Editor’s Note: On March 3, 2023, a Georgia federal district court denied the plaintiffs the ability to bring their lawsuit against Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Inc. as a class action. Instead, the plaintiffs can only bring individual claims. The court noted:
None of the donors were actually harmed by their contributions to RZIM, and it appears from the face of the [complaint] that only a very small amount of the money contributed to RZIM was actually used to facilitate or cover up the sexual misconduct of [Ravi] Zacharias. Therefore, a class-wide damages award (even if possible) of all contributions would be inequitable and implausible. …
Church Law & Tax will continue to monitor the case, including whether the class-action decision gets appealed.
Key point. Churches and other religious ministries may be liable on various grounds for using designated funds for undesignated purposes. Those grounds include unjust enrichment and violation of a state Fair Business Practices Act.
A federal court in Georgia ruled that it was not barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine from resolving a lawsuit by donors to a religious ministry claiming fraud based on the ministry’s use of designated offerings for unrelated purposes.
Ravi Zacharias, who died in May 2020, was a well-known Christian apologist and evangelical minister who founded the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Inc. (“RZIM”) in 1984. The organization’s stated “vision” is “to build a team with a fivefold thrust of evangelism, apologetics, spiritual disciplines, training, and humanitarian support.”
RZIM works toward this vision through conferences, lectures, and seminars held around the world; it also produces podcast and radio shows as well as online videos which featured Zacharias. For many years, these programs found a dedicated audience of millions.
Plaintiffs: RZIM “bilked hundreds of millions of dollars”
Among the ministry’s followers were two couples (the “Plaintiffs”) who considered Zacharias and RZIM to be “spiritually aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and … completely dedicated to a mission of spreading the Gospel, teaching new apologists, and trying to help people through humanitarian efforts.”
While listening to RZIM’s programs, the Plaintiffs recall hearing Zacharias and other speakers solicit donations to RZIM. For example, on one occasion they heard the following message:
The vision of RZIM is built on five pillars made up of evangelism, apologetics, spiritual disciplines, training, and humanitarian support. A fundamental part of this mission is to train men and women to defend the power and coherence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our hope is to empower you to engage in earnest conversations with those who have questions about the Christian faith. Your donations make it possible for us to continue to reach others with the gospel and we cannot do this work without your help.
The Plaintiffs heeded these calls and made donations of several thousand dollars. Both couples allege that they “reasonably relied on Zacharias’s and RZIM’s uniform messaging that they were dedicated to a mission of Christian apologetics and that contributions made by people like the [Plaintiffs] would be used to financially support that mission.” The Plaintiffs initiated a class action lawsuit on August 4, 2021, against RZIM.
They alleged that RZIM “bilked hundreds of millions of dollars from well-meaning contributors who believed RZIM and Zacharias to be faith-filled Christian leaders,” when in fact, Zacharias was “a prolific sexual predator who used his ministry and RZIM funds to perpetrate sexual and spiritual abuse against women.”
To that end, the proposed class included “all persons in the United States who made contributions of monetary value to Ravi Zacharias or the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry from 2004 through February 9, 2021.”
The Plaintiffs further claimed that RZIM’s failure to respond appropriately to reports of Zacharias’s sexual misconduct “furthered the public deception that Zacharias was a faith-filled, moral, and upstanding Christian leader … and allowed Zacharias to continue sexually abusing women under the cover of Christian ministry and permitted Zacharias’s ongoing, deceptive fundraising efforts for RZIM.”
The complaint asserted four claims on behalf of the Plaintiffs and the proposed class against RZIM:
- unjust enrichment
- violation of the Georgia Charitable Solicitations Act
- violation of the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act
RZIM asked the court to dismiss all claims against it.
RZIM argues the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies
RZIM argued that the Plaintiffs’ claims dealt with religious issues relating to pastoral conduct that were barred from consideration by the civil courts under the so-called ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
The court responded:
As the Court reads the Complaint, the Plaintiffs’ claims rest on two general categories of misrepresentations by Zacharias and RZIM.
First, the Plaintiffs make “faith-based allegations”—namely that the Defendants “misrepresented that they were faith-filled Christians of upstanding moral character.”
These faith-based allegations include that “[Zacharias and RZIM] held themselves out to be pious followers of the Holy Gospel, maintaining a religious level of morality and following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Zacharias explicitly presented himself as a devoted Christian who was living a Christian lifestyle in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who was worthy of leading others in their Christian faith. …” Second, the Plaintiffs make “misuse-of-funds allegations”—namely, that “[Zacharias and RZIM] affirmatively misrepresented that funds contributed to RZIM were to support its purported mission of Christian evangelism, apologetic defense of Christianity, and humanitarian efforts, when such funds were in fact used to support and hide Zacharias’s sexual abuse.”
The Plaintiffs allege that “RZIM funds were funneled to women subjected to Zacharias’s sexual misconduct,” and that “Zacharias provided money to these survivors, gave them large tips following massages, and showered them with expensive gifts.”
For example, “Touch of Hope was a discretionary fund that RZIM earmarked as a humanitarian effort, but a significant portion of its wire payments were made to or for the benefit of four women who were, at some point, Zacharias’s massage therapists.”
All the while, Zacharias and RZIM allegedly solicited donations with the stated purpose to fund travel, training, humanitarian aid, and other expenses “to continue reaching those around the globe with the Gospel.”
The court concluded that it could not address the Plaintiffs’ “faith-based allegations” since doing so would ask the court
to examine the theology and customs of Christianity and Christian apologetics to determine whether Zacharias and RZIM fulfilled the religion’s (and the Plaintiffs’) moral standards. The Court would have to make inherently ecclesiastical determinations as part of this inquiry, such as what it means to be a “faith-filled, moral, and upstanding Christian leader” and whether Zacharias’s alleged sexual misconduct is “diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christianity.”
