click here for gadget for god  
about the ship sign up for our newsletter
community the mystery worshipper gadgets for god caption competition foolishness features ship stuff
features home columnists archive
steve tomkins
crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
Holy litigation!
February 2005

It was a normal Sunday in Upper Room Tabernacle Church, Dix Hills, New York. Praises were sung, tongues were spoken in, and worshippers queued up for ministry from the hands of the pastor. As they started to quiver in the Spirit, the said hands touched their foreheads and they collapsed into a deep blessing. But the blessing was mixed for Sophia Reitan, who woke to find she had broken her arm. So she sued the church for $4 million.

She could hardly claim for the "slaying" itself, as that was, she acknowledges, an act of God, who is notoriously hard to prosecute. Instead, she argued that the church failed to provide a safe environment for swooning and slumping. If so, one wonders why the Spirit would go ahead with it. But the court agreed with Reitan to the tune of $80,000. "God loves me", exclaimed Reitan. Which may be true. If only the rest of us could convert the riches of His graces into a cash sum too.

I'd like to offer some satirical reflections on other prosecutions this might open the door to, but Christians are always one step ahead of satire, and it turns out they've already happened.

Did you, for example, ever feel a church owed you something for telling you that you were going to meet Jesus when you didn't? Been there, seen it, done it, bought several thousand t-shirts on the proceeds.

The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Saints of the Last Days in Utah was told by Rev. Jim Harmston that members would meet Jesus in person when he returned to earth in the near future. In all the excitement, some sold land and laid it at the feet of the prophet. When Rev. Jim failed to produce Our Lord, two members successfuly sued him for breach of contract, emotional distress, and $265,766 of ill-advised offertory. This is a worrying precedent for the church as a whole, as having announced the imminent return of Christ in every century since the first, those punitive damages must be something crazy.

Then there are those emotionally distressing threats of hellfire. In New Mexico, Fr Scott Mansfield was sued in 2002 when he took the opportunity of a funeral for an 80-year-old man to outline Catholic teaching about those who die out of good standing with the church: "The Lord vomits people like Ben out of his mouth to hell," he is said to have said. The case was thrown out, because ill-timed and ill-judged as the alleged comments may have been, it is hard to prove them untrue.

Ashanti White was equally unlucky in her attempts to sue the Pompano Beach House of God in Florida, after Pastor Semmie allegedly declared her to be a "slut" from the altar. It turns out that White's sexual status is a matter of faith, something she should perhaps be honoured to share with the Blessed Virgin.

The religious litigation is not all one way. Andre van der Linde, an Australian evangelical (backed by Christian groups of various colours) is suing Channel 7 for broadcasting an episode of Prime Suspect where someone said "Jesus Christ" as a swearword. Australia has no law against blasphemy, so van der Linde is suing under the Religious Tolerance law, claiming that using such language in TV drama is "vilifying Christians". Obviously it isn't, and swearing should not be outlawed, but in an unpredictable surge of generosity, Crow's Nest wishes van der Linde all the best in broadcasting his objections to it.

So that's God in the dock, and as plaintif. Then there's RJ Adams of Missouri, who was disappointed in his attempts to get Jesus to act as his counsel for the defence. Originally charged with speeding without a seatbelt, he is now being tried for threatening the judge, and announced that he wished be represented by the Lord. The new judge told him that the Lord could give him legal advice but not speak for him in court, having no recognised qualifications. Adams replied that all qualified lawyers are "the Devil". The allegation is presumably being looked into.

Finally news from our friends in the world religions. The Hindu faith healer Sight Swami has been arrested on charges of "cheating". His claims to heal serious diseases such as AIDS by staring into the victim's eyes, was put to the test by sceptics in Vijayawada hospital, in eastern India. When he failed to do anything more than slightly raise someone's temperature, he was nicked. Now that's what I call a precedent.
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
sip of fools mugs from your favourite nautical website
buy your ship of fools postcards