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Are churches responsible for worship-related injuries?

By David Middlebrook and Robert W. Rucker

Churches tend to recognize different expressions of faith in their religious worship services. Some traditions call for quiet reflection and meditative prayer, while others encourage demonstrative shouting, dancing, singing and other physical forms of worship. As a matter of basic legal philosophy, the court system does not involve itself in these matters based upon the concept known as judicial abstention.

Courts do not want to become involved in disputes that may require interpreting religious belief, custom or practice. This is because our country has a long tradition of freely allowing all manner of religious expression. Each person is allowed to decide for his or her self what form of religious worship best meets their needs. Nevertheless, sometimes churches have been sued for injuries incurred during or even as a part of their worship services.

Recently, a Michigan appeals court partially upheld an award against a church for an injury occurring during services. In Dadd v. Mount Hope Church, a member of the church was injured when she answered the pastor’s altar call — an open invitation to the congregants to come to the altar of the church to be prayed over. Sometimes, congregants who answer the altar call are “slain in the spirit,” that is, become physically weak due to being filled with the Holy Spirit, and may fall to the ground. This process was well known to the church, which assigned ushers to attempt to help persons who were falling to land without injury. As a matter of fact, the church’s pastor told the congregation that “others are against it because they’re afraid of getting hurt. That’s why we train our ushers to catch people if this happens.”

‘Slain in the spirit’

This particular member testified that she had previously been “slain in the spirit” more than 100 times at this church, sometimes falling all the way to the ground and sometimes not, apparently without any prior injury. On the day in question, the member went up for an altar call along with various other congregants.

Other witnesses testified that “people were falling all over” and that they were being caught by ushers. But when this member was slain in the spirit, there was no usher to catch her and she fell to the floor. She claimed to have hit her head and to have suffered an injury. The church disputed that the member had been injured and circulated certain claims to other members that she was “trouble” and was essentially exaggerating her injuries in order to commit insurance fraud.

The member sued the church and the senior pastor for negligence related to her fall as well as for libel and slander and related claims based upon their comments about her to the other members. A jury awarded her $40,000 for the injury from the fall and more than $275,000 for the libel, slander and other costs.

In the Dadd case, the Appeals Court said that it generally agreed with the church that it had no legal duty to protect from injury all congregants who participate in church services. However, the court believed that the church had voluntarily assumed a duty to protect this member from injury because (1) the senior pastor told everyone that they would not fall, that the church ushers would catch them, and (2) based upon the uncontested testimony that this member had been specifically solicited to come forward and participate in the altar call by the ushers and was directed to go to a specific location.

‘Unpublished’ opinion

The court said that a person in this member’s place “could reasonably conclude that the usher who positioned her for this altar call would also guard her through the process.” The court went on to say that its ruling in this case was based upon “the very narrow and unique circumstances” of the case. It is also worth noting that the court issued this opinion as what is known as an “unpublished” opinion, which means that it is not to be relied upon as precedent by others having a similar type of case.

The court upheld the $40,000 injury award, but reversed the rest of the award and sent the case back to the trial court for further consideration of the libel and slander claims.

In April 2007, the Texas Supreme Court dealt with a similar injury claim, but came to an opposite conclusion. In Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, the member was a 17-year-old girl who was at the church on a Friday night helping the youth members prepare for a church garage sale scheduled the next day. During the evening, one of the other youth members announced that he had seen a demon near the sanctuary. The youth pastor in charge, after hearing the youth’s story, agreed that demons were present on church property.

Collapsing at the service

The group spent the remainder of the evening and into the early next morning anointing everything in the church with Holy oil to cast out the demons. The youth member spent the rest of the weekend in various activities at the church and finally collapsed at the church’s Sunday evening worship service. Several church members took her into a church classroom where they “laid hands” on her and prayed. The youth member responded by clinching her fists, gritting her teeth, foaming at the mouth, making guttural noises, crying, yelling, kicking, sweating and hallucinating.

Again, at the next Wednesday evening service, the member collapsed and had hands lain upon her, this time resulting in her suffering carpet burns, a scrape on the neck, and bruises. Over the next several months, the member suffered from various psychological episodes that she attributed to the church experience and was seen by several psychologists and psychiatrists. She was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and was ultimately classified as being disabled by the Social Security Administration.

The member and her parents eventually sued the church, the senior pastor, the youth minister, and other church members for various forms of negligence and assault. After a trial and appeal, the Texas Supreme Court threw the case out based upon it basically being a religious controversy; namely, that the “laying of hands” to rid a person of the influence from demons was a part of the sincere religious beliefs of the church which the court could not review or question as a matter of constitutional religious freedom.

In the McGowan v. Victory and Power Ministries case, decided in an appeals court in Louisiana in 2000, a member sued the church based upon an injury she incurred while “dancing in the spirit of praise with the Holy Ghost.” During a church service, the member began to dance as part of her response to the worship music and fell injuring her wrist.

Ushers saw her starting to fall and attempted to reach her but did not arrive in time. That case was dismissed in favor of the church. The court ruled that the church did not have a general duty to protect its volunteers or members and even if it did, there was no evidence that the church ushers acted negligently. The court observed that the church ushers “did what they could” and there was no testimony that they should have known the member was going to fall or that they could have gotten to her any faster.

Reasonable and prudent

The Louisiana court observed that if a church undertakes to perform a duty that it otherwise has no duty to perform, it must do so in a reasonable and prudent manner. That seems to be the key theme in all of these types of cases. The church is not required to be perfect, but to use its best efforts.

The church needs to make sure it has reasonable control of the worship environment and not allow so many people to come forward that its ushers cannot manage the situation. We have also seen altar calls conducted on hard cement floors or close to the edge of a stage or raised platform, where the potential for an injury claim is greatly increased.

Church leaders should also be careful to not make any statement that would be viewed as a warranty or guarantee of safety. The “laying of hands” needs to be either conducted by staff or closely supervised by staff. Churches that have physical activities incorporated into their religious practices should continue to do so, but still look for ways to minimize the risk for injury.

David Middlebrook is a partner and Robert W. Rucker is an attorney with Anthony and Middlebrook P.C., The Church Law Group, Grapevine, TX. [www.churchlawgroup.com]

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