It is not the role of federal courts to answer these kinds of questions “because that would require defining the very core of what the religious body as a whole believes.” In doing so, a court risks “establishing” a religion by “putting the enforcement power of the state behind a particular religious faction.”
Court: misuse-of-funds allegations can be decided
On the other hand, the court concluded that the Plaintiffs’ misuse-of-funds allegations did not implicate these concerns:
Those allegations, and the claims associated with them, raise what amounts to a secular factual question: whether the Defendants solicited funds for one purpose (i.e., Christian evangelism) but instead used those funds for another purpose (i.e., to perpetrate and cover up sexual abuse).
That dispute “concerns the [actions of Zacharias and RZIM] not their beliefs,” and can be decided according to state statutes and common law principles.
The Plaintiffs asserted a claim for unjust enrichment on the grounds that it would be inequitable for the Defendants to keep donations raised on false pretenses. The court agreed, noting that “a conclusion that one party has obtained benefits from another by fraud is one of the most recognizable sources of unjust enrichment.” The court added:
According to the Complaint [RZIM] “induced [Plaintiffs and Class Members] to fund its purported Christian apologetic evangelism, training, and humanitarian efforts,” but then “failed to use the funds for these purposes, diverting funds to massage parlors and as financial support to survivors of Zacharias’s sex abuse.”
The Plaintiffs allege that they would not have donated to [RZIM] had it “truthfully represented that it would … use those financial benefits for their own, wrongful purposes, including in the furtherance of, and to hide, Zacharias’s sexual misconduct.” Taken as true, these allegations … support that [RZIM] unfairly obtained financial benefits by misrepresenting their intended or ultimate use.
Georgia Charitable Solicitations Act
The Plaintiffs asserted that RZIM had violated the Georgia Charitable Solicitations Act. The Charitable Solicitations Act, which has been enacted in most states, creates a private cause of action against a “charitable organization” to recover damages resulting from a violation of the statute. The term “charitable organization” is defined to exclude a “religious organization”—or any entity which (A) “conducts regular worship services” or (B) “is qualified as a religious organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code … that is not required to file IRS Form 990 . …”
The court concluded that:
RZIM “has satisfied the elements of a religious organization under the Act as it is exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3) and is not subject to the filing requirements of Form 990.”
Georgia Fair Business Practices Act
The Plaintiffs asserted a claim under the Fair Business Practices Act on the grounds that RZIM’s charitable solicitations were unfair and deceptive consumer practices. The statute permits “any person who suffers injury or damages … as a result of consumer acts or practices in violation of this part … [to] bring an action individually for damages and injunctive relief.”
The court rejected RZIM’s motion to dismiss this basis of liability.
RZIM: Plaintiffs lacked “standing” to sue
RZIM argued that the Plaintiffs lacked “standing” to sue in federal court. Article III of the US Constitution limits the jurisdiction of federal courts to “cases” and “controversies,” which is interpreted to mean that the plaintiff bringing a lawsuit in federal court must have suffered some form of tangible injury to be redressed. RZIM pointed to several decisions as support that “donating money to a charitable fund does not confer standing to challenge the administration of that fund … and that the Plaintiffs’ unrestricted charitable gifts to RZIM cannot constitute an injury for purposes of Article III standing.”
The court agreed that “at common law, a donor who has made a completed charitable contribution, whether as an absolute gift or in trust, had no standing to bring an action to enforce the terms of his or her gift or trust unless he or she had expressly reserved the right to do so.” The court noted:
The Plaintiffs asserted that they “sustained monetary and economic injuries” arising out of their donations to RZIM. The Plaintiffs donated several thousand dollars to RZIM. … Before making donations to RZIM, the Plaintiffs allege that they listened to radio programs, podcasts, and CDs featuring Zacharias; watched videos published by RZIM on YouTube; and read books by Zacharias and others within RZIM. The Plaintiffs recall hearing messages [that] solicited financial contributions to advance that work. The Plaintiffs also allege that they reasonably relied on Zacharias’s and RZIM’s uniform messaging … that contributions made by people like the [Plaintiffs] would be used to financially support that mission.” The Court concludes that these allegations satisfy Article III’s standing requirements. …
What this means for churches
Donors sometimes request a return of contributions made to their church. This may occur for several reasons, including:
- A donor has begun attending another church.
- Theological disagreement(s).
- A need for funds for health and other emergencies.
- A church fails to use designated funds for the specified purpose.
Church leaders often do not know how to respond to such requests. The federal court in this case ruled that donors were entitled to a return of their contributions on the basis of:
- RZIM’s egregious misrepresentations regarding the use of donated funds,
- the principle of unjust enrichment (“a conclusion that one party has obtained benefits from another by fraud is one of the most recognizable sources of unjust enrichment”),
- a violation of the state Fair Business Practices Act
Note a few other important aspects of the court’s ruling:
First, the court allowed the case to proceed as a class action, meaning that the number of plaintiffs in the case would grow significantly to include all donors victimized by RZIM’s misrepresentations regarding the use of funds.
Second, the court concluded that the Plaintiffs had “standing” to sue in federal court. Standing is a requirement in any federal lawsuit, and generally means that the plaintiff bringing a lawsuit must suffer some form of tangible injury. While the court agreed that “at common law, a donor who has made a completed charitable contribution, whether as an absolute gift or in trust, had no standing to bring an action to enforce the terms of his or her gift or trust unless he or she had expressly reserved the right to do so,” it concluded that “RZIM’s uniform messaging … that contributions made by people like the [Plaintiffs] would be used to financially support that mission” satisfied the standing requirements.
Carrier v. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2022WL1540206 (N.D. Ga, 2022)
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