U.S. Supreme Court Grants ISKCON Appeal,
Sends $5-Million Judgment Back to California for Review
The Hare Krsna movement won't have to sell its Los Angeles temple and won't have to pay $5 million to a California woman and her mother—at least not now, and maybe never. That's the effect of a decision from the United States Supreme Court.
In 1983, a California jury ruled against the Hare Krsna devotees in a court case that accused them of having "brainwashed" teenage Robin George and kept her from her family. The penalty: $32.6 million. The Court of Appeal later knocked that down to $2.9 million ($5 million with interest). But to pay that price the movement would have had to sell its Los Angeles headquarters and five other temples.
The Supreme Court, however, granted ISKCON's appeal, set aside the $5-million penalty, and sent the case down again to a lower court.
The Supreme Court, in its order, told the lower court to look at the case again in the light of a ruling two weeks earlier on an insurance case, Pacific Mutual v. Haslip. In that ruling, the Supreme Court had decided that punitive damage awards—awards meant not just to compensate but to punish—are allowable under the United States Constitution. But the Court warned that in some cases such awards might transgress constitutional standards.
"One must concede," wrote Justice Blackmun, speaking for the Court on Haslip, "that unlimited jury discretion … in the fixing of punitive damages may invite extreme results that jar one's constitutional sensibilities."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, "A verdict returned by a biased or prejudiced jury no doubt violates due process, and the extreme amount of an award compared to the actual damage inflicted can be some evidence of bias or prejudice in an appropriate case."
Is this such a case? That the Court granted the devotees' appeal and sent their case back down for review suggests that it very well may be.
"This case should have been knocked out of the courts weeks after it was filed," says Amarendra Dasa, a devotee attorney. "We want to retry this case from the beginning, without the allegations of brainwashing" that an appellate court later threw out.
The Georges still hope to win. "I'd like to live to see some of the money that we deserve—that we've earned," says Marcia George, Robin's mother.
But fate has yet to reveal what it is that the Georges deserve.
Massachusetts Supreme Court Overturns
$610,000 Verdict, Throws Out "Heresy Trial"
A few weeks after the Supreme Court decision, fate gave ISKCON a most welcome decision in Massachusetts. There the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a 1987 judgment hitting ISKCON for $610,000 be thrown out.
Like the George case, this was a case in which a mother and daughter (this time Mary and Susan Murphy) sued ISKCON. They claimed that ISKCON had "intentionally inflicted emotional distress" on Susan during her stay at ISKCON's Boston temple.
At trial, the lawyers for the Murphys tried to show that ISKCON had brought the Murphys distress by teaching Susan the doctrines of the Vedic scriptures. The lawyers brought in long, detailed passages from the Vedic scriptures to argue this point.
The trial, ISKCON said, was a "heresy trial," in which the jury had been asked to pass judgment on the Krsna conscious scriptural teachings.
In a nation committed to religious freedom, ISKCON said, courts can't put religious doctrines on trial.
While ISKCON's appeal was pending, the state's Supreme Court, on its own initiative, plucked it from the Appeals Court into their own courtroom. An unusual move.
Still more unusual: All seven justices of the Court jointly heard the case.
Result: The justices unanimously overturned the lower-court decision.
Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos declared that the lower court's verdict "impermissibly infringed" on ISKCON's right to freely practice its religion.
Inherent in the Murphys' claims, the Court said, was the notion that ISKCON's teachings are fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with a proper notion of human development. "While this issue may be the subject of a theological or academic debate," the Court said, "it has no place in the courts of this Commonwealth."
The Court therefore threw out the bulk of the damage judgment—$560,000 out of $610,000—and threw the rest of it back down to the original court. (There the Murphys, if they want, can try again.)
The Court cited a decision from a case ISKCON had won in 1981: "Tolerance of the unorthodox and unpopular is the bellwether of a society's spiritual strength…. Our republic prides itself on the enormous diversity of religious and political beliefs which have been able to find acceptance and toleration on our shores."
Dr. V.J. Mody, president of the Hindu Alliance, based in Washington, said the decision "sends a clear message to anti-religious elements that they cannot unjustly attack bona fide religions, like the Hare Krsna faith, be they mainstream or minority."