The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to review the case of a former Colleyville, Texas, woman who says that a forced traumatic exorcism left her so physically bruised and emotionally scarred that she later tried to commit suicide.

A divided Texas Supreme Court ruled in June that the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God staff and members are protected by the First Amendment because the case involves an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct.

Laura Schubert Pearson described a wild night in 1996 that involved casting out demons from the church and two attempts to exorcise demons from her. The incident led Pearson, then 17, to eventually attempt suicide, she said.

Pearson’s attorneys contend that the Texas Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision “dramatically and dangerously departs” from the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, adding that someone’s religious beliefs do not excuse them from being held accountable under valid state laws that prohibit such things as assault and false imprisonment.

“We don’t know what kind of mischief the decision is going to create,” because it tries to expand the universe of activities that are protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion precepts, Scott Gant, the Washington, D.C., attorney who is representing Pearson and her family, said this week. “The Texas Supreme Court’s majority ignored some of the most relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions and then misapplied others.”

In briefs filed this month with the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys representing the now-defunct church – it has merged with another Colleyville church – contend that the case is a personal injury action regarding mental anguish damages that should be left for the state courts to decide.

Arguing that a similar claim has never been made in a federal court, David Pruessner, the church’s attorney, also wrote that “pursuing this tort path would take the courts into forbidden territory: protected religious conduct.” He added that the Texas high court’s decision is consistent with the legal doctrine of ecclesiastical autonomy.

“It is fundamental that the Constitution embraces the right to be free from unwarranted governmental intervention,” Pruessner’s brief states. The Dallas attorney could not be reached for comment Friday.

Gant expects the Supreme Court to decide by mid- to late January whether it will take the case.

Pearson is now 29, married and living in Georgia.

What happened to Laura Schubert Pearson at the church spanned several days in the summer of 1996.

According to court documents, Pearson and her brother, Joey, were involved in church activities while their parents were out of town. On a Friday evening, the atmosphere at the church became “spiritually charged” when another youth said he saw a demon.

At the youth minister’s direction, the youths frantically anointed everything in the church with holy oil until they were exhausted and finally dismissed early Saturday morning. At the Sunday evening worship services, Laura Pearson collapsed; church members “laid hands” on her and forcibly held her arms even as she cried, yelled and demanded to be let go.

She was finally released after she calmed down and complied with requests to say the name “Jesus.”

The following Wednesday, during a youth service, Pearson reportedly began acting in the same manner, curling into a fetal position and asking to be left alone. Church members thought she was in distress and held her down in a “spread eagle” position. Pearson suffered carpet burns and scrapes on her back and bruised wrists.

After the exorcism, she dropped out of high school her senior year, began to cut herself as many as 100 times over several years and refused to leave the house. Pearson slit her wrists with a box cutter.

In his U.S. Supreme Court brief, Pruessner describes the activities at the Pentecostal Pleasant Glade Church to cast out demons as “spiritual warfare.”

Although it may appear “weird” to outsiders, he said, tens of millions of Pentecostal followers pursue these beliefs without harm, including the former Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Pearson’s father, Tom Schubert, is a former Assembly of God pastor and missionary. He has left the church.

“This was simply normal church life for (Pearson) and her family,” Pruessner wrote.

The church’s attorneys told a Tarrant County jury that Pearson’s psychological problems were caused by events she witnessed while her parents were serving in Africa.

They also argued that the ministers and staff were trying to help Pearson, not hurt her.

But Pearson’s father questioned what happened, and the family eventually sued. Pearson’s parents said their daughter had been abused and falsely imprisoned.

A jury found the church and its members liable and awarded Pearson $300,000 for mental anguish; the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth cut $122,000 from the verdict.

The church’s appeal to the Texas Supreme Court raised the question of whether Pleasant Glades’ First Amendment rights prevent the church from being held liable for mental distress triggered by what it described as a “hyper spiritualistic environment.”

For the court to impose any legal liability on members could have an unconstitutional “chilling effect” by compelling the church to abandon core principles, Justice David Medina wrote.

In a stinging dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said the majority’s opinion is an “overly broad holding” that conflicts with well-settled legal and constitutional principles and could “prove to be dangerous in practice.”


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