Courtroom tribulation

National | Judge gives the go-ahead to Left Behind lawsuit, and other religion news

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Court doesn't leave behind lawsuit
A federal judge in Los Angeles has rejected a motion by the makers of Left Behind: The Movie seeking dismissal of a lawsuit that Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye filed against them. Mr. LaHaye, a former pastor and pro-family activist, filed the breach-of-contract suit last July against Namesake Entertainment, a Louisville, Ky., firm headed by producer Joe Goodman, whose credits include TV films for Disney and USA Network ("Left Behind: the lawsuit," WORLD, Jan. 13). Mr. Goodman in 1997 bought the film rights to make the movie version of the first book in the now runaway bestseller Left Behind series of novels about the end-times Tribulation period. Whether the contract permits him to make other movies based on the series is among the many matters under litigation. Also named in the suit was Cloud Ten Pictures, a Toronto production company run by brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde, former Christian broadcasters. Cloud Ten did most of the actual work in making the movie. Under the arrangement, Mr. Goodman and the Lalondes were co-producers. The case has its roots in 1996, when Mr. Goodman spotted Left Behind, the first novel co-authored by Mr. LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, in a Christian bookstore. Mr. LaHaye was the conceptualist; Mr. Jenkins was the writer. Sales had not yet reached 100,000. Mr. Goodman says he was captivated by the plot and thought theater audiences would be, too, if it were made into a film. Within months he secured the film rights to the book (Mr. LaHaye's contention) or the book series (Mr. Goodman's view). The court will decide which. However, Mr. Goodman failed to find a Hollywood studio willing to make the movie. With time running out on a three-year forfeiture clause, he turned to Cloud Ten and the Lalondes. The Lalondes already were in the end-times film business with a 1998 videotape, Apocalypse, and a 1999 film, Revelation (followed by another movie, Tribulation, last year). Cloud Ten signed up a cast and made the movie in Ontario with a budget, the Lalondes say, of $17.4 million, including marketing. The script veered from the book in some details (to the discomfort of the book's co-authors) but in broad strokes told the essential story. To promote the movie, Mr. Goodman and the Lalondes decided on an unorthodox and risky strategy. They released Left Behind: The Movie on videotape three months ahead of the apocalyptic thriller's scheduled box-office debut Feb. 2. Their aim was to stir enthusiasm among evangelicals who would then take their unchurched friends to see the movie, and to enlist churches to sponsor theater screenings at $3,000 per screen. Critics warned the plan could backfire and result in empty theater seats. But the gambit seemed to work, at least partly. They sold 3 million videos in the three months, and the movie on its opening weekend in February appeared on 867 screens-more than twice as many as expected just weeks earlier. Yet, panned by secular reviewers, it ranked only 17th in box-office draw (did most of the video viewers indeed stay home?), and it didn't make the big cash splash investors had anticipated. It managed to gross $3.7 million its first three weeks, according to published reports. In comparison, The Omega Code, a movie produced by Paul Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network and featuring Michael York as the Antichrist, had only 304 screens at its opening in October, 1999, but it was one of the top 10 national hits that weekend. (A sequel, Megiddo, is due to be released this fall, with Mr. York returning as the Antichrist.) The suit that Mr. LaHaye filed in July alleged, among other things, that Namesake promised to spend more than $40 million on the movie, that it would feature big-name actors, that it would appear in theaters in all major markets by Jan. 1, 2000-to capitalize on interest in the new millennium, and that Mr. LaHaye would have "meaningful participation" in creative decisions and in choosing a director. Namesake reneged on these and other stipulations, Mr. LaHaye contended. He also accused Namesake of risking a valuable franchise on an unproven video-first marketing scheme. A Namesake owner told reporters the firm did try to make a big-budget film, but no figure is in the contract. And the contract, he said, gave Namesake three years to produce the film-until April 2001. Mr. LaHaye also disputed ownership of rights of spin-off products of the movie, especially the Lalondes' video versions for children. Mr. Goodman says sales of videos, T-shirts, jewelry, and such will help make money to make more Christian-oriented movies. He and Mr. Jenkins, who has tried to stay out of the lawsuit, withheld endorsement of the movie and demanded that the moviemakers keep their names off the video and any related promotional materials. Peter Lalonde told Publishers Weekly that the second movie in the series, Tribulation Force, was scheduled for release next year. But Mr. LaHaye said: "Whether the second movie will happen or not will be settled by the court." The principals in the lawsuit referred all questions to their attorneys. All expressed regret at the spectacle of Christians fighting other Christians in court. But LaHaye lawyer Christopher Rudd said his client is "determined to have his day in court, and he deserves it." Christian movie reviewer Ted Baehr, who gave the film a thumbs-up, shrugged off the suit as something that is an everyday part of the industry. Deadly medicine
Doctors in Oregon issued 39 lethal prescriptions under the state's physician-assisted suicide law last year, and 27 people died as a result, Oregon's Department of Human Services reported. Officials said most had terminal cancer and feared losing control of their lives and bodily functions, and didn't want to be a burden to family and friends. So far, 70 people have ended their lives with a doctor's help in the three years the law has been in effect, the DHS said. Under state regulations, more than one doctor must agree on the diagnosis before a prescription can be written. Also, physicians must report deaths of such patients to the state. Richard Doerflinger, an executive with the U.S. Catholic bishops' pro-life office, accused the state of not leveling with the public. The actual number of cases, he said, "remains concealed in the name of physician-assisted confidentiality." The doctors distorted or simply ignored so-called "safeguards" in an unknown number of cases, he alleged. As for the 63 percent of the patients who said they didn't want to be a burden on their families, he chided: "Terminally ill patients have received this special 'right' to state-approved suicide not because they are special in any positive way, but because they are seen as special burdens." Deadly religion
The Colorado House voted 36-26 on Feb. 23 to repeal a 12-year-old exemption to the state's child-abuse law that permits parents to withhold medical treatment for religious reasons. Observers expect the Senate to approve the bill, and Gov. Bill Owens has indicated he will sign the measure. Once it is adopted, Colorado will join 14 other states that since 1990 have tightened laws on withholding medical care in the name of religion. The House acted following an outcry over the Feb. 6 death of a 13-year-old diabetic girl whose parents opted for prayer alone instead of prayer and medicine. A Mesa County coroner ruled the death a homicide and said Amanda Bates died a "slow and agonizing" death from complications from diabetes. Charges were pending against the girl's parents, Randy and Colleen Bates. They are members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born, a small Christian sect that teaches reliance on prayer alone for healing. At least three children of church members in western Colorado have died unnecessarily in the last three years, authorities allege. Opponents of the bill argued the change would violate the religious freedom rights of members of groups like Christian Science to practice their faith fully. Christian Science leaders, claiming spiritual healing is an integral part of their faith, had helped to defeat two previous attempts to repeal the exemption. Pastor shortage
U.S. mainstream denominations have seen an alarming drop in the number of young pastors. St. Albans Institute, a Maryland-based congregational research center, cites as glaring examples the 2.5-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church. In 1975, 24 percent of PCUSA clergy were 35 and younger; in 1999, the number had dropped to 7 percent. In 1974, 19.4 percent of Episcopal clergy were 35 and under; last year the figure was only 3.9 percent. In contrast, the number of young attorneys in their profession has remained about the same over 25 years, the article notes. The findings are reported in the current issue of the institute's publication, Congregations.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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