ISKCON takes it to the Supreme Court

ROBIN GEORGE ran away from home in 1974 to be a devotee. She lived in ISKCON temples for a year and asked the devotees not to tell her parents where she was. But Robin was only fifteen, and legal pressure forced ISKCON to send her home.

Two years later, Robin and her mother, Marcia, sued ISKCON. The devotees, they charged, had brainwashed Robin into running away. Not only that, they said, but the devotees had hid her from her parents, inflicting emotional distress on Marcia and causing the death of Robin's father, Jim.

(Jim, a longtime heart patient, had been through two heart attacks before Robin had met the devotees. He died four months after her return home.)

The jury tore into ISKCON with a $32 million judgment—one of the largest damage awards in American history. The judge reduced it to $9 million.

ISKCON appealed. But to do so it had to post a $9 million bond. Not having $9 million, ISKCON's only choice was to put six temples into the hands of a court-appointed receiver. They would be sold, if need be, to pay the judgment. The primary target: ISKCON's Western world headquarters, in Los Angeles.

In 1989, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego threw out the brainwashing charges. Robin, they said, had joined ISKCON of her own free will, under no threat or force of any kind.

The appeal court, however, left intact an award to Marcia of $2.9 million (it now comes, with interest, to $5 million). Most of this was punitive damages—punishment for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

But the charge of false imprisonment through brainwashing had been thrown out. And that charge, the Georges' lawyer had told the jury, was "the whole nut of this case."

"It seems to me," he had said, "that if there was no false imprisonment the rest of this stuff is a lot of hogwash, because that means that Robin decided to run away from home and torment her parents and it's all her fault anyway. It just wouldn't be fair to find against the defendants in those circumstances."

ISKCON appealed to the California Supreme Court. The court refused to hear the case. The next step: an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

ISKCON appealed to the court to have the remaining charges reduced or thrown out. The Georges appealed to have the brainwashing charges reinstated.

Meanwhile, the Georges had petitioned the original trial court to order the sale of ISKCON's properties. And on March 16, 1990, Judge James A. Jackman, who had presided over the original trial, ordered the sale to begin. Though he surely knew that the case lay before the Supreme Court, Judge Jackman wrote in his order, "Judgment in this matter is now final."

But the Supreme Court stepped in. At a special meeting, the justices voted 9-0 to overrule Judge Jackman and put the sale on hold pending their decision on whether to hear the case.

On May 10, the Supreme Court rejected the Georges' appeal for reinstatement of the brainwashing charges. The court has not yet said whether it will hear ISKCON's appeal.

What are the issues?

"This may be the most important single religious liberty case ever filed in this Court," said the National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC and thirty-four other religious and civil rights groups have filed briefs as amici curiae ("friends of the court"), urging the Supreme Court to hear ISKCON's case.*

* The NCC represents thirty-two national religious communions, who have forty-two million members. Joining with the Council in one brief were the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Mennonite Church, and nine other organizations.

A separate brief was filed by the National Association of Evangelicals. The members of the Association include fifty thousand churches from seventy-seven denominations. They stand for fifteen million people. Joining them in this brief were three other groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran and fourth largest Protestant body (eleven thousand congregations, with 5.3 million members).

A third brief was filed by the World Hindu Assembly of North America (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and seventeen other Hindu organizations.

ISKCON's appeal brings before the court the following issues:

Should the court allow damage suits to be used as a tool for religious persecution?

Throughout history, unfamiliar religions have been greeted with hostility, often with persecution.

"Quakers were hung in colonial Massachusetts," the NCC reminded the court. "Baptists in Virginia were jailed for preaching without a license…. Congress dissolved the Mormon Church and confiscated all its property…. At various times in our history, Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses were the victims of mob violence."

And now the tort (damage) suit, said the NCC, is being used as an instrument of persecution: "Deprogramming attacked the unpopular religions retail, one convert at a time. The tort suit attacks them wholesale, millions of dollars at a time."

Especially targeted, said the NCC, are high-demand religions, those that call not just for "one hour a week on the weekend" but for fundamental changes in one's way of life.

And "Even if a religion manages to avert destruction by a single multi-million-dollar judgment, it faces destruction over time by litigation costs and a series of smaller judgments."

