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Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine
Prince of Peace Christian School is a private school for students in preschool through twelfth grade located in Texas. The School is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is accredited by secular and Lutheran school organizations and is a recognized service organization of the Lutheran Church. The School’s mission and objectives are to provide “a Christian education program that is centered upon Biblical principles,” a “Christ-centered” education, and a place for teachers to “live out their faith in word and deed.” Most teachers and administrators are certified ministers of the Lutheran Church, and those who are not are expected to serve “as missionaries” in “making disciples” of students and their families and teach classes from a Christian point of view.
The School’s Parent/Student Handbook contains language requiring students to adhere to Lutheran faith principles and a code of conduct and other behavioral expectation policies (e.g., policies against bullying, harassment, smoking, substance abuse) that all rest on Lutheran beliefs. All students and enrolled families agree to abide by the School’s code of conduct and its enrollment contract allows Prince of Peace the right to “remove a student at any time for any reason, including failure of the parent(s) to adhere to the policies, philosophies, and procedures of the school.”
School students B.O. and S.R. (the Students), engaged in a series of code of conduct and policy violations during their freshman and sophomore years, which resulted in meetings between the School and the Students’ parents, investigations, and discipline. During this time, the parents generally maintained that the School’s Assistant Principal and other employees were harassing, defaming, bullying, publically humiliating, and threatening the Students and disagreed that the Students had done anything wrong. Ultimately, the School expelled the Students, generally citing the Students’ continual code of conduct and policy violations and the parents’ refusal to communicate and work cooperatively with the School.
Thereafter, the parents filed suit against the school, alleging that the school breached its contract with them by failing to appropriately address their claims that the School’s Assistant Principal and other employees were harassing, defaming, bullying, publically humiliating, and threatening the Students and by failing to employ qualified faculty to address such claims. The parents also filed a negligence claim against the School, alleging failure to hire suitable employees and appropriately supervise those employees. The School countered that the parents’ suit was prohibited by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine arises from the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and applies to religious and faith-based entities, including religious schools. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires that if a particular legal claim before a court requires the resolution of ecclesiastical questions, then the court must abstain from resolving those questions and instead defer to the religious entity’s authority.
The court held that the facts showed that the School was a faith-based entity, considering the “extensive evidence demonstrating its reliance on Biblical principles, Biblical doctrine, and faith-based measures guiding its operation and the education it seeks to provide.” The court also held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine precluded the court from judicially resolving the parents’ claims. The court explained that resolving the parents’ claims would require the court to inquiry into and interfere with the School’s internal and religiously-informed policies and code of conduct, which would impermissibly intrude into the School’s management of these matters.
In re Prince of Peace Christian School (Tex. App., Sept. 23, 2020, No. 05-20-00680-CV) 2020 WL 5651656.
While this case arose out of a court in Texas, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine has been applied by California courts, including in 2017 in Hawkins v. St. John Missionary Baptist Church of Bakersfield, California.