Churches Use ‘Free Exercise’ Defense To Block Abuse Cases
Jeremiah Scott was 11 when the abuse and molestation began in 1990 at the hands of an elder in his Mormon church in Portland, Ore. After the man died in 1995, Scott’s mother sued the church in 1998 for putting her son at risk.
His mother said when she reported the abuse of Brother Frank Curtis to church authorities, she was told they already knew about it. Digging deeper, her attorneys discovered molestation claims against Curtis that stretched across state lines and went back decades.
But the church employed a unique legal defense: As a religious institution, church leaders said they were protected by the First Amendment’s separation of church and state from having to surrender personnel files, victims’ complaints or other documents.
Attorneys representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints argued its records were protected by clergy-penitent privilege and the First Amendment’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion.
Though the case was eventually settled in 2001, journalist Lisa Davis says the case represents a profound misuse — and misunderstanding — of the freedoms afforded to religious institutions under the Constitution.