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Feeling offended

LAW | Some Supreme Court justices disagree over whether an “offended observer” can sue

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Feeling offended
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Can plaintiffs bring a lawsuit simply because of psychic harm—hurt feelings? At least two Supreme Court justices don’t think so.

In March the court declined to review a years-old Florida case involving First Amendment claims. In 2014, after a series of shootings left several children injured, Ocala, Fla., Chief of Police Greg Graham reached out to the local community for assistance in finding witnesses to the shootings. A local minister suggested and planned a prayer vigil, and Graham co-signed and posted a letter encouraging attendance at the vigil on the police department’s Facebook page.

Florida residents Art Rojas and Lucinda Hale showed up at the vigil, but they didn’t come to pray. Both atheists, they claimed the police-sponsored event’s religious nature offended them and violated the First Amendment’s bar against the establishment of religion.

A U.S. District Court ultimately agreed with the plaintiffs. But in a March 6 order dismissing the city’s appeal, Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas noted their disagreement with allowing such “offended observers” to sue.

In his dissent, Thomas pointed to a 1982 Supreme Court opinion. It ruled that “the psychological consequence presumably produced by observation of religious conduct with which one disagrees” was not enough to allow someone to sue.

Yet Thomas noted that, despite the ruling, lower courts often allow claims based on noneconomic ­injuries. “This Court’s intervention has become increasingly necessary, as time has demonstrated that this problem is not going away by itself,” he concluded.

Ravi Zacharias/Facebook

Class-action reprieve

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, facing donor lawsuits after claims of sexual misconduct by its founder were published after his death in 2020, won’t face a class action for misuse of donor funds.

A federal court concluded in March that a lawsuit by a group of donors against the Georgia-based ministry couldn’t be broadened to include donors nationwide over a 16-year period. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. called the scope of the request ­“inequitable,” as no donors were actually harmed and only a very small amount of contributed money was allegedly used to facilitate or cover up the sexual misconduct.

Thrash called attention to the harm that would be caused by compelling the ministry to disclose its donor lists: “Identification of the donors as financial supporters of a ‘sexual ­predator’ would have an impermissible chilling effect upon their First Amendment rights.” —S.W.

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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