TAMPA -- In a ruling that stunned the Church of Scientology and its lawyers, a Hillsborough County judge said Friday that religious rights are not a central issue in the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. also said it is not clear whether McPherson consented to her treatment by Scientology staffers before she died in their care. That question should be left to a jury, the judge said.
Moody denied two requests by Scientology lawyers to throw out a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the church three years ago by McPherson's family.
After trying several times to get Moody to change his mind, Scientology's lawyers glumly retreated. One, frustrated, chucked a fistful of papers onto the defense table.
Moody's words contrasted sharply with those of Susan F. Schaeffer, the chief circuit judge in neighboring Pinellas County, who considered the same set of facts earlier this week in a criminal case against Scientology.
Schaeffer said she will take a month to decide whether to dismiss two felony charges against the church in McPherson's death. But the church's lawyers reminded Moody of Schaeffer's comments during a two-day hearing.
Unlike Moody, Schaeffer said she thought McPherson consented to her care by Scientology staffers. She also spoke favorably of the church's chief defense -- that the Scientologists who cared for McPherson were exercising their constitutional right to practice religion and thus can't be charged or sued.
"I respect Judge Schaeffer greatly, but I doubt her rulings are going to affect my rulings," Moody said.
McPherson, 36, was isolated for 17 days at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel as staffers there tried to nurse her through a mental breakdown. She underwent a Scientology procedure called the Introspection Rundown, in which Scientologists try to quiet a disturbed person before religious counseling.
In the Hillsborough County lawsuit, as in the Pinellas County criminal case, the church is accused of withholding timely medical care from McPherson. She died as Scientology staffers drove her in a van to a distant hospital.
Moody said the core issue is whether McPherson consented to entering the Fort Harrison Hotel.
The church says the evidence shows she clearly consented. But Ken Dandar, the lawyer for McPherson's family, said McPherson was incompetent to make such a decision. He cited a sworn statement from a doctor who examined McPherson and was concerned about her mental condition just before she entered the Fort Harrison Hotel. The doctor said McPherson wanted to go home.
Even if McPherson did consent to entering the hotel, Moody said, there are questions about whether she withdrew that consent later.
"You say she then consented forever to whatever they wanted to do," Moody told a Scientology lawyer. "That doesn't make sense and it's not the law.
Even a religion cannot use coercive practices. If she changes her mind, she changes her mind."
The church says McPherson consented but later became mentally incompetent to make decisions about her care, leaving staffers legally bound to honor her initial request for Scientology care.
The issue of whether McPherson and the staffers were engaged in religious practice is not central to the case, Moody said. Scientology, he noted, does not prohibit its members from getting medical care.
But Scientology lawyer Eric Lieberman argued that every act by the church staffers was motivated by a religious conviction among Scientologists that psychiatry is harmful and their fear that taking McPherson to a hospital for psychotic symptoms would have put her in the psychiatric ward.
Church lawyer Sandy Weinberg told the judge he had stripped Scientology of its primary defense and suggested the church might appeal.
"It has everything to do with religion," Weinberg said.