"This Court," the NCC continued, "first saw the tort suit as a weapon of destruction when public officials in Alabama sought to destroy the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with a series of defamation suits. [The Conference was the civil rights group of Dr. Martin Luther King.] Today, a movement of private citizens is using tort suits to destroy high-demand religions, and this Court must once again respond."

Is it right to make a religious body pay for an offense when the pleadings, arguments, testimony, and instructions to the jury mix within the offense both acts the constitution protects and acts it doesn't?

The Hare Krsna devotees, admittedly, had no right to conceal Robin from her parents or mislead them about where Robin was.

But they did have a right to persuade her to become a devotee and teach her how to practice Krsna consciousness.

Unfortunately, it's clear the devotees were made to defend themselves not just for what they might have done wrong but also—even mainly—for what they had a spiritual and constitutional right to do.

The devotees had distressed the Georges by persuading Robin of Krsna consciousness. They had taught her to chant Hare Krsna, read Bhagavad-gita, and worship Krsna—in short, they had taught her to be a devotee.

And that, more than anything, is what the devotees are being made to pay for.

But imparting spiritual teachings is something Americans have a right to do. That's what the first amendment is about.

The Georges tried to get around this by arguing that chanting was "mind control," vegetarianism was "food deprivation," Krsna consciousness was "brainwashing."

Days of testimony were dedicated to arguing that Krsna consciousness was "a pernicious evil," a "pious fraud." It was "Dracula," luring Robin "to her destruction."

In short, this was a heresy trial, in which the jury was asked to declare Krsna consciousness a "false religion" and condemn its spiritual practices as "brainwashing."

"The jury's apparent acceptance of the brainwashing evidence," said the National Council of Churches, "fatally taints the verdict in this case."

Is it right to hold church leaders liable for intentionally inflicting emotional distress when they acted on religious motives and there's no finding that they intended to harm anyone?

Kirtan in Los Angeles

Kirtan in Los Angeles

For "intentional infliction of emotional distress," the jury hit the Hare Krsna devotees for nearly $17 million.

But in fact the Georges had not shown—or even been required to show—that Hare Krsna devotees had intended to distress them.

The judge specifically told the jury they could make the devotees pay if the devotees had wanted to cause distress or even had known that distress would result from their conduct.

This, the court briefs said, is too much.

As the devotees appealed, "The practice of an unfamiliar religion can be expected—'known'—to produce distress in those who are committed to other religious faiths."

But this should not serve as grounds for withholding constitutional protection.

"Religious teaching often inflicts emotional distress," the NCC reminded the court. "A minister confronting a parishioner with his sins, a prophet calling a society to account, or a sermon on the risk of eternal damnation will foreseeably and sometimes intentionally inflict emotional distress. Emotional distress is often the prelude to religious conversion, and emotional distress among the convert's friends and family is often an unavoidable consequence."

To allow million-dollar judgments on these grounds, said the National Association of Evangelicals, would be to "severely erode" freedom of religion.


Is it right to impose punitive damages that will lead to seizure of church properties essential to the devotional life of people who have done nothing wrong?

Punitive damages are meant to punish, but to punish whom? If the Hare Krsna temples are seized and sold, the lash will fall on thousands of innocent devotees and worshipers who had nothing whatever to do with Robin George. They will lose their temples, their asramas, their schools.

This, the devotees appeal, is a threat to the free exercise of religion.

And if punitive awards are to be imposed, must there not be clear and convincing evidence and clear instructions about how much the award should be?

How is a jury to know when some-one has intentionally caused distress? The NCC asked the court to set standards. ISKCON had asked that the court require evidence that the devotees had meant to cause distress. The NCC went further.

Guidelines for juries, suggested the NCC, should go beyond mere guessing about feelings and motives: those claiming injury should be required first to show objectively wrongful conduct that would cause distress—physical violence, for example, or verbal harassment for refusing to listen to a speaker's message.

And there must be standards for the amount of awards. Especially when religion is involved, the friends of the court said, allowing "sky's the limit" punitive damages invites the jury to punish people for holding strange or unpopular views. Invited to "punish Dracula," the jury voted to drive a $32 million stake into his heart.

To put things into perspective: If someone were convicted of enticing a minor into prostitution instead of bringing her to Krsna consciousness, the heaviest penalty under California law would be one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.

