a Catholic Diocese or a Protestant congregation because more judges and juries are familiar with the structure of those organizations.


  1. Peter,

    I tend to differ in that I do not take it automatically that LDS bishops are agents of the church, in a legal sense. In my mind, they are volunteers drawn from the body, and they represent the body of local believers more than the institutional church. Called by a higher church officer to function in a role, yes, but sustained by the body and releasable/rejectable by the body.

    If the bishop is an agent, then so must be every Primary teacher.

    1. I agree partially, however a bishop is not released by the body. He is called by the higer officer.. released by the same.

  2. My understanding is that a Bishop is legally an agent of the Church, as is a full time Missionary. Each carries a Ministerial Certificate that grants specific legal authority to act for the Church, such as hospital visitation rights, and the right to perform a civil marriage. An Elders Quorum President is not issued an MC, so does not have such legal authority.

    /Yes, a missionary can legally perform a civil marriage. It isn't common, but it does happen.

  3. I'm not aware of full-time missionaries being authorized to perform civil marriages. I'd like to see a source for that assertion if you have one available. It is certainly true that in most countries neither missionary nor Bishop can perform civil marriages, because most countries only allow the state (or sometimes a state religion) to perform legal marriage.

    1. My father performed a marriage while he was serving as a full-time missionary in California.

  4. I have an upcoming lawsuit with the LDS corporation and I've done nothing but study legal case files of said lawsuit, plus many others of a similar nature.

    I want to be the first to point out that the appeal in these poor girls case was won on a vague technicality. I won't be making that mistake. Second I've already written a book titled "Growing Up Mormon" based on my experience, which is sitting in my editors inbox awaiting my actual file date. Lastly, the LDS CORPERATION is responsible for performing background checks. The LDS is NOT a church but a for profit institution. The LDS corporation, as such, is NOT "entitled" to call "lay clergy" to callings involving children and at the same time retain protection under "freedom of religion".

    I can't wait till my day in court. I'm smarter than I appear, ready to go to war, and that is exactly what it will be. All out war on an evil, deceptive corporation. A for profit corporation I might add. See y'all in court, see y'all at appeals, and I'll see y'all in the after life as you will again be held accountable for not being "your brothers keeper". It will be glorious, it will be swift, and it will be just. Ta ta for now. :)