Courts Reject 'Clergy Malpractice' Suits

Lawsuits against churches and clergy members were considered taboo throughout most of American history, but began cropping up in the 1980s as more Americans felt it was legitimate to sue their church in the same way they would sue a business or a government agency.

Some of those lawsuits have alleged "clergy malpractice," arguing that clergy members should be legally held to a higher standard of conduct than ordinary citizens, in the same way as other professionals in positions of trust, like doctors and lawyers.

Courts have universally rejected claims of clergy malpractice, on grounds that making judicial rulings on standards of clergy conduct would violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state. However, some courts have accepted narrower claims accusing individual clergy members of inflicting emotional distress or breaching their fiduciary duty, charges that can be applied to ordinary citizens.

Following are some notable "clergy malpractice" lawsuits that were rejected by the courts:

California: Courts Should Not Set Clergy Standards

In what is regarded as the landmark decision on clergy malpractice, the California Supreme Court in 1988 rejected a lawsuit accusing the pastors of a Protestant church in Los Angeles of negligence for failing to prevent the 1979 suicide of a 24-year-old man who was a church member.

The lawsuit, brought by the man's parents, contended that the pastors should have referred him to a professional counselor when they learned he had suicidal tendencies.

The high court upheld the trial judge's dismissal of the suit, Nally vs. Grace Community Church of the Valley, on grounds that imposing a legal duty on pastoral counselors might violate the First Amendment because "such a duty would necessarily be intertwined with the religious philosophy of the particular denomination or ecclesiastical teachings of the religious entity."

The U.S. Supreme Court left the California high court's decision intact.

Oklahoma: Bad Counseling Charge Rejected

In 1993, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit accusing a minister of giving bad advice during marital counseling. "Once a court enters the realm of trying to define the nature of advice a minister should give a parishioner, serious First Amendment issues are implicated," the high court ruled.

The case was Bladen v. First Presbyterian Church.

Illinois: Priests Are Not Psychologists

In 1994, an Illinois appellate court refused to hold a priest liable for violating the standards of care applicable to a psychologist: "A priest or minister is not required to possess and apply the knowledge and use the skill and care ordinarily used by a reasonably well-qualified psychologist."

In the case, Hertel v. Sullivan, the plaintiff had accused her Roman Catholic priest of negligence and infliction of emotional distress after their counseling sessions developed into a sexual affair.

New York: Fiduciary Duty Claim Rejected

In 2000, a New York state appeals court upheld a lower court's dismissal of a claim by a woman that her Roman Catholic priest breached his fiduciary duty by allowing their counseling sessions to develop into a sexual relationship.

The lower court had dismissed the woman's claim on grounds that it was essentially a charge of clergy malpractice. The appeals court affirmed the dismissal, ruling that "any attempt to define the duty of care owed by a member of the clergy to a parishioner fosters excessive entanglement with religion."

Utah: 'Impossible' and 'Unconstitutional'

In 2001, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously upheld the dismissal of a case in which a woman accused the Mormon Church of negligence for telling her to "forgive and forget" a 1986 incident in which she claimed to have been the victim of child rape.

Lawyers for the plaintiff, Lynette Franco, had initially included an allegation of "clergy misconduct" in the lawsuit, but later dropped it, focusing instead on fraud, negligence and infliction of distress. But the high court rejected it nevertheless, ruling that setting a standard for clergy conduct would "embroil the courts in establishing the training, skill and standards applicable for members of the clergy in this state in a diversity of religions professing widely varying beliefs. This is as impossible as it is unconstitutional."