Religious organizations are using religious arbitration to skirt secular law

For all of the religious right’s pearl-clutching about the encroachment of religious law in our society, far too many of us are living with it already. Per a New York Times feature published this morning, Americans are being forced into religious arbitration to settle secular disputes, using the Bible and other religious texts to sort out issues ranging from fraud to malpractice to wrongful death. From the Times:

Scientology forbids its followers from associating with former members who have been declared “suppressive persons,” according to people who have left the church. But this year, a federal judge in Florida upheld a religious arbitration clause requiring Luis Garcia, a declared suppressive, to take his claim that the church had defrauded him of tens of thousands of dollars before a panel of Scientologists, instead of going to court.

Pamela Prescott battled for years to prove that she had been unjustly fired from a private school in Louisiana. The crux of her case — which wound through arbitration, a federal appeals court and state court — was references in her employment contract to verses from the Bible.

Mandatory arbitration clauses have become increasingly popular in the secular legal world of late, as well, forcing disputes out of the courtroom and into corporate offices — environments almost always more favorable to the defendants, who don’t exactly need the extra help. Arbitration has been dubbed the “privatization of the justice system,” and even that description may be too generous. And while it’s bad enough that corporations are able to include mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts as a defense against later claims of discrimination or wrongful termination, among other things, it’s worse when the clauses stipulate that the hearings’ outcomes won’t even be determined using United States law.

What’s more, the churches and businesses who fight for these arbitration clauses don’t even have to live with rulings that don’t turn out in their favor. As the Times notes, when religious organizations lose religious arbitration hearings, they often turn to secular courts, arguing that the religious hearings were invalid:

The Bible, via Pixabay

The Bible, via Pixabay

Yet some lawyers and plaintiffs said that for some groups, religious arbitration may have less to do with honoring a set of beliefs than with controlling legal outcomes. Some religious organizations stand by the process until they lose, at which point they turn to the secular courts to overturn faith-based judgments, according to interviews and court records.

Religious arbitration originally arose as a provision for religious communities to resolve family and spiritual disputes internally, without having to turn to a secular legal system to settle non-secular matters. But now the process is being inverted, with secular disputes being taken to what amounts to religious court because both parties “agreed” to do so.

In one case highlighted by the Times, a family attempted to sue Teen Challenge — an organization that was highlighted by President Bush in 2006 as a faith-based initiative that deserved federal funding — for forcing their son into ex-gay conversion “therapy” without their knowledge. The program also forced him to perform manual labor instead of treating him for his drug and alcohol abuse, as they had advertised. Later, when her son died after being allowed to leave the facility, the family was forced into Christian arbitration, unable to file a lawsuit in order to determine what had happened:

His family said they thought it was hypocritical that Teen Challenge was willing to collect food stamp subsidies to feed participants in the program, but insisted on the separation of church and state when it came to their legal case.

The conciliation would start as a mediation. If mediation fell apart, the case would move to formal arbitration, a process that could include prayer.

Ms. Spivey said even though her faith had deepened since her son’s death, she did not want to take part in an arbitration involving religion. “I didn’t want to do worksheets on the Bible and then kiss and make up,” she said. “I wanted to find out what happened to Nick.”

However, since the contract the family had signed when they enrolled their son included an arbitration clause, they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. They still don’t know exactly what happened to their son.

Forcing government officials to uphold secular laws isn’t a threat to religious freedom. Forcing secular Americans into religious legal proceedings absolutely is. Maybe those Christians worried about Sharia law are onto something after all, since they know exactly how horrific religious legal institutions can be from firsthand experience.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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