Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Conner v. Archdiocesse of Philadelphia

Discipline is non reviewable by courts. I've been looking for a good example of a case which shows this. This Spring in Pennsylvania there was a legal case involving a person punished and then defamed by the church. And the courts determined they can't determine the accuracy of the claim made by the church court. So readers should understand, if you are a member of a church you have zero protection against false allegations which the church upholds. As an added bonus this shows that courts can't intervene based on lack of due process.

The brief facts are a 12 year old, Eric Conner, has either a nail file or a knife in his possession when teachers are concerned there is going to be a violent incident. He is expelled and others in the community are informed he was carrying a knife freely. As a result shunning occurs and the boy is expelled from other activities in addition to school cutting him off from essentially the entire social life of his community. So the question before the court was:
  1. Can the boy sue for defamation (mis-identifying the item in question)
  2. Can the boy sue for negligence (lack of due process)
  3. Can the church be held liable for the results of making false statements and disseminating them freely.
The answers to all 3 questions were absolutely not. Church discipline is not reviewable, the courts could not have been more clear:
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 anyone aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed.
Note here, the issue was nothing of a doctrinal or even religious nature, the question was whether he was carrying a nail file or a small knife. As long as the boy remains a member of the church, the courts cannot review the accuracy of their claims, the process for those claims nor the conduct.

Also of question was the issue of dissemination. Again since Conner was a member he has no protection at all from dissemination within the community:
However, a decision by a religious organization to discuss the fact and import of an ecclesiastical disciplinary decision is, for purposes of the deference rule, no different than the imposition of the discipline itself. This Court would indeed be straying into “the sacred precincts” (Presbytery of Beaver-Butler, supra at 262, 489 A.2d at 1321) if it determined that a religious organization would be subject to civil liability for communicating to its community the existence of a disciplinary decision made and imposed by the organization. If our civil courts may not review an action that challenges the legitimacy of a disciplinary decision of a parochial school, then, in like fashion, they may not review an action that challenges the dissemination of information regarding that decision, at the very least within the narrowly circumscribed limits of the parish community.
In keeping with the recent discussion note the court specifically upheld the Guinn, that termination of membership terminates the protections of the religious institution regarding harassment. Once someone quits the 1st amendment protection of the church court is broken and the secular courts can step in for later actions, but not until they quit. Eric throughout remained a member of his parish.

In Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989), the Supreme Court of Oklahoma determined that invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against church elders were not barred by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when those defendants continued to publicly denounce the plaintiff as a “fornicator” after the plaintiff had terminated her membership in the church. However, the Court also held that the actions taken by the church elders to discipline the plaintiff prior to her withdrawal of membership in the church were shielded from judicial scrutiny.

In the case sub judice, Appellants have not alleged that they were denounced by Appellees after terminating their membership within the Catholic Church; rather, Appellants alleged only that Appellees had disseminated in the parish school community, during a limited period of time immediately following the incident, information regarding a disciplinary decision that involved Eric.
I can't think of a better case that explains why this blog exists than Conner. Obviously a 12 year old doesn't know about ecclesiastical courts and assumes his teachers aren't going to freely spread lies about him. But if he known how to protect himself, he could have filed an appeal in church court against the nun, called witnesses, and if he what he claims is true been vindicated so that his teenage years wouldn't have been destroyed. It also I think demonstrates clearly why I think it is a terrible idea to just blindly submit to discipline and "trust God".

The full decision is available online.

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