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Freedom to practice one's religion -- a cherished right

FREEDOM of religion -- and the right to seek religious or spiritual answers to one's problems -- was bolstered recently by a California court that dismissed a much-publicized ``clergy malpractice'' suit. Parents of a young man who took his own life in 1979 tried to link counseling given by pastors of the Los Angeles-based Grace Community Church to their son's demise.

Their main arguments were: (1) Church pastors should have referred the young man to psychologists for extensive psychiatric help; and (2) the clergymen had no right to suggest that one who contemplates or commits suicide could still possibly enter the ``kingdom of heaven.''

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Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin, in ruling that the $1 million damage suit had no basis, said the 24-year-old had voluntarily sought church counseling and that the pastors had acted responsibly, if not compassionately.

He stated that ``there was no compelling reason for the state or this court to interfere with the counseling at Grace Community Church.'' Judge Kalin added that such suits threaten the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. And he stressed that any attempt by the court or the state to ``impart standards of pastoral counseling would open the floodgates to clergy malpractice suits'' and have a ``chilling effect'' on First Amendment guarantees.

The suit had once before been dismissed as a trespass on the Constitution's free-exercise clause. In 1984, however, an appeals court reversed this decision, ruling that the First Amendment ``does not license intentional infliction of emotional distress in the name of religion and cannot shield defendants from liability of wrongful death.''

Judge Kalin found the defendants guilty of no such actions -- or liability.

Aside from its immediate result, this case raises broader issues regarding legal constraints on the practice of religion and the freedom to rely on God and spiritual means for healing and regeneration.

The US Supreme Court, in interpreting the Constitution, has long upheld such rights.

But in recent years, lawsuits have been filed that would restrict religious practices, particularly in regard to children. The implication of plaintiffs is that somehow the state is better equipped than parents to decide what is in the best interests of a child. And in some instances, plaintiffs seem to be equating reliance on prayer for healing with child neglect or even abuse.

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The assumption has been made that medicine -- or in the case involving the Grace Community Church, psychology or psychiatry -- should be the only resort for help.

Edward Barker, attorney for the prosecuting parents of the young man who committed suicide, argued that his client's son would have survived had he received the ``proper [psychiatric] treatment.'' One method, he suggested, was based on prescribing anti-depressant medication.

Interestingly, psychiatric and psychological groups seldom make such claims. In fact, these professional organizations have argued that courtroom verdicts, such as those made in a case involving a defendant's sanity, shouldn't be based solely on these types of evaluations.

For example, in the wake of the assault on President Reagan by John W. Hinckley in 1981, a civil suit asking for $14 million in damages was filed by some of those injured in the shooting against a psychiatrist who had previously examined Hinckley. They charged misdiagnosis. A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that such legal action was improper and dismissed the case.

During this dispute the American Psychiatric Association said it opposed any law or litigation that would hold its members legally responsible for violence committed by present or former patients. The APA also stressed that its members had no ``special knowledge'' to predict violent behavior.

Those who offer religious uplift or rely on prayer for healing also claim no expertise in these other areas. And they should not be expected to advise for or against medical or psychiatric attention.

Subjecting the clergy and those who advocate spiritual healing to liability for civil or criminal malpractice is, at the very least, inappropriate. This does not lift the responsibility of churches and their members to obey existing laws. But it does protect the cherished right to practice one's religion freely.

A Thursday column

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