The First Amendment begins with the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” It is no accident that the drafters of the Bill of Rights began with the religion clauses. To the Founders, rights of religious freedom were indistinguishable from political rights of speech, association, assembly, free press, and freedom from unreasonable searches, seizures, or inquests.
Unsurprisingly, many of the Supreme Court’s most important “freedom of speech” or “freedom of association” cases have been about religious free exercise, and often were brought by or against newer, minority, and often-controversial religious groups or sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, or the Quakers. That same struggle by newer, minority and often-controversial religious groups has continued through recent years.
For three decades, the Firm has been at the forefront of these legal cases, and has successfully litigated landmark cases in the area. They include the following:
Protection of Religious Organizations Against Pervasive Government Intrusion and Discrimination
In a ground-breaking case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit struck down a City of Clearwater, Florida ordinance requiring that churches publicly disclose detailed financial information and subject themselves to ongoing official surveillance. The Court further found strong evidence that the Ordinance was directed at the Church of Scientology, that its purpose was to drive that Church from the City, and that the Ordinance was structured to permit application only to that particular Church. The Firm represented the Church in the litigation, which lasted for nine years. The City ultimately was required to repeal the Ordinance and to pay the Church’s attorney’s fees. Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization v. City of Clearwater.
In an eerily similar case, the Firm represented a Christian church in North Carolina in a lawsuit against the local County Department of Social Services. The Department threatened to remove the children of all church members on the basis that the Church’s religious preaching constituted child abuse. The Firm argued that the County’s efforts were part of an effort to force the Church to leave the community and violated the religious rights of the Church and its members. After the federal court upheld the legal basis of the claims, the County agreed to cease its efforts and to pay the Church’s attorneys fees. Word of Faith Fellowship v. Rutherford County Department of Social Services.
Rights of Individuals to Practice Religion without Private Interference
In Scott v. Ross, the Firm upheld on appeal a multi-million dollar verdict under the federal civil rights acts on behalf of a man who was kidnapped by “deprogrammers,” held for days, and subjected to indoctrination in an attempt to make him abandon his fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The defendants included Rick Ross, a self-appointed “expert” on “cults” who has been involved in numerous such “deprogrammings,” and the Cult Awareness Network, which the Court found authorized or directed such violent assaults.
In a case involving related issues, the Firm acted as co-counsel to Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School in a successful appeal growing out of a similar deprogramming. The Court of Appeals strongly condemned the practice and found that the federal civil rights statutes provide a remedy to its victims. Columbrito v. Kelly.
The Firm won an important federal court of appeals ruling upholding the practice of religious proselytizers in placing handbills on automobiles parked on public streets. Krantz v. City of Dyer.
The City of Clearwater case discussed above also protected the rights of a church to proselytize and to solicit funds from its members and the public, without intrusive government interference.
Tort Cases Against Churches
The Firm has litigated landmark cases holding that churches cannot be held liable on claims of fraud or outrageous conduct based upon the exercise of peaceful religious practices. Christofferson v. Church of Scientology; Meroni v. Holy Spirit Association.
The Firm’s cases, including two in the Supreme Court, established precedents that churches enjoy special protections against intrusive IRS investigations. United States v. Zolin; Church of Scientology International v. United States; United States v. Church of Scientology Western United States; United States v. Church of Scientology of Boston.
The Firm litigated several cases holding that the IRS must permit tax deductions for fixed payments to a church for religious services. Foley v. Commissioner; Staples v. Commissioner. Subsequently, the Firm litigated two cases holding that the IRS could be required to allow deductions for such payments because it allows deductions for similarly structured payments to churches of other denominations. Powell v. United States; Garrison v. Commissioner. While the litigation was pending, the IRS agreed to allow such deductions.
The Firm has litigated several cases involving churches’ right to tax-exemption.
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