Published July 19, 2007
(RNS) — The Texas Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a suit brought by a former member of a Fort Worth church who accused her pastor of violating her confidentiality.
The case, dismissed June 29, centered on questions of what roles civil courts should have when asked to resolve matters related to church discipline.
C.L. “Buddy” Westbook, pastor of CrossLand Community Bible Church and a licensed professional counselor, had ordered his congregation to shun Peggy Lee Penley, a former parishioner, because she had engaged in a “biblically inappropriate” relationship with a man who was not her husband. Penley sued Westbrook, claiming he learned the information he disclosed in a “secular” counseling session.
“A church’s decision to discipline members for conduct considered outside of the church’s moral code is an inherently religious function with which civil courts should not generally interfere,” wrote Justice Harriet O’Neill in the court ruling.
O’Neill said Penley’s two roles had to be considered.
“In his dual capacity, Westbrook owed Penley conflicting duties,” the judge wrote. “As Penley’s counselor he owed her a duty of confidentiality, and as her pastor he owed Penley and the church an obligation to disclose her conduct.”
The judge determined that “parsing those roles” for a civil case – when safety or health was not an issue – would be an unconstitutional entanglement of the court in the governance of a church.
Penley initially had alleged that the church and its elders had defamed her and caused her emotional distress. The pastor filed counter claims saying the matter was outside the court’s jurisdiction because it dealt with a church dispute.
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