Can I Sue Jehovah's Witnesses for Trespassing, Harassment, or Abuse?
Whether it's a Jehovah's Witness, a member of another religious organization, or someone else loitering at your doorstep, there are some situations where you can sue to keep them away from you.
Keep in mind that your lawsuit won't get anywhere if you're just suing for something petty. Someone knocking door-to-door isn't necessarily trespassing. If a person is just trying to talking to you (and even if they call you names), that's not automatically harassment.
On the other hand, if someone won't leave you alone or comes onto your property or person without your consent, they might be violating your legal rights. This is especially true if you ask them to stop or leave but they continue to repeat the bad behavior.
If you considering suing for trespass, you may want to speak to a personal injury attorney. If the harassment or abuse includes sexual assault or physical violence, you should consider speaking with a sexual harassment attorney. They will have experience dealing with people who won't stop bothering you.
Suing a Religious Organization
If the person bothering you is a member of a religious organization, you may be able to sue both that person individually as well as the organization that they represent or belong to. For example, the legal entity that Jehovah's Witnesses are associated with is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which is a non-profit corporation with church elders (officers) all over the country, including in big states like California and New York.
When an alleged abuser is a member of the Jehovah's Witness Church or is otherwise associated with the Jehovah's Witnesses Congregation, then you may be able to make a legal argument that when they do something bad, they are acting on behalf of their religious group.
Under the law of agency, someone who acts as an agent of an organization can create legal responsibility (liability) for that entity. When the organization sends that agent on a mission (e.g. a missionary) to do something—such as knocking on people's doors to promote a specific religion—then that person's actions can affect both the person individually as well as the entire organization that is behind them.
In other words, if you reasonably believe that someone who trespasses on your property or who harasses and abuses you is acting under the instruction, control, or authority of the Jehovah's Witness group of institutions, you can sue them individually and join the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society as a co-defendant in your lawsuit.
When someone is knocking on your door to sell you something or tell you about the good news of the lord's love, they might already be on your property. But does that mean they're trespassing?
To trespass simply means to be on someone's land or property without their permission. While the law between states can be different, the elements of trespass typically involve:
- land or property that you own,
- which is intentionally or carelessly violated (entered) by someone,
- who doesn't have permission to be there,
- resulting in harm to you.
If a Jehovah's Witness walks up to your door, they aren't necessarily trespassing yet. This can change if they've already walked past your fence or they're standing on your porch, and you've asked them to leave. If they refuse, you may be able to sue for trespass and other claims discussed further in this article.
The above discusses trespass in the civil (private lawsuit) context. If you report trespass to the police, law enforcement officials can also bring criminal charges against a trespasser. As the victim, you may have a say in pressing charges and serving as a witness for the prosecution; however, it's ultimately up to your local prosecutor to decide whether or not to file a criminal complaint against the perpetrator.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
As the law continues to evolve, states are recognizing claims that involve more than just physical harm. When someone causes mental and emotional damage to you through their abusive actions, you may be able to pursue them for negligent (NIED) or intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) depending on the rules of your state.
Infliction of emotional distress claims generally involve the following elements:
- outrageous or extreme behavior by someone,
- who is being either purposefully or carelessly abusive to you,
- and their actions cause severe emotional distress to you, including the possibility of physical harm.
For example, if a Jehovah's Witness elder keeps putting you down and calling you a liar for reporting a rape, they could be liable to you for NIED or IIED depending on how carelessly or purposefully they acted (or failed to act).
For a more general overview of harassment laws like IIED, check out our article on Suing for Harassment.
A restraining order or order for protection is a court order requiring that a person stay away from a victim. When you sue someone to get a restraining order, you're asking the court to force that person to maintain a safe distance from you at all times. A violation of the order can mean that the person can be arrested, fined, and/or imprisoned.
If someone is trespassing, harassing, or abusing you, document their behavior as best as you can. This means keeping text messages and records of annoying phone calls or e-mails, or documenting instances of stalking and persistent pestering. One or two isolated bad acts might not amount to anything on their own, but if you can show that a perpetrator has a pattern of engaging in behavior that threatens your safety, a court will be more likely to grant a restraining order.
While the requirements and consequences of a restraining order can vary from state to state, they'll generally involve the court's order that someone must stay away (up to a certain distance) from your:
- home and other permanent or temporary areas of residence
- car and other property
- place(s) of employment
The court might also order the perpetrator to:
- refrain from contacting you in person or otherwise (via your e-mail, social media, phone number, etc.)
- give up any firearms that they own
- avoid going to certain places or addresses where you might be present, such as the local school or library
While getting a restraining order might be a good start as far as keeping yourself safe, you may need to sue for additional claims to recover damages that you may have suffered from abuse and harassment.
Sexual Abuse Lawsuits
If you're holding back because of the “two-witness rule," please don't. Jehovah's Witnesses have an internal policy that requires “two witnesses" to prove that someone is guilty of sexual assault. The law, on the other hand, doesn't work that way. Even if you have just one witness or no witnesses at all, the courts have an interest in hearing your sexual abuse allegations.
Whether you were a Jehovah's Witness child when the crime occurred, or whether you've been subject to sexual abuse under the hands of any other religious organization later in life, you should strongly consider bringing a civil claim against the persons and institutions responsible for what happened to you.
Findlaw's sexual assault resources are a great starting point for understanding your rights. While sex abuse claims vary from state to state, any inappropriate sexual contact — even if it doesn't amount to rape — can be actionable in court. Some examples from our sexual assault overview page include:
- Fondling, kissing, or making unwanted bodily contact;
- Forcing another person to perform or receive oral sex;
- Forcing a tongue, mouth, finger, penis, or an object onto another person's anus or genitals; and
- Forced masturbation.
This is not an exhaustive list, and a victim's experiences can largely vary depending on many different (subjective and objective) factors. While this is a difficult topic for most victims, there's a good feeling about knowing that you're making your voice heard so that future generations won't have to be victimized by abusers.
The time to bring a sexual abuse lawsuit is limited by state law. Some states have extended or eliminated the statute of limitations (time limit) for plaintiffs to file sexual assault lawsuits. This is especially helpful to adults who were victims of child molestation in prior years, but lacked the independence or weren't old enough to know that they could assert their legal rights against criminal pedophiles.
The above discusses Jehovah's Witness sexual abuse claims in the civil (private lawsuit) context. If you report sex offenders to the police, law enforcement officials can also pursue criminal charges. If you are a victim of sexual abuse, you may have a say in pressing charges and serving as a witness for the prosecution; however, it's ultimately up to your local prosecutor to decide whether or not to file a criminal complaint against the perpetrator.
Class Action Lawsuits Against Religious Institutions
In recent years, religious groups have been criticized for allegations of child sex abuse. It has become commonplace to hear about child sexual abuse cover-ups, whether by the Catholic Church or by Jehovah's Witness Elders.
For this reason, Jehovah's Witness lawsuits can take the shape of class actions. This means that victims of sexual abuse (or other kinds of harassment) can come together in a group to combine their claims against the same defendant — the religious institution — that may be responsible for the abuse that they faced.
Depending on whether a class action lawsuit is being filed in state court or federal court, there are different requirements before it can be certified by the judge. A leader or “class representative" — typically someone who has suffered at the hands of a defendant and is intending to sue personally anyway — decides to sue the defendant on behalf of all other injured parties.
Unless you're in federal court, local laws can vary but in general, the leader of the class has to show:
- There are numerous plaintiffs who can be identified, and allowing them to join a single class action is a more efficient way of doing litigation.
- The plaintiffs' claims involve common factual or legal issues.
- The leader of the class has claims that are similar to or the same as those common legal issues and will be an appropriate representative of all the potential plaintiffs.
For example, if you grew up as a Jehovah's Witness in a community of children who were all abused by the same authority figure(s), you could be a class representative in a class action for all of the kids who suffered from the same kind of abuse that you had to endure. Those other children can then join the class action lawsuit or pursue their individual claims separately if they wish.
If you win a lawsuit for trespass, harassment, or abuse, the court may award you a number of different remedies to try and make you whole for the damages that you suffered. Examples of relief include:
- Restraining orders: as already discussed above. Keep in mind there doesn't actually have to be physical “violence" committed against you for a court to grant you a restraining order. Harassment and abuse can take shape in different forms, and the facts of each case can be persuasive in their own unique ways.
- Injunctive relief: This is an order from the court forcing someone to stop doing something. It can be an order for an abuser to cease their harassment, or it can be a more general order against the entire religious organization that it must stop allowing abusive behavior to take place (such as by turning a blind eye to crimes like sexual assault).
- Compensatory damages, including money for pain and suffering, personal injuries, medical expenses, lost income, and other harms.
- Punitive damages to punish a defendant that acted with egregious disregard for your well-being.
Speak With a Harassment Lawyer
If you are being bothered by someone who is trespassing on your property, consider speaking with a personal injury lawyer. If you or a family member have been the victim of sexual abuse or someone has trespassed onto your property and won't stop harassing you, contact a sexual harassment attorney who can help you take legal action against the perpetrator.
You should obtain legal advice even if you don't believe your situation amounts to a sexual abuse case. More often than not, a sexual harassment attorney will have experience dealing with people who won't stop bothering you, even if there is no violence or sexual element to their annoying behavior. From a legal standpoint, it might be enough that only trespass and non-violent harassment occurred before you can bring a lawsuit.
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