Scientology files motions to drop charges

Church staffers were "negligent" in Lisa McPherson's death, but that's no reason to charge the church, motions say.

St. Petersburg Times, May 12, 1999
By Thomas C. Tobin

The Church of Scientology in Clearwater says it is immune from criminal prosecution in the death of Lisa McPherson and wants the felony charges against it dismissed.

In lengthy motions filed this week, Scientology's lawyers argue that the charges filed against the church last November "are both unnecessary and impermissible."

Church staffers gave "spiritual assistance" to McPherson, a fellow Scientologist, in the days before she died, thus their actions were protected under the First Amendment and the state's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the motions state.

The act became law in Florida last June, five months before Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged the church's Clearwater branch with abuse of a disabled adult and improper practice of medicine. The act parallels a federal law by the same name.

Both laws have been used, according to Scientology's motions, to protect religious practice from prosecution. In one case, penalties were dropped against an Amish group that refused to place orange emblems on their horse-drawn carriages to meet safety requirements.

Neither McCabe nor his chief assistant, Doug Crow, were available for comment Tuesday.

McPherson, 36, died Dec. 5, 1995, after spending 17 days at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. Church staffers isolated her in a room and forced food and medicines down her throat as they treated her for a mental breakdown, according to state investigators. The church also is accused of an "inexcusable delay" in getting McPherson to a hospital when she became ill.

Two Scientologists questioned McPherson's care, according to investigators. One was a doctor who was said to be shocked by her condition when he pronounced her dead at a hospital in New Port Richey.

Notably, the church's new motions marked the first time since the case became public in 1996 that Scientology has been explicitly self-critical about what happened to McPherson.

The motions "condemn" the actions of church staffers, calling them "negligent acts" that were "contrary to church scripture." They referred to the delay in getting McPherson to a hospital as "lamentable, even if it can be explained by the unfortunately stressful circumstances created by this entire episode."

The church's policy is to seek medical attention for its members where needed, the motions state.

They also contended the church itself gave no orders concerning McPherson's care. While a Scientology case supervisor helped direct her care, he was following a "religious practice," not representing the church corporately, the motions contend.

No individuals were charged with crimes in McPherson's death. McCabe's charges are against Scientology's Clearwater-based Flag Service Organization. The motions argue against charging the church as an entity, as opposed to individual members, saying a charge against a church is unprecedented in U.S. history.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says "governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification."

Charging a whole church for acts committed by individuals unnecessarily burdens all of Scientology and its members, Scientology lawyers argue. They also cite the recent case of Baptist leader Henry Lyons. McCabe chose to prosecute Lyons, not his organization, the National Baptist Convention. The church's motion calls it "troubling" that the same tack was not taken with Scientology.

When McCabe charged the church, it "conveyed the message of official disapproval" that caused "sectarian strife" by church critics and could, the Scientology lawyers say, violate the First Amendment.

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