Student claims religious liberty violated after counselor performs exorcism

Monday, July 6, 1998

An Albuquerque, N.M., mother has filed a federal lawsuit against the public school district alleging her son's religious-liberty rights were violated after a school official performed an exorcism on the boy.

Liz Madrid alleges in the lawsuit filed last week that her son Joseph “Joey” Madrid was forced to participate in an exorcism performed by a former middle school counselor.

According to the suit, in late 1996 Anna Chavez, a Cleveland Middle School counselor, saw a pentagram drawn on one of Joey's notebooks. Chavez, the suit alleges, “regarded the pentagram as a symbol of the occult,” and asked the then 14-year-old to come to her office. There, Chavez told Joey she “could tell he was possessed and that she could feel the evil spirits in him.” Chavez then summoned a classmate of Joey's to her office, informed him of the impending exorcism, and warned him that “the Devil would try to take Joey.” She then instructed the boys to pray the rosary, ask Jesus for help and not to tell anyone what she had done, the lawsuit alleges.

Kathryn Hammel, Joey's attorney, said that the pentagram did not represent a religious belief but was merely the logo of his favorite heavy-metal band, Slayer.

In addition, Joey alleged that for several weeks after the initial incident, Chavez called him, his friend and other children out of class to pray over Joey. During those sessions, Joey claims Chavez squirted him with holy water, shouted incantations and commanded the demons to leave him.

When Liz Madrid learned of the incidents, she asked school officials to take action. Hammel, an Albuquerque attorney, said that school officials did nothing.

Hammel said that as a Catholic child, Joey had religious reasons to take Chavez's claims seriously and that he was still suffering from the alleged incidents.

“I have got a gravely injured child who is depressed,” Hammel said. “It is my hope that by bringing this lawsuit he will soon understand that the law is on his side.”

Hammel said the actions by Chavez violated Joey's First Amendment religious-liberty rights.

“When you have a public school counselor or employee interfering with and coercing religious beliefs, then I believe you violated” both the free exercise and establishment clauses, Hammel said.

Liz Shipley, director of community relations for the school district, said that she could not comment on personnel matters or litigation.

Nonetheless, Shipley said that “it is my understanding the alleged incidents took place after school,” and that Chavez “was not a school counselor per se.” Shipley, moreover, said that Chavez was hired to help run after-school programs for students. She could not say what the programs entailed or Chavez's duty or title. Chavez is now a secretary for one of the district's high schools, Shipley said.

Hammel said Chavez's behavior went “way beyond” actions sanctioned by the Catholic Church and those permissible by public school teachers.

“This woman is not a nun or leader in the Catholic Church,” she said. “She was on this wacky mission.” Hammel added, however, that Chavez's actions should have been caught, because “clearly this one person was surrounded by a lot of other adults. If this can happen over and over, as it did, then there must be training and supervision problems within the district. Clearly, the training of teachers regarding religious interference was inadequate.”

The suit seeks damages for Joey's alleged depression and requests disciplinary action to be taken against Chavez. The school district has less than a month to file an answer to Madrid's complaint.