"The power to award punitive damages," the NCC told the court, "is the power to destroy. Even the power to award damages for emotional distress is the power to destroy. Until this Court imposes judicially administrable, objective limits on the power of juries, unpopular religious organizations will not be secure even in their right to exist."

Imposing punitive damages on ISKCON did not serve a compelling state interest but only the private advantage of a disgruntled former member.

As stated in the Williamsburg Charter, a bicentennial document celebrating religious liberty, "Limitation upon religious liberty is allowable only where the State has borne a heavy burden of proof that the limitation is justified—not by any ordinary public interest, but by a supreme public necessity…"

But what was the necessity here?

Marcia George was on a crusade. She wanted to wipe out Krsna consciousness. And she wanted US courts to help her do it.

The courts have no business lending a hand to such campaigns.

The National Association of Evangelicals questioned whether the state may ever have a legitimate interest in "runaway awards of staggering sums." But in any case, they said, state interest never ranks as truly compelling "when the award is made against areligious body because of its efforts either to share its religious message or to protect a genuinely religious conversion."

May a state make churches pay for supposed wrongs without clear rules to protect unpopular religions from hostile juries?

"Juries," the NCC pointed out, "are a majoritarian institution; they cannot be relied on to protect the rights of unpopular minorities." And "Given the evidence of rampant jury prejudice in this and other cases, … safeguards are essential to the rights of unpopular religions."

Whipped up by inflammatory and derogatory statements, jurors may inflict "punishment awards" on a bona fide religious body. Shouldn't the right to religious freedom rule out such assaults against the beliefs and practices of an ancient and venerable religion?

This was the question asked of the court by the World Hindu Assembly of North America (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and seventeen other Hindu organizations.

"The trial court allowed scurrilous attacks … on beliefs and practices regarded as sacred by Hindus for centuries…. To allow this kind of outrageous behavior in American courtrooms sends a message to Hindus that they are outsiders, disfavored members of the religious community."

As the NCC told the court, "A jury willing to award $32 million against a small religious body is a jury out of control."

"Invited repeatedly to punish the petitioners for their strange beliefs and practices, the jury did just that," said the National Association of Evangelicals.

And the judge himself had shown prejudice in allowing such proceedings. "If the behavior of the jury and the bench in this case is consistent with the 'benevolent neutrality' toward all religions required by the first amendment," said the Association, "[we] dread to think what real hostility looks like."

On these and other grounds, the Hare Krsna devotees and the friends of the court urged the court to hear ISKCON's appeal.

A $5 million judgment threatens the Hare Krsna movement in America with destruction.

And as the National Council of Churches concluded, "… punitive destruction of an entire religious movement cannot be a result consistent with the First Amendment. State destruction of entire religions is something that is supposed to happen in Nazi Germany, or in medieval Europe, or in small isolated countries ruled by mad dictators. It is not supposed to happen in America."

Where do things stand now?

THE SUPREME COURT agrees to hear only a few of the cases brought before it. Last spring 212 cases came before the court, and 200 were turned away.

ISKCON's case is still pending: The justices have neither agreed to hear it nor turned it down.

But the court has agreed to hear Pacific Mutual Insurance Company vs. Haslip, a civil case that, like ISKCON's case, revolves around punitive damages. Observers say the court will probably use the case to set a standard for punitive damages—awards made not to compensate for injury but only to punish.

In America, multimillion-dollar punitive awards have become commonplace, and many would say they've gotten out of hand. "In California," reports The Wall Street Journal, "one tenth of jury verdicts now result in punitive damages." Last year's average award: three million dollars.

Punitive damages, as well as damages for "emotional distress," take on a special significance in lawsuits against religions, where they may become tools for persecution.

That the Supreme Court has put off its decision on ISKCON vs. George most likely means that the court first wants to set guidelines for punitive damages through Haslip. The court might then address the issues of religious freedom raised by ISKCON's appeal.

When the court turns to ISKCON's case, it may reduce or annul the award or send the case back down to the lower courts with clarifying instructions,

Or the court may simply refuse to hear the case The ISKCON temples would then face the auction block.

The justices will most likely rule on Haslip this January or February and then announce their decision on ISKCON's appeal. Till then, ISKCON is continuing the fight to save its temples.

For further information, or to offer your help, write to the ISKCON North American Action Committee, 1030 Grand Avenue, San Diego, CA 92109.