Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Courts and Irrational Beliefs

Sandefur has a post about a court case involving an allegedly haunted house:

The dispute involved the purchase of a “haunted” house: the buyers complained that its “haunted” status had not been disclosed to them, and therefore that they’d been injured. The court agreed.

Amusing, yes, but the case involves a serious problem: to what degree should courts address the alleged injuries arising from people’s irrational subjective beliefs? Suppose my neighbor puts a voodoo curse on me, and sure enough, the next day, I break my leg. Should I be able to sue him for battery?


He goes on to explain that the answers are not quite as obvious as they might initially seem. This touches on a similar issue that has come up in conversations with my buddy Dan: how should the courts handle religious frauds? The courts have rarely confronted this issue. Sandefur points to a couple of court cases that reached disparate results:

But the problem with answers 1 and 3 is the public policy problem of the courts determining what sets of unprovable beliefs are and are not objectively irrational. On one hand, courts have even gone so far as to take judicial notice of the irrationality of certain beliefs. See, e.g., United States v. Downing, 753 F.2d 1224, 1238 n. 18 (3d Cir. 1985) (courts may take judicial notice of the invalidity of phrenology or astrology). But on the other hand, taking a step in this direction threatens important Establishment Clause and Free Exercise rights. That’s why in United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944), the Court found that it could not inquire into the scientific validity (or lack thereof) of faith healing, in a case involving a mail fraud prosecution. If courts can determine that certain beliefs with regard to ghosts are objectively irrational and untrue, then what about religious beliefs (which are, in fact, objectively irrational and untrue)?

A very interesting area of law that could use some serious scholarship.