Cheri Spivey holds a photo of her son Nick Ellison, who died from taking drugs shortly after leaving Teen Challenge, a Christian substance abuse program.
Credit Mike Belleme for The New York Times
By MICHAEL CORKERY and JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG
A few months before he took a toxic mix of drugs and died on a stranger’s couch, Nicklaus Ellison wrote a letter to his little sister.
He asked for Jolly Ranchers, Starburst and Silly Bandz bracelets, some of the treats permitted at the substance abuse program he attended in Florida. Then, almost as an aside, Mr. Ellison wrote about how the Christian-run program that was supposed to cure his drug and alcohol problem had instead “de-gayed” him.
“God makes all things new,” Mr. Ellison wrote in bright green ink. “The weirdest thing is how do I come out as straight after all this time?”
To his family and friends, Mr. Ellison’s professed identity change was just one of many clues that something had gone wrong at the program, Teen Challenge, where he had been sent by a judge as an alternative to jail.
But when his family sued Teen Challenge in 2012 hoping to uncover what had happened, they quickly hit a wall. When he was admitted to the program, at age 20, Mr. Ellison signed a contract that prevented him and his family from taking the Christian group to court.
Instead, his claim had to be resolved through a mediation or arbitration process that would be bound not by state or federal law, but by the Bible. “The Holy Scripture shall be the supreme authority,” the rules of the proceedings state.
For generations, religious tribunals have been used in the United States to settle family disputes and spiritual debates. But through arbitration, religion is being used to sort out secular problems like claims of financial fraud and wrongful death.
Customers who buy bamboo floors from Higuera Hardwoods in Washington State must take any dispute before a Christian arbitrator, according to the company’s website. Carolina Cabin Rentals, which rents high-end vacation properties in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, tells its customers that disputes may be resolved according to biblical principles. The same goes for contestants in a fishing tournament in Hawaii.
Religious arbitration clauses, including the one used by Teen Challenge, have often proved impervious to legal challenges.
Scientology forbids its followers from associating with former members who have been declared “suppressive persons,” according to people who have left the church. But this year, a federal judge in Florida upheld a religious arbitration clause requiring Luis Garcia, a declared suppressive, to take his claim that the church had defrauded him of tens of thousands of dollars before a panel of Scientologists, instead of going to court.
Pamela Prescott battled for years to prove that she had been unjustly fired from a private school in Louisiana. The crux of her case — which wound through arbitration, a federal appeals court and state court — was references in her employment contract to verses from the Bible.
In legal circles, those cases, along with the Ellison suit, are considered seminal examples of how judges have consistently upheld religious arbitrations over secular objections. They also reflect a battle in the United States over religious freedom, a series of skirmishes that include a Kentucky clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and a Muslim woman’s being passed over for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a head scarf.
More than anything, the cases show the power of arbitration clauses. An investigation by The New York Times found that companies have used the clauses to create an alternate system of justice. Americans are being forced out of court and into arbitration for everything from botched home renovations to medical malpractice.
By adding a religious component, companies are taking the privatization of justice a step further. Proponents of religious arbitration said the process allowed people of faith to work out problems using shared values, achieving not just a settlement but often reconciliation.
Yet some lawyers and plaintiffs said that for some groups, religious arbitration may have less to do with honoring a set of beliefs than with controlling legal outcomes. Some religious organizations stand by the process until they lose, at which point they turn to the secular courts to overturn faith-based judgments, according to interviews and court records.
“Religious arbitration, at its best, ensures that people can resolve their disputes in accordance with deeply held religious beliefs,” said Michael A. Helfand, an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and an arbitrator in a rabbinical court in New York. “But both religious communities and courts need to make sure that the protections the law has put in place to make it a fair and unbiased process are actually implemented.”
Few courts have intervened, saying the terms of arbitration are detailed in binding contracts signed by both parties. Some judges are also reluctant to risk infringing the First Amendment rights of religious groups, according to a review of court decisions and interviews with lawyers.
Some plaintiffs counter that it is their First Amendment rights being infringed because they must unwillingly participate in what amounts to religious activity.
“I am being forced to go before a court run by a religion I no longer believe in,” said Mr. Garcia, the former Scientologist. “How could that happen?”
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