Woman Sues Pastor for Divulging Confidential Information

Court rules that the First Amendment prevents it from resolving case.

Key Point 6-10.1 According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church's discipline of a member since the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious liberty prevented it from resolving a dismissed church member's claim that her pastor committed "professional negligence" by using information she shared with him in confidence as the basis for disciplining her.

A church endeavored to operate according to biblical principles and practices as described in the church's constitution and statement of faith. The church required all membership applicants to affirm their willingness to abide by the church's constitution, which contains the following disciplinary policy:

We believe that one of the primary responsibilities of the church is to maintain the purity of the Body. We are directed by God to be holy. In recognition of the importance of this obligation, the elders will biblically and lovingly utilize every appropriate means to restore members who find themselves in patterns of serious misconduct. When efforts at restoration fail, the elders will apply the Biblical teaching on church discipline, which could include revocation of membership, along with an appropriate announcement made to the membership (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Galatians 6:1, Galatians 6:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

The church's constitution provided that, if a member engaged in conduct that "violates Biblical standards, or which is detrimental to the ministry, unity, peace or purity of the church," and the member is unrepentant, "the elders will follow our Lord's instructions from Matthew 18:15-20," which states: "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

If a member remained unrepentant and chose not to resign, the constitution instructed the church elders to revoke the person's membership and announce his or her removal to the congregation. The church's stated goal is "to encourage repentance and restoration of fellowship with the Lord and His people."

A woman (the plaintiff) became a member of the church. In applying for membership, she signed an application in which she expressed her agreement with the church's beliefs and affirmed her willingness to abide by the church constitution.

The plaintiff separated from her husband, and thereafter the couple participated in a series of weekly counseling sessions at the home of their pastor, who was also a licensed professional counselor. The plaintiff alleged that the Bible was not discussed in these sessions and she considered them to be a professional counseling relationship with the pastor in his role as a licensed professional counselor.

The plaintiff later informed the pastor that she had decided to divorce her husband, and that she had engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship. When the pastor informed her that her extramarital sexual relationship would trigger the church's disciplinary process, she informed him that she was resigning her membership.

A few days later the pastor and church elders wrote a letter to the church membership concerning the plaintiff. The letter explained to the congregation that the plaintiff intended to divorce her husband, there was no biblical basis for the divorce, she had engaged in a "biblically inappropriate" relationship with another man, and she had rejected efforts to bring her to repentance and reconciliation.

Describing the disciplinary process as one of "tough love," the letter encouraged the congregation to "break fellowship" with her in order to obtain her repentance and restoration to the church body. The letter admonished the congregation to treat the matter as a "members-only issue, not to be shared with those outside the congregation."

The plaintiff sued the pastor, church, and church elders alleging defamation, professional negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and emotional distress. The professional negligence claim was based on the pastor's breach of an alleged "secular duty" to refrain from disclosing confidential information shared with him during counseling sessions.

The church defendants claimed that the plaintiff's claims all arose in the context of a church disciplinary matter which the First Amendment placed beyond the jurisdiction of the civil courts. A trial court agreed with the church defendants, and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed, but only with respect to her claims against the pastor. A state appeals court affirmed the dismissal of all of the plaintiff's claims except for her professional negligence claim which the court concluded could be resolved without violating the First Amendment. The pastor appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The church autonomy doctrine

The court began its opinion by acknowledging that "when a pastor who holds a professional counseling license engages in marital counseling with a parishioner, the line between the secular and the religious may be difficult to draw."

The court noted that "while it might be theoretically true that a court could decide whether the pastor breached a secular duty of confidentiality without having to resolve a theological question, that doesn't answer whether its doing so would unconstitutionally impede the church's authority to manage its own affairs.

Churches have a fundamental right to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." The court stressed that "it is a core tenet of First Amendment jurisprudence that, in resolving civil claims, courts must be careful not to intrude upon internal matters of church governance. It quoted from a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court:

The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it.

But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1872).

As a result, "the autonomy of a church in managing its affairs and deciding matters of church discipline … or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them" has long been afforded broad constitutional protection."

The neutral principles exception

The court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court has recognized a narrow exception to the church autonomy doctrine when "neutral principles of law" may be used to resolve disputes over ownership of church property. The plaintiff asked the court to apply the neutral principles exception to her professional negligence claim, claiming that it could be resolved under neutral legal principles without resorting to or infringing upon religious doctrine.

Specifically, she asserted that the primary focus of her complaint was not the letter the church sent to the congregation or the church's disciplinary process. Rather, it was the pastor's disclosure to the church elders of confidential information he obtained during the marital counseling sessions, which she claimed constituted a breach of professional counseling standards. The court was not persuaded that her claim could be resolved without implicating religious considerations:

It is true that the plaintiff pins the pastor's liability … on his breach of a secular duty by disclosing confidential information to the church elders. However, this disclosure cannot be isolated from the church-disciplinary process in which it occurred, nor can [it be resolved] without examining what effect the imposition of damages would have on the inherently religious function of church discipline.

