The venerable law of tort has emerged as an important legal weapon in the long history of church-state wars and religious persecution. Religious groups are being sued for millions of dollars in damages for intangible emotional injury and tens of millions more in punitive damages, all for what looks very much like their free exercise of religion. Unlike criminal sentences which are carefully circumscribed by statute, civil damages, particularly punitive damages, can pose an invitation to each jury to become both lawmaker and enforcer, free to impose a monetary sanction practically without limit.
Until recent years, no one imagined that these powers could or would be brought to bear upon churches for religious activities. Today, however, lawsuits are routinely filed that label as fraud, false imprisonment, or the intentional infliction of emotional distress, such fundamentally religious activities as conversion of new church members, the discipline and excommunication of wayward adherents, and pastoral counseling. Clerical scandals and debates over the application of church rules are brought before people wearing judicial robes, not clerical vestments.
If these once sacrosanct domains are being declared fair game for litigation against traditional religious institutions such as the Catholic Church and the major Protestant denominations, how much more have the imaginations of plaintiffs and their lawyers been active in dealing with the “new religions” or “cults,” such as Krishna Consciousness, the Unification Church, Scientology, The Way International, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Affiliation with those new religions has been called kidnapping and their most fundamental religious practices have been branded “coercive persuasion” and “brainwashing.”