Oklahoma court favors church in Syrian torture lawsuit
SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A man from Syria who says he was tortured in his home country after converting to Christianity has no legal recourse against an Oklahoma church that published his name and baptism online, the state's highest court ruled on Wednesday.
The former Muslim, identified in the lawsuit only as "John Doe," says that after his baptism in 2012 at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Tulsa he returned to Syria and was kidnapped, tortured and nearly beheaded by radical Muslims who learned of his baptism online. He claims he escaped by killing a relative who aided his captors and now is wanted for murder in Syria.
"Appellant asserts that he suffered numerous physical injuries and psychological damage, all proximately caused by appellees' publication of his baptism, in contravention of promises they supposedly made to him that it would be kept confidential," the court wrote in its majority opinion.
But the court upheld a lower court ruling and decided that despite the plaintiff's injuries, courts must refrain from "undue interference with religious beliefs and practices."
"Per the church autonomy doctrine, the courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over the matter," Chief Justice Douglas Combs wrote in the majority opinion.
The plaintiff's attorney, Keith Ward, said his client is considering whether to petition the court for a rehearing. He said that since the lawsuit was filed in 2014, his client has become a U.S. citizen and now lives in Tulsa, but struggles with injuries he suffered in the attack and fears every day that Muslim extremists might try to kill him.
John Tucker, an attorney for the First Presbyterian Church, said the court's ruling was significant because it affirms the importance of religious liberty.
"This is the first case in the United States in which a court has affirmed that how a church conducts its baptisms is only the business of the church and is not subject to interference by the civil courts," Tucker said. "That's important, because baptism is an essential core concept of Christianity."