In Ondrisek v. Hoffman (8th Cir. 2012), the Eighth Circuit reaffirmed an important principle concerning the limitations on the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment although the First Amendment entitles one to the free exercise of religion, it does not entitle one to exercise religious beliefs that cause injury to others. In Ondrisek, the plaintiff, Tony Alamo, attempted to justify beating members of his cult by asserting that such actions were simply the free exercise of his religious beliefs. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the decision of the trial court finding Alamo liable for battery and other crimes.
“Alamo was the leader of a religious group, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries (TACM). He controlled members finances and prohibited them from traveling or speaking to outsiders unless it was to witness. Children were not allowed to attend public schools, watch television, or listen to the radio. They were told not to trust anyone, especially government officials or police. Alamo regularly recorded messages telling followers that if they left the group, they would become homosexuals and go to hell. Followers were afraid to question Alamo; those who did were often beaten. . . .
“Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna were raised in TACM. They were forced to work without pay starting at the age of 8. Alamo began threatening to beat Ondrisek when he was 11. Alamo told him that if he disobeyed, he would be enlisted in the military and shot and killed. When he was 12, Alamo had an ‘enforcer’ severely beat him because he made a small tunnel while hauling dirt for the church. As Ondrisek received discipline of 15 to 20 blows to his face, Alamo made his father watch. Ondrisek then received 20 to 30 strikes from a paddle that was three feet long, an inch-and-a-half thick, and three or four inches wide. He was unable to sit for several days and was not allowed to attend services because the swelling on his face was too visible. Two years later Alamo had Ondrisek beaten again for horseplay. He sustained 15 to 20 hits to his mouth, beginning to bleed after the second blow. He also received 30 to 40 paddles (maybe more), causing severe bruising that did not fully heal for several weeks. He has permanent scarring from the beating. At 15, Ondriseks schooling stopped, and he began working on the churchs property 70 hours a week. He was forced to attend services and listen to Alamos recordings daily. As punishment for falling asleep as a night watchman, Alamo required him to fast two days, giving him only water. At 16 or 17, Ondrisek was beaten for a third time after being falsely accused of bullying. He was slapped 20 or more times in the face, and paddled 40 times. Ondrisek blacked out, but no one took him to a hospital. His hand was severely injured and still causes him pain. . . .
“Calagnas youth at TACM was similar to Ondriseks. When he was 14, Calagnas parents woke him at 4 a.m. to have him beaten. He was hit so hard he vomited. His face was unrecognizable afterwards; his injuries took weeks to heal. Less than a month later, he witnessed his father get beaten, causing him emotional distress. He was beaten again at 17 for talking about ‘Harry Potter.’ He was struck until the paddle broke and then hit again with a larger board. In addition to physical abuse, both boys experienced verbal abuse. They both contemplated suicide, ‘unable to imagine that death would be worse.’ At 18, Ondrisek and Calagna escaped TACM separately. They still have trouble sleeping, experiencing nightmares and flashbacks. Alamo is currently serving a 175-year sentence for 10 counts of transporting minors across state lines for illicit sex. . . . “
Some of you may ask how this case is at all relevant to RLUIPA. After all, what amounts to religious exercise under the First Amendment is something slightly different than under RLUIPA. Under the First Amendment, courts consider whether the faith “occupies a place in the lives of its members ‘parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God’ in religions more widely accepted in the United States.” Morrison v. Garraghty, 239 F.3d 648, 658 (4th Cir. 2001). Further, “[i]n evaluating whether a religious belief is religious in nature, the courts must take care [to] avoid any predisposition toward conventional religions so that unfamiliar faiths are not branded mere secular beliefs.” Mitchell v. Angelone, 82 F.Supp. 2d 485, 490 (E.D. VA 1999). Religious exercise, arguably, is defined more broadly under RLUIPA as: “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” It further provides that “[t]he use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise shall be considered to be religious exercise of the person or entity that uses or intends to use the property for that purpose.”
Be that as it may, in cases involving claims brought under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA, the courts sometimes engage in a single inquiry as to whether ones purported beliefs amount to the exercise of religion. See Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield, 819 F.Supp.2d 604, 623 (E.D. VA 2011) (“For the same reasons that the Court finds that Moore-King has not established that she is engaged in religious exercise for purposes of the Free Exercise Clause, the Court finds that she has not established that she is engaged in religious exercise for purposes of RLUIPA.”).
Would a government be justified in denying a religious institution permission to build a place of assembly if central to its belief system was physical discipline that hurt people? What if the religious institution had other beliefs as well, ones that were not harmful to others? The application of this case to RLUIPA is worth watching and those issues deserve further discussion.