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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Freedom of Religion in the 12th century

June 28, 2008. For many people, religion is not a quiet affair. It is not all contemplation and peaceful meditation, preparing for the eternal nothingness of everlasting peace. For many, religion is a turbulent affair. Some folks see demons everywhere and the only thing they have to fight these demons with are symbols (crosses. Bibles, or chunks of garlic, if that's what the devil fears) and their hands. Some try to beat the devil out of themselves (flagellation) or out of others (exorcism); some lay their hands on others and force them to the ground while the exorcists utter incantations to their chosen savior delusion. It can be a brutal affair (see my What's the Harm? site for some examples of brutal and sometimes deadly exorcisms.) Unless the ritual ends in killing someone, the law usually leaves the religious warriors alone. It's their right to beat themselves up in the name of their god. They can even beat each other up, as long as they have good intentions. At least, that's the law in Texas. So sayeth the Texas Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling.

A 17-year-old girl and member of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God church was delivered some minor physical injuries by other church members who provided her with an impromptu exorcism when she started acting weird after a night of chasing demons out of their church. The lawyer for Laura Schubert claims that the girl also suffered serious psychological harm that led to depression and attempted suicide. (The defense claims her emotional problems stem from the time she spent in Africa with her missionary father.) She sued the church for damages and won, but the Texas Supreme Court overruled the lower court's decision.

Justice David Medina, writing for the majority, said that the exorcism was a religious activity sanctioned by the church and it would have an unconstitutional  "chilling effect" on religious activity if the court were to compel a church to quit beating up people in the name of their savior, if that is one of their core principles.

"Religious practices that might offend the rights or sensibilities of a non-believer outside the church are entitled to greater latitude when applied to an adherent within the church," Medina wrote. He didn't say whether he'd extend his reasoning to include genital mutilation or sexual intercourse with the minister to get closer to god, should a religion practice such things.

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson disagreed with Medina. In his view, the decision gives churches "sweeping immunity" to harm people by simply claiming a "religious motive" for their actions. The effect, he thinks, will "prove to be dangerous in practice."

"Texas courts have been and will continue to be confronted with cases in which a congregant suffers physical or psychological injury as a result of violent or unlawful, but religiously sanctioned, acts," wrote Jefferson.

Because religion has a special place in our history and our federal Constitution, no justice would ever comment on the unreasonableness of belief in demons that can be scared off with incantations and physical blows. Fortunately, the rest of us are not under any such restriction. These people are throwbacks to the 12th century and, if we let them, they'd be burning each other at the stake. I can understand letting the church beat up it's adult member and its pastors. They can throw oil on them or salt and pepper for all I care. But children ought to be protected from the delusions of their parents. What kind of state allows people to abuse children in the name of religion? A barbaric, antiquated, backward state. Unfortunately, Texas is not alone in its insane deference to religious fanatics.

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