Alternative Dispute Resolution

Buying a bamboo floor? This company requires religious arbitration; courts uphold clauses

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Religious tribunals are being used in U.S. cases that go beyond spiritual questions to sort out allegations ranging from financial fraud to wrongful death.

Christian tribunals are getting a green light from courts, which are upholding contract clauses that require religious arbitration, the New York Times reports. Its story is part of a series on arbitration clauses that keep disputes out of court.

Christian arbitration clauses are even being used in contracts governing consumer purchases, including customers who buy bamboo floors from Higuera Hardwoods in Washington state, or vacationers who rent from Carolina Cabin Rentals in North Carolina.

Courts are upholding the clauses based on contract principles and a reluctance to interfere with First Amendment rights of religious groups, the Times story reports. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, contend their First Amendment rights are violated because they are being forced to participate in religious activity.

Plaintiffs trying to avoid religious arbitration include the mother of a 20-year-old gay man, Nicklaus Ellison, who entered a Christian-run program called Teen Challenge in January 2011 as part of an agreement to avoid jail for a probation violation. He told his sister in a never-mailed letter that the program had “de-gayed” him; his mother wonders if that made his drug abuse worse.

Ellison died after a Teen Challenge manager reported he was being taken to the hospital for intoxication. Rather than being hospitalized, Ellison died on the couch of a woman he met at a CVS. He had been drinking, and he had cough medicine and methadone in his system.

Ellison had agreed that any dispute from his participation in the program would go to Christian conciliation. A Florida appeals court upheld the clause, and Ellison’s mother settled with Teen Challenge last year.

In other cases, a federal judge upheld a contract clause requiring arbitration before a panel of Scientologists, and a federal appeals court upheld an arbitration award to a teacher who challenged her firing from a Christian school in Louisiana.

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