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United States v. Ballard

Citation. 322 U.S. 78 (1944)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Edna and Donald Ballard defrauded hundreds of people into giving them money in exchange for healing. In their trial, the prosecution wanted to put the issue of the truthfulness of their beliefs to the jury. They objected, and the issue went up to the Supreme Court.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Under the First Amendment, the issue of the veracity of a person’s beliefs should not be put to a jury.

Facts.

Edna and Donald Ballard were members of the I Am cult, and they claimed to have the power to heal people through their supernatural, religious beliefs. They defrauded hundreds of people into giving them money in exchange for healing. In their trial, the prosecution wanted to put the issue of the truthfulness of their beliefs to the jury. They objected, and the issue went up to the Supreme Court.

Issue.

Can the truth of a defendant’s beliefs be put to a jury?

Held.

No, under the First Amendment, a defendant’s belief cannot be put to a jury.

Dissent.

Justice Jackson

The judge could inquire about whether the defendants knew that their beliefs were untrue, even if the judge could not have put the issue to a jury. It is too difficult to disentangle religious verity with religious sincerity. This case is not about religious prosecution, it is about fraud.

Discussion.

The First Amendment has two values: freedom to believe and freedom to act. While the Ballards’ views might seem incredible, putting their beliefs on trial would lead to putting anyones’ beliefs on trial. The issue of the veracity of a person’s beliefs should therefore not be put to a jury.


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