• In a significant decision, a California appeals court ruled that a priest could not sue his bishop and diocese for firing him in violation of church procedures. The priest had been appointed by his bishop as an administrator of a local church. He alleged that his bishop had (1) falsely accused him of “social misconduct,” (2) suspended him from his duties as a priest in violation of canon law, and (3) assisted in disclosing his psychiatric records (which revealed that he had received electrical shock treatments for schizophrenia) to other persons in a concerted effort “to discredit him and destroy his ability to obtain employment within the church.” The priest sued his bishop and diocese, alleging invasion of privacy, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful termination. The court began its opinion by observing that “the civil courts will not intrude into the church’s governance of religious or ecclesiastical matters, such as theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members to standards of morality.” However, it also observed that churches “are as amenable as other [organizations] to rules governing property rights, torts and criminal conduct.” The difficulty of course comes in deciding whether a particular dispute is “ecclesiastical” in nature or is simply an ordinary lawsuit involving property matters or torts in which church officials happen to be involved.
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