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Religion and Fraud


Few responsibilities are more sensitive and difficult to meet than drawing a line between punishable obtaining of property under false pretenses and constitutionally protected free exercise of religion. In the one major case to reach the Supreme Court, United States v. Ballard (1944), the Court split three ways in its decision.

Ballard involved the conviction of organizers of the "I Am" movement, indicted for using the mails to defraud because they falsely represented that they had supernatural powers to heal the incurably ill, and that as "Divine messengers" they had cured hundreds of afflicted persons through communication with Saint Germain, Jesus, and others. The trial court had instructed the jury that they should not decide whether these statements were literally true, but only whether the defendants honestly believed them to be true.

On appeal the majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge. Under the principles of separation of church and state and religious liberty, it held, neither a jury nor any other organ of government had the competence to pass on whether certain religious experiences actually occurred. A jury could no more constitutionally decide that defendants had not shaken hands with Jesus, as they claimed, than they could determine that Jesus had not walked on the sea, as the Bible related. The limit of the jury's power was a determination whether defendants actually believed that what they recounted was true.

Chief Justice harlan fiske stone dissented on the ground that the prosecution should be allowed to prove that none of the alleged cures had been effected. On the other extreme Justice robert h. jackson urged that the prosecution should not have been instituted in the first place, for few juries would find that the defendants honestly believed in something that was unbelievable. Nevertheless the majority decision remains the law, and is not likely to be overruled after a half-century of acceptance.

Leo Pfeffer


Pfeffer, Leo (1953) 1967 Church, State and Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

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