Paul v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y

819 F.2d 875 (9th Cir. 1987)



Federal courts are not precluded from affording relief simply because neither the state Supreme Court nor the state legislature has enunciated a clear rule governing a particular type of controversy. Were the court able to invoke only clearly established state law, litigants seeking to protect their rights in federal courts by availing themselves of the court's diversity jurisdiction would face an inhospitable forum for claims not identical to those resolved in prior cases. Congress, in providing for removal, certainly did not intend to provide such a weapon to defendants.


Appellant, Janice Paul, was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She was an active member of the congregation, and eventually married another member of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Sometime in 1975, Paul’s parents were "disfellowshiped" from the Church. The Elders of the Lower Valley Congregation told Paul that she and her husband should not discuss with other members their feeling that her parents had been unjustly disfellowshiped. After the Elders' warning, Paul decided that she no longer wished to belong to the congregation, or to remain affiliated with the Jehovah's Witnesses. In November 1975, Paul wrote a letter to the congregation withdrawing from the Church. Before the issuance of the new interpretation concerning disassociated persons, or those who voluntarily left the congregation, said disassociated persons were still being consulted in secular matters, e.g. legal or business advice, although they were no longer members of the Church. However, after the issuance of the new rule, disassociated persons were treated the same way as the disfellowshiped members – that is, they are now, together with the disfellowshiped members, the subjects of shunning, which is a form of ostracism. Upset by her shunning by her former friends and co-religionists, Paul filed a suit in state court, alleging common law torts of defamation, invasion of privacy, fraud, and outrageous conduct. Defendants, Watchtower Bible and Tract Associations, removed the action on the ground of diversity. The district court held that Paul could not prevail in the case because shunning was a part of the Jehovah's Witness faith. Consequently, Paul appeals from the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, alleging that, in essence, the practice of shunning invaded interests that the state did or should protect through its tort law.


Does the practice of shunning by the members of Jehovah’s Witness invade interests that the state should protect through its tort law?




The Court upheld the validity of the practice of shunning. The Court posited that the practice of shunning does not to constitute a sufficient threat to the peace, safety, or morality of the community as to warrant state intervention. The Court noted that the test for upholding a direct burden on religious practices is as stringent as any imposed under our Constitution. Only in extreme and unusual cases has the imposition of a direct burden on religion been upheld. In this case, the members of Jehovah’s Witness Paul decided to abandon have concluded that they no longer want to associate with her and the Court held that they are free to make that choice. The Jehovah's Witnesses' practice of shunning is protected under the first amendment of the United States Constitution and therefore under the provisions of the Washington state Constitution.

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