The Price of Faith

Nicholas P. Miller March/April 1997 In May 1991 a rental car that Gwendolyn Robbins' father was driving in upstate New York skidded, plunged down an embankment, and overturned. Both her parents were killed, and Robbins, 55, was severely injured. She was rushed to nearby Glens Fall Hospital, where her condition was so critical - chest injuries, a fractured right femur, a fractured ankle, and a fractured hip - that upon admission last rites were administered. The doctors stabilized her and prepared for surgery to reset displaced bones and ligaments. The surgery was important for her recovery and critical for any opportunity that she might have to walk again.
But Robbins refused the surgery. A devout Jehovah's Witness, she believed - based on the tenets of her faith - that she could undergo no blood transfusions, even if that refusal led to life-threatening progressive anemia. Fortunately, she did survive the immediate threat of infection and was transferred to a hospital in New York City. There she was placed in traction for several weeks, where she continued to refuse any treatment that required blood transfusions. Her orthopedic surgeon stated that without joint replacement surgery she would become wheelchair-bound or bedridden for the rest of her life. Robbins' decision to forgo surgery would thus greatly increase her need of medical services and home care.
The story might have ended there except that she then sued her insurance company, a suit that raised difficult moral and legal questions. Though it was Robbins' First Amendment right to refuse surgery, should the insurance company have to pay for the ongoing disability suffered by Robbins directly because of that refusal?
The insurance company, Meritor Capital Resources, argued that Robbins had a duty to mitigate, or lessen, her injuries when she could reasonably do so. But because she refused an opportunity to reasonably lessen the damage from her injuries, the company argued that it should not have to pay for the results of that choice.
Meritor had good legal precedent. The law requires that a person injured by the acts of another take reasonable steps to mitigate, or prevent a worsening of, those injuries. If such steps are not taken, the person causing the injury can be held responsible only for the initial injury and not for any damage caused by the injured person's failure to act reasonably in a way that would prevent worsening of the situation. Often a jury is called on to decide whether an injured person has done all he or she reasonably should have done to treat his or her injuries.
But here's where the insurance company ran into a church-state problem. Because Robbins' decision had been based on her religious convictions, the jury would be asked to decide if Robbins' religious convictions and beliefs were reasonable.
Yet the trial judge was troubled by the idea of a jury passing judgment on the reasonableness of someone's religious beliefs. The Supreme Court had prohibited juries from passing judgment on the "plausibility of a religious claim" (see page 28). The trial judge ruled that the insurance company could not argue against the reasonableness of Robbins' choice, because it was based on religion. The company would have to take Robbins and her belief system as it found them, those of a devout Jehovah's Witness. The court thus ordered that the insurance company would have to pay for all Robbins' damages, without regard to her refusal of surgery.
This decision showed a great deal of sensitivity to the protected status granted religious beliefs in the American constitutional system. The picture of a jury deciding the reasonableness or unreasonableness of anyone's religious convictions is, indeed, troubling. Under this scenario, the moderate Protestant and Catholic would do well, but the Hare Krishna, the Christian Scientist, or the Hindu would likely be denied justice - not an acceptable outcome in our society of equality under the law.
But did the judge, in arriving at the balance of rights and responsibilities, overlook a necessary corollary of personal freedom: the responsibility to live with the consequences of one's choices? This principle is also found in the American legal system under the name "assumption of the risk," which states that a person cannot recover from another when he or she knowingly "assumes the risk" that the other person may present to him or her. This principle prevents one from suing if you sprain or fracture your ankle while playing basketball, even if the injury is caused by the negligence of another player. Before entering the court, you knew that basketball was a lively game with a fair amount of incidental contact. By playing, you accepted the risk that you may sprain your ankle or worse. The logic is that as you voluntarily and knowingly placed yourself in the way of the possible negligence of others, you cannot sue even if they negligently injure you.
An application of this doctrine may have been appropriate in Robbins' case. To decide if Robbins had assumed the risk of her choices, the jury would not have had to assess the reasonableness of her beliefs. Rather they would merely have had to decide if Robbins knew that forgoing surgery could lead to further suffering and disability, and that she knowingly and voluntarily chose to accept this possibility. If they had seen the matter this way, they could have made Robbins accept the consequences of her religious choices rather than place those consequences on her insurance company. This approach would have satisfied the protections of the Free Exercise clause while avoiding the apparent unfairness of imposing the consequences of one person's religious choices on a third party.
All major Western religions teach that what a man sows, that shall he also reap. They teach personal accountability and responsibility, and that the moral choices that people make will impact both their earthly lives and their eternal destinies. If those religious decisions have toxic results, the decision-maker will live with the consequences, at least partially in this life and fully in the next, according to the various beliefs. But meanwhile, in this life, the insurance company had to pay Robbins $7,732,900, quite a handsome sum for the religious choices of another.

Nicholas P. Miller is an attorney in Washington, D. C.


United States v. Ballard

In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court handled one of its most interesting cases, United States v. Ballard. Guy and Edna Ballard were accused of fraud for claiming that they could - by virtue of supernatural powers - heal disease and other ailments and injuries. In the lower court case, the trial judge instructed the jury that they should not decide whether the Ballard claims were true, but only if the Ballards believed them to be true. The Supreme Court upheld that decision, saying essentially that religious beliefs, no matter how preposterous or seemingly unreasonable, were not to be subject to judicial scrutiny. Below is an excerpt from Justice Douglas's majority opinion in Ballard.
"But on whichever basis that court rested its actions, we do not agree that the truth or verity of respondents' religious doctrines or beliefs should have been submitted to the jury. Whatever this particular indictment might require, the First Amendment precludes such a course, as the United States seem to concede. 'The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.' Watson v. Jones. The First amendment has a dual aspect. It not only 'forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship' but also 'safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion.' Cantwell v. Connecticut. 'Thus the amendment embraces two concepts - freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be.' Freedom of thought, which includes freedom of religious belief, is basic in a society of free men. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. It embraces the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths. Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others. Yet the fact that they may be beyond the ken of mortals does not mean that they can be made suspect before the law. Many take their gospel from the New Testament. But it would hardly be supposed that they could be tried before a jury charged with the duty of determining whether those teachings contained false representations. The miracles of the New Testament, the divinity of Christ, life after death, the power of prayer, are deep in the religious convictions of many. If one could be sent to jail because a jury in a hostile environment found those teachings false, little indeed would be left of religious freedom. The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man's relation to his God was made no concern of the state. He was granted the right to worship as he pleased and to answer to no man for the verity of his religious views. The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position. 'With man's relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his belief on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with.' So we conclude that the district court ruled properly when it withheld from the jury all questions concerning the truth or falsity of the religious beliefs or doctrines of respondents."

Nicholas P. Miller
Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.