We haven't seen much media attention yet to Oregon House Joint Resolution 16 and counterpart HJR 17, but we can't imagine that will last long. It has the potential to set off a small explosion.
Quite some time ago, when the child sex abuse cases against Roman Catholic archdioceses in Portland and Spokane were being filed, we suggested that the impact of these cases eventually could lead to something larger than themselves: They could lead to some redefinition and rethinking about the roles churches play in society. HJR 16, which results from those cases (and the prospect of similar instances in the future), is good example of how some of the debate around this rethinking is apt to play out.
HJR 16, which seeks to limit awards of non-economic damages in lawsuits against religious organizations, is a simple measure, and its direct impact seems reasonably clear.
SECTION 12. (1) Noneconomic damages may not be recovered against a religious organization in an amount that exceeds $1 million. The limitation of this section applies to all subjective, nonmonetary losses, including but not limited to pain, mental suffering, emotional distress, humiliation, injury to reputation, loss of care, comfort, companionship and society, loss of consortium, inconvenience and interference with normal and usual activities apart from compensated employment.
(2) For the purposes of this section, a religious organization is an organized church or group that is organized for the purpose of worship or religious teaching, and that is exempt from federal income taxation by reason of those activities.
It has a long list of sponsors, Representatives Fred Girod (the lead sponsor), Vicki Berger, Brian Boquist, Scott Bruun, Tom Butler, Kevin Cameron, John Dallum, Linda Flores, Bill Garrard, Vic Gilliam, George Gilman, Bruce Hanna, Wayne Krieger, John Lim, Ron Maurer, Karen Minnis, Andy Olson, Wayne Scott, Greg Smith, Gene Whisnant, and six senators, Roger Beyer, Gary and Larry George, Jeff Kruse, Frank Morse and Bruce Starr. All are Republicans; more than two-thirds of the House Republican caucus are included and more than half of the Senate Republicans. (Where were Dennis Richardson and Donna Nelson?) This appears poised to be hashed out as a partisan matter.
This stands to be a powerfully emotional battle. There is, after all, a point here. Lawsuits which extract so much money from churches (as the recent lawsuits appear to be doing) do conflict with an element of freedom, of people being able to worship as they choose.
At the same time, churches do not exist outside of society: Why should they have legal shields other non-profit, and other charitable, organizations do not? (Of course, it is true they're not substantially taxed, either.) But we should note here that just such a shield - for nonprofits generally - is the subject of HJR 17, proposed by the same sponsors and reading similarly except for extending the limit to non-church nonprofits as well.
What then about the plaintiffs who were damaged, and the ability of society to exact a punishment for wrongdoing that will at least be painfully felt?
No definitive answers here. And the Oregon Legislature may not find anything definitive either, but the issue now has certainly been placed on the table.