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Utah Supreme Court revives lawsuit of woman who claims church made her listen to own rape

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Posted at 9:33 AM, Jun 10, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has revived a woman's lawsuit alleging she was forced to listen to a recording of her own rape.

Ria Williams sued the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Roy in 2016. Her lawsuit claimed she was the victim of a rape, but church elders subjected her to a humiliating disciplinary hearing. FOX 13 typically does not name sexual assault victims, but Williams has allowed her name to be used, her attorney said.

"This is another opportunity for us to argue that Ria's case should be allowed to go through," Alex Zalkin, one of Williams' attorneys, said of the Utah Supreme Court's ruling. "She should be allowed to litigate her case."

Williams sued, alleging that at age 14 she was sexually assaulted by another member of the church but she was placed under investigation by church elders.

"At the beginning of the hearing, the Elders questioned Ms. Williams for forty-five minutes regarding her sexual conduct with the other congregant. And after this questioning, the Elders played an audio recording of the other congregant raping her," Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote.

"While the Elders played the recording, Ms. Williams was 'crying and physically quivering.' Despite her 'crying and protestations to not force her to relive the experience of being raped,' the Elders played the recording for 'four to five hours,' stopping and starting it at certain points to ask Ms. Williams 'about what was happening' and 'suggesting that she consented to‖ the sexual acts portrayed.'"

Williams sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, Chief Justice Durrant wrote, the district court that heard the case dismissed her lawsuit because it was unable to disentangle the alleged conduct from the religious setting in which it took place.

"So, even though the allegations in the complaint were 'disturbing' to the court, it ruled that the Establishment Clause barred the court from adjudicating the claim," he wrote.

An appeals court upheld the lawsuit's dismissal, declaring that allowing Williams' case to be litigated would have the courts "unconstitutionally inject itself into substantive ecclesiastical matters" with judicial oversight of "undeniably religious activity."

But the Utah Supreme Court said the woman's claims deserve to be reconsidered in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Establishment Clause, which deals with favoring one religion over another. The justices sent Williams' lawsuit back for reconsideration by an Ogden judge.

"We welcome the opportunity to address the Utah Supreme Court’s request to research the impact of recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court on the Plaintiff’s allegations in this case. As always, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses remain committed to assisting those impacted by abuse and educating parents so that they may protect their children from the heinous crime and sin of abuse," the Jehovah's Witnesses U.S. Branch said in a statement to FOX 13.

The impact of the Utah Supreme Court's ruling may not just apply to Williams.

"It certainly has broader implications for how courts view religious tribunals in general," Zalkin said. "Not just Jehovah's Witnesses, but other religions as well."

Read the ruling here: