The First Amendment Right to Religious Darkness

The Catholic church in this premises liability case “assert[ed] it had no legal duty to abandon the religious practice involving the use of darkness because it is protected by the First Amendment”; alas, the court saw no occasion to reach this issue.

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From Valadez v. St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, 2021 WL 6128567, decided Sept. 24, 2021 by Judge Audra Mori (L.A. Superior Court),

Plaintiff, Flavia Valadez … filed this action against Defendant, St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church … alleging causes of action for negligence and premises liability. The complaint alleges Defendant caused Plaintiff to fall due to unsafe conditions in and around an unlit staircase at Defendant's property. Defendant now moves for summary judgment…. "The owner of premises is under a duty to exercise ordinary care in the management of such premises in order to avoid exposing persons to an unreasonable risk of harm. A failure to fulfill this duty is negligence." …

Defendant asserts the incident occurred on April 5, 2017, during a Catholic faith tradition known as the Service of the Light (the "Service") at Defendant's church. In keeping with the tradition, the church was in darkness intentionally at the time of the incident. Prior to the incident, Plaintiff attended the Service since 1997. When Plaintiff entered the church, it was already dark, and when Plaintiff was unable to find a seat in the lower level of the church, Plaintiff went upstairs to find a seat in the balcony, which she had been to five or six times previously. When Plaintiff reached the balcony, it was still dark, as there was only one overhead light shining on the altar. The balcony has four levels or landings on which seats are available. Plaintiff proceeded to a seat, and as she took a step thinking she had reached the last landing, she fell because there was actually one more landing Plaintiff had missed. Defendant avers the only dangerous condition Plaintiff claims caused her fall is the darkness in the church, which prevented her from seeing the landing….

The court rejected the Church's defense that the danger was "open and obvious": Under California law, the court concluded, "if it is foreseeable that a condition may cause injury despite its obvious nature, a duty to correct the danger may exist, and a breach of that duty may form the basis for liability if it proximately causes the injury." But the court concluded that the Church was protected by the "primary assumption of risk" doctrine:

Where, "by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties' relationship to the activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury," the assumption of risk "operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiffs recovery." {[F]or example in the context of sports, … [p]laintiffs assume risks inherent in a sport by participating, and defendants generally owe no duty to protect plaintiffs from such risks but owe a duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport.}

The doctrine of assumption of risk is not limited to sports. It applies to activities involving an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity. (Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (Cal. App. 2009) [affirming application of assumption of risk doctrine where Plaintiff was burned by remnants of Burning Man effigy while at Burning Man Festival].) …

Plaintiff does not dispute attending the Service since 1997 or otherwise being aware darkness was involved in the Service. The church was dark from the time Plaintiff entered the church and went to the balcony where the incident occurred. Nonetheless, Plaintiff chose to participate in the Service, and thus, chose to engage in an activity in which darkness was an inherent part. The risk to persons who voluntarily decide to take part in the Service is self-evident, as participants who attend will be inside the church while it is dark. The risk of falling inside the church while walking or moving around inside while it is dark is an obvious and inherent risk to participating in the Service….

[T]he evidence shows that Plaintiff knowingly chose to walk up to the balcony in the darkness and encounter the subject landings, of which Plaintiff was aware. The darkness was inherent and necessary to the event, and the risk of falling on the balcony while there in the darkness was obvious. It was within the contemplation of the activity.

Furthermore, although Plaintiff contends Defendant increased the risk the darkness posed, Plaintiff does not identify any conduct by Defendant other than the darkness that caused Plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff argues the darkness together with the faulty stairs caused Plaintiff to fall. However, Plaintiff merely provides the balcony riser where Plaintiff fell presented a height differential of 7-1/4 inches, the subject landing ranged between 33-5/8 and 85 inches in length, and the area features varying tread lengths, but Plaintiff does not submit any admissible evidence explaining why these factors made the balcony dangerous or increased the risk of the darkness. Similarly, Plaintiff does not explain how the other factors Plaintiff identifies increased the inherent risk of the Service, especially whereas here, Plaintiff was aware of the balcony landings. There is no evidence that any action or inaction by Defendant increased the risk of harm to Plaintiff.

Therefore, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies to the activity engaged in by Plaintiff, and accordingly, Defendant owed no duty to Plaintiff to prevent Plaintiff's injuries. The court needs not address the remaining issues….