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Harold Camping's Rapture Campaign: Can He Be Sued for Fraud?

As an atheist group asks the California attorney general for action, legal scholars say efforts are almost certainly doomed.

The end came, albeit two days late, for hundreds of Family Radio billboards across the nation May 23. While the tear-down of the apocalyptic billboards marked a conclusion to Family Radio's public ad campaign, private donors remain frustrated with the organization's use of their funds. The $100 million campaign, which centered on ads that read, "Judgment Day, May 21: the Bible guarantees it," was funded in part by contributions from hundreds of donors. Most of the funds came from the sale of a television station and a radio station, a Family Radio spokesman said. But some donors sacrificed their life's fortunes, even jobs, in anticipation for the "guaranteed" end and are now in dire financial straits; others are simply frustrated and in search of recompense. With millions of dollars in family estates, wills, and personal funds pledged in support of a now defunct prophecy, is there any legal recourse for donors?

If history is any indication, it would be difficult, if not impossible for a lawsuit to move forward against Harold Camping and Family Radio. The plea of donors for legal protection against false religious claims hearkens back to United States v. Ballard (1944), in which leaders of the "I AM" movement, a New Age group, were charged with fraudulently collecting donations in exchange for religious favors they knew to be nonexistent. In the 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the leaders' conviction, ruling that courts cannot declare religious beliefs true or false or interpret the sincerity of one's beliefs without clear evidence of self-contradiction.

"United States v. Ballard certainly suggests that it will be difficult [for a case against Family Radio] to succeed on a fraud claim based on false religious statements," said Alan Brownstein, a noted constitutional law professor at the University of California, Davis. To move forward in court, a case against Family Radio would have to incontestably prove that the organization did not believe the end of the world would come May 21 and that members of the organization used donations for unlawful financial gain.

But even this sort of case would be difficult to win, said Thomas Berg, professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas.

"To determine that such statements were intentionally false, a civil court would have to go deeply into evaluating religious judgments and religious states of mind, and such evaluations are barred by both religion clauses of the First Amendment," he said.

Despite the obvious challenges, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national organization charged with maintaining separation of church and state, sent a letter to the California Attorney General Wednesday in hopes of spurring a public lawsuit against Family Radio. The letter cites three measures in California Civil Code that may provide legal protection for Family Radio donors. In order to be actionable, these measures would require Family Radio to have employed "deceitful" practices, which are defined as "the suggestion, as a fact, of that which is not true, by one who does not believe it to be true."

Evidence of deceit must be concrete and verifiable, said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director at the Becket Fund. "A good example of deceit would be if a pastor sent an email asking for a $100 donation because the world was going to end and then sent another email to a colleague that read 'I roped him in, $100 dollars because the world is going to end.'" In a situation where Harold Camping and Family Radio have been highly transparent in their beliefs and demonstrated strong commitment to them, proving deceit may not be a viable legal avenue for donors, he said.

Robert Tuttle, research professor of law and religion at George Washington University, agrees. "I saw FFRF's letter to the California AG, and think any legal action against Family Radio is extremely unlikely to go anywhere," he said.

On a private level, there is precedent for legal action against religious fraud, but it also does not suggest much success. A string of cases during the 1960s and '70s charged Scientology leaders with making false claims about e-meters, devices they claimed spurred spiritual healing. In each case, Scientology leaders were acquitted, since juries' decisions on whether the claims were false would force them to delve too deeply into religious matters.

Legal experts say that the laws that impede donors from moving forward with legal action against organizations such as Family Radio are the same laws that maintain freedom of religion in America. Giving a jury the power to determine the validity of a belief—even an outlandish truth claim such as an end date for the world—would make it possible for courts to decide which religions, even which practices within each religion, are acceptable, said Rassbach.

Tight First Amendment laws also serve as an acknowledgement that human religion is inherently flawed, that failure is natural for human belief systems and that it is not the role of government to assess religious failure or correct it, Brownstein said. "Any prophecy based on divine intervention presupposes the caveat that the ability to predict what God will do is inherently subject to the recognition that there are limits to human understanding of God's nature and decisions."

It is the role of the church to recognize where it errs and right itself, said Rusty Leonard, founder of Ministry Watch, a charity evaluation nonprofit. "One of the great tragedies is that the church has so many scams and it is infrequent that Christian leaders point them out." While online tax returns and other resources provide a means for donors to examine charities before they commit financially, donors should ultimately look to Scripture to validate the truth claims of charities, Leonard said.

Chris Norton is Christianity Today's news intern.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous coverage related to Harold Camping or the end of the world includes:

What to Do with Aunt Julie | Harold Camping and our problem relatives. (May 26, 2011)
Who Gets Left Behind? | How end times theories shape the ways we view our earthly abode. (May 23, 2011)
Camping Misses End of World | September 1994 came and went. (October 24, 1994)

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