Church says Fla. charges violate religious freedom

Reuters, May 13, 1999
By Robert Green

PETERSBURG, Fla. - Criminal charges against the Church of Scientology in the death of a member violate religious freedom protections, an attorney for the church argued Thursday.

State prosecutors charged the church last November with abuse of a disabled person and practicing medicine without a license in the death of Lisa McPherson. No individuals were charged.

McPherson, a Scientologist, died December 5, 1995 after she had been in the care of church members for 17 days at the church's headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. She was 36.

Prosecutors alleged McPherson, who was having mental problems, was kept restrained and isolated and was forced to take medication by church staffers. A medical examiner found she was severely dehydrated when she died.

At a pretrial hearing Thursday, defence attorney Morris Weinberg said charging a church with criminal conduct, the first time it has happened in Florida, raised serious constitutional issues.

"We're dealing with conduct that is protected conduct. We are dealing with a fundamental (Scientology) belief that mental problems are spiritual in nature and should be dealt with spiritually in a religious way," Weinberg told Pinellas Circuit Court Judge Susan Schaeffer.

But Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow called McPherson's treatment "bizarre and disturbing" and said she probably would not have died if she had been given proper medical treatment.

"There is nothing in the tenets of Scientology that authorises this kind of conduct without the consent of the person involved," Crow said.

McPherson agreed to go to the church's headquarters in a former hotel after she had been involved in a minor traffic accident in Clearwater on November 18, 1995. She was not injured but took off all her clothes and asked medics for help.

She was taken to a local hospital, but left a short time later with several Scientology members. Schaeffer said she would hear arguments on the church's motion to dismiss the charges on religious freedom grounds on July 22. If the charges are not dismissed, she said the trial would begin March 6 next year.

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