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Religious freedom case over Utah church discipline matter is revived by state Supreme Court

Elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation played an audio recording of alleged rape of a teenager.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Matheson Courthouse in 2016. The Utah Supreme Court has revived a religious freedom case against a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Roy linked to church discipline and an alleged rape of a teenager.

Roy • The Utah Supreme Court has revived a religious freedom dispute, instructing an Ogden court to take another look at a suit filed by a woman who alleged Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders in Roy subjected her to humiliating discipline as a teenager after she accused a fellow church member of rape.

In 2008, four church elders at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Roy convened a disciplinary hearing to determine whether the 15-year-old girl had engaged in “unclean sexual conduct” and, if so, whether she was “sufficiently repentant.” They had an audio recording of the rape, which had been provided by the male, and played it while questioning her, “suggesting that she consented to” the sexual acts, the lawsuit alleged.

The suit alleged the church intentionally inflicted emotional distress and humiliation on the girl, and the church advanced a defense of religious freedom from government interference in church disciplinary matters.

Second District Judge Mark DeCaria, who said he viewed the elders’ conduct as “reprehensible,” nonetheless dismissed the woman’s civil suit in 2016, saying the court could not disentangle the claimed damaging conduct from religious freedom protections under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Utah Court of Appeals later agreed.

But in an opinion issued earlier this month, the Utah Supreme Court said it was overturning the claim’s dismissal because DeCaria’s and the Appeals Court’s rulings relied on a case-law test that has since been discarded by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read more about this case at standard.net.

This story is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of Utah news organizations that aims to inform readers across the state.

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