OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) - The Oklahoma Supreme Court says it won’t wade into a Syrian-born man’s lawsuit against a Tulsa Presbyterian church and its minister for publicizing his baptism on the Internet.
The state’s high court, in its Feb. 22 ruling, said per the church autonomy doctrine, it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the case, John Doe v. The First Presbyterian Church U.S.A. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and James D. Miller.
“Recognizing the importance of the autonomy of religious institutions within the framework of the United States legal system, the courts must refrain from undue interference with religious beliefs and practices,” the court said in its opinion. “Appellant exercised his right to convert to Christianity and accord his religious beliefs with the demands of his conscience. Similarly, Appellees exercised their right to perform the sacrament of baptism in accordance with the doctrine and a custom of the Church.
“It is not the role of the courts to adjudicate a dispute between Appellant and Appellees over the publication of Appellant’s baptism in accord with Church practice, even if Appellant was harmed by his baptism and its subsequent publication.”
Appellant John Doe -- a pseudonym for the plaintiff to protect his identity -- filed a lawsuit against the church and Miller, its minister, alleging torts and breach of contract after he was baptized and notice of his baptism was published on the Internet.
He contends its publication resulted in his alleged kidnapping and torture by extremists while travelling in Syria.
According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Doe’s baptism was done at his own request Dec. 30, 2012 during a service that was open to members and guests of the church but was not televised.
The man, who was born into the Muslim faith but decided to convert to Christianity, allegedly told the church and Miller that confidentiality during the conversion process was necessary, as he was planning to return to Syria soon after his baptism.
“Appellant alleges he travelled to Syria almost immediately after his baptism, arriving in Damascus on January 2, 2013. Appellant asserts he was confronted by radical Muslims in Damascus in mid-January 2013, who had heard of his conversion on the Internet,” the Supreme Court’s opinion states. “Appellant alleges he was kidnapped, and informed by his kidnappers they were going to carry out his death sentence as a result of his conversion from Islam.
“Appellant alleges he was tortured for several days before he was able to escape captivity, killing his paternal uncle in the process. As a result, he asserts he is now wanted for murder in Syria.”
Doe, who made it back to the U.S., alleges he faces “continuous” death threats.
In his lawsuit against the church and Miller, he contends the physical injuries he sustained while in Syria and the psychological damages from which he suffers were caused by the church’s publication of his baptism -- against his wishes and in contravention of promises they supposedly made to him.
Doe filed his lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court in June 2014. A month later, the church and Miller moved to dismiss the suit.
In October 2014, the trial court denied the defendants’ motion, noting that complex issues were involved.
The defendants filed their answer to Doe’s petition soon after and then, in October 2015, they filed another motion to dismiss -- this time, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
In June 2016, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court noted there exists an exception to subject matter jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters, which it chose to refer to as the religious autonomy doctrine but which federal courts such as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit have commonly referred to as the church autonomy doctrine.
Doe appealed, filing his petition with the Supreme Court in July 2016.
The court, in its ruling last month, said the question is whether the dispute is an ecclesiastical one or whether it’s a case in which it should hold religious organizations liable in civil courts for “purely secular disputes.”
“The First Amendment does not shield a religious institution from all tort liability. Tort liability for a church may arise from acts unrelated to religious practices protected by the First Amendment,” the court noted in its opinion. “For example, where the degree of care a church uses in maintaining property is unrelated to its religious beliefs and practices, and a person is damaged as a result of the church’s maintenance of the property, a tort action may proceed.
“Some jurisdictions have determined that a church may likewise be liable under some circumstances for the intentional torts of its employees. Similarly, tort liability may be imposed upon the elders of a church for tortious acts beyond the constitutionally protected religious practices of a church.”
In this case, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the publication of Doe’s baptism on the Internet is an act rooted in religious belief.
Baptism is considered a public profession of faith in the Presbyterian church, and any baptism conducted by the church is required to be memorialized or recorded in the parish register.
“The context of the online posting of Appellant’s baptism is not secular. Appellant’s tort claims all rest on an act that, per church doctrine, is an integral part of what the church considers to be the public nature of the sacrament,” the Supreme Court wrote. “Because Appellant’s tort claims arise from the performance of his baptism, this dispute is one over ecclesiastical rule, custom or law, and is not purely secular.
“Just as the church in Bryce had the right to freely engage in ecclesiastical discussion with members and non-members, even if those discussions were the crux of alleged torts, so does FPC have the right to conduct the sacrament of baptism in accordance with custom and doctrine, even if doing so resulted in alleged torts against Appellant, who himself requested the sacrament be administered.”
The court said it is therefore barred from considering the plaintiff’s claims.
Justice James Edmondson did not participate in the case; Justice Patrick Wyrick, who was appointed last month by Gov. Mary Fallin to succeed retired Justice Steven Taylor, was not present and did not participate.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.