A California appeals court recently overturned a state trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit that initiated the national debate over clergy malpractice several years ago.
The appeals court ruling sets the stage for a trial on the merits. The lawsuit was filed in 1980 by the parents of a young man who had committed suicide. The parents claimed that four ministers of a local church negligently counseled their son, dissuaded him from seeking psychiatric help, and advised persons that God sometimes approves of suicide.
The church and its ministers maintained that they had in fact referred the victim to a number of mental health professionals during the last months of his life, and that they could not be found liable for counseling person on the basis of biblical principles since this would violate the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.
The appeals court, in a 70-page opinion, attempted to steer clear of the constitutional issue, emphasizing that the only issue was whether counselors can be guilty of "negligent failure to prevent suicide … whether those counselors are affiliated with a religious institution or not."
The court's ruling is appealable to the state supreme court. Nally v. Grace Community Church, ___ Cal. Rptr. ___(1987).