A 15-year-old girl was allegedly forced to listen to a recording of a man raping her for four hours, by male leaders of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation to get her to say the encounter was consensual, the Utah Supreme Court heard this week.
The court heard arguments on Monday in a lawsuit where a woman sued four elders of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Roy, Utah, the religion’s national organization and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society for intentionally inflicting severe emotional distress upon her.
The woman claims she was 14-years-old when an 18-year-old male, who was also a Jehovah’s Witness, bullied her and began to sexually assault her in December 2007.
She says he raped her several times and provided her congregation leaders a recording of one of those assaults.
She claimed church leaders played the recording intermittently over the course of at least four hours in 2008 to try to extract a confession that she voluntarily engaged in sex outside of marriage, her attorney say, according to The Deseret News.
She sought counseling and medical treatment after the assaults and suffered from anxiety, nightmares and poor performance in school, her lawyers say.
She first filed the lawsuit in Oden’s 2nd District Court in 2016, where it was ruled that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedoms concerning religion and expression, shielded the church from liability.
Her lawyers say that issue is only a tough subject because it deals with a community of faith.
They noted that before she appealed her case, the 2nd District court ruled it would have 'no hesitation in sending the case to a jury if it pertained to a secular setting.'
The state’s high court is yet to make any ruling.
Justice Deno Himonas said on the case: 'The allegation here is a mental and emotional equivalent of waterboarding. I've been a judge for a long time and a lawyer for a long time. I've never seen, in court, anything like this that's alleged.'
Attorneys for the woman say that Utah’s highest court will set a dangerous precedent if it grants the church protection and allows other harmful conduct by religious organizations such as sharing a person's medical records or repeatedly striking a child in the face.
Lawyer Kara Porter said that the church was trying to determine whether the girl had sinned, and the government isn’t permitted to meddle in that.
On Monday in the hour and a half hearing the justices asked lawyers on both sides about where the legal line should be drawn in civil claims tied to religious matters and both agreed the allegations do not fit any criminal offense.
Justice Paige Peterson said that just convening the church tribunal process could cause distress in a person of faith who knows they’ve been involved in conduct that is viewed as a sin.
On the other hand, a group may believe it must do anything necessary to find out what happened even if it includes torture, she said.
Government action violates the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion if it leads to an 'excessive entanglement with religion.'
The Utah Court of Appeals last year ruled that adjudicating the woman’s case would be excessive entanglement because it 'requires an inquiry into the appropriateness of the church's conduct in applying a religious practice and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.'
The woman's attorneys say 'the motive cannot justify the conduct.'
Attorneys for the church say the lawsuits lack facts to support the woman’s claim.
They also previously said the male church leaders had a duty in their faith to investigate allegations of sin and the teen could have walked out of the meeting with her parents.
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