Subjecting the pastor to liability for engaging in the disciplinary process that the church requires would clearly have a chilling effect on churches' ability to discipline members and deprive churches of their right to construe and administer church laws …. In sum, while the elements of the plaintiff's professional negligence claim can be defined by neutral principles without regard to religion, the application of those principles to impose civil liability on the pastor would impinge upon the church's ability to manage its internal affairs and hinder adherence to the church disciplinary process that its constitution requires.

The court concluded

The secular confidentiality interest the plaintiff's professional negligence claim advances fails to override the strong constitutional presumption that favors preserving the church's interest in managing its affairs. She voluntarily became a member of the church body and agreed to abide by the church constitution; indeed, she expressed that she did so willingly. That constitution outlined the disciplinary process that would be followed if a member engaged in conduct that the church considered inappropriate. The pastor … assumed an obligation to the plaintiff and to the congregation to follow the church's constitution. Although the plaintiff contends pastoral counseling is not at issue because she did not receive marital counseling from the pastor in his capacity as a member of the clergy, the publication about which she complains was made in the course of the church disciplinary process and communicated by the pastor pursuant to the requirements of that process.

Even if the pastor's dual roles as secular counselor and pastor could be distinguished, which is doubtful, he could not adhere to the standards of one without violating the requirements of the other. Any civil liability that might attach for his violation of a secular duty of confidentiality in this context would in effect impose a fine for his decision to follow the religious disciplinary procedures that his role as pastor required and have a concomitant chilling effect on churches' autonomy to manage their own affairs. The result would be interference by the civil courts in the relationship among the church, its pastor, and the church members, which the First Amendment prohibits.

Resignation from church membership

The plaintiff claimed that her resignation from the church after she revealed confidences to the pastor "precluded any argument that he was performing a pastoral function in disseminating confidential information to the church."

The court disagreed. It noted that the church's constitution required the discipline of members to follow the procedure laid down in Matthew 18:1-35. According to this procedure, if a member sins and does not heed the counsel of church leaders, then the matter must be "told to the church." The court concluded that the church's decision to proceed with the formal discipline of the plaintiff following her resignation "was based on its interpretation of Matthew 18:15-20, an inherently ecclesiastical matter. We hold that court interference with that decision through imposition of liability in this case would impinge upon matters of church governance in violation of the First Amendment."

What this means for churches

What is the relevance of the Texas Supreme Court's decision to other churches? Obviously, the court's decision is binding only upon churches in the state of Texas. Nevertheless, the case represents one of the most extensive discussions of church discipline by any court, and as a result may be given special consideration (and no doubt be followed) by the courts of other states. For this reason, the case merits serious study by church leaders in every state. With these factors in mind, consider the following:

  • This is one of the few courts to address the question of whether a minister can be liable for divulging confidential information. The court concluded that a pastor was not liable for divulging confidential information to his congregation regarding a member's confession of marital infidelity since the disclosure occurred in the context of administering discipline pursuant to the church's constitution.
  • The most significant church discipline ruling up until now has been a 1989 decision of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Guinn v. Church of Christ, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989). In the Guinn case, the court reached the following conclusions: (1) The discipline of church members (i.e., persons who have not withdrawn from membership) is a constitutionally protected right of churches. (2) Discipline of persons who have withdrawn their church membership is not a constitutionally protected activity, and a church that engages in such conduct can be sued under existing theories of tort law. (3) Church members have a constitutional right to withdraw from church membership unless they have waived that right. (4) Statements by church leaders to church members concerning the discipline of current members are conditionally privileged—meaning that the disciplined member cannot successfully sue the church for making such disclosures unless the church acted maliciously (i.e., it either knew that the disclosures were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness).

It is important to note that the Texas Supreme Court deviated in two significant ways from the Guinn ruling: First, the court rejected the conclusion that the discipline of persons who have resigned their church membership is not a constitutionally protected activity, and a church that engages in such conduct can be sued under existing theories of tort law. The court stressed that the church's decision to proceed with the discipline of the plaintiff following her resignation "was based on its interpretation of Matthew 18:15-20, an inherently ecclesiastical matter," and that "court interference with that decision through imposition of liability would impinge upon matters of church governance in violation of the First Amendment."

Second, the Guinn court noted that a "qualified" or "conditional" privilege protects churches from liability for disclosing confidential information to members, but it concluded that this privilege does not apply to disclosures made to non-members. The Texas Supreme Court ignored this issue. It simply noted that the church sent a letter "to the congregation," without any indication if the recipients included both members and nonmembers. Perhaps the court concluded that its ruling did not require a discussion of the qualified privilege. That is, since the church's disclosure of the plaintiff's marital infidelity was constitutionally protected, it didn't matter to whom the disclosure was communicated. Westbrook v. Penley, 231 S.W.3d 389 (Tex. 2